Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

Christian Freedom, or Love

This longish post was written after a painful argument with a loved one.  Hurting, I went searching for what love meant in my context.  I felt the need to take care of myself, which may mean ultimately closing myself off to this person.  My soul searching came through this reflection and reminded me about what love is, and what being free to love really means.  That’s true freedom.  And, without God, for me it’d be impossible.

If you want to understand the freedom Christ offers, turn to Galatians 5.

Of course, there is more to a Christian understanding of freedom than one chapter of Paul’s writings.  Paul expounds on freedom in relation to the law much more in Romans.  More importantly, you can’t really understand freedom in Christianity without, first, spending time with the importance of freedom in Judaism.  The Exodus and the prophets’ word to the Jews in exile provide a much-needed backdrop to understand the depth of freedom as a central theme of Old Testament and New Testament theology.  But, taken in one sitting, Galatians 5 provides quite a bit on its own for what freedom in Christ means.  That’s what I write about.

Of course, for Paul, real freedom begins in Christ.  It begins in Christ’s relationship to the law.

Paul’s understanding of the law and Christ is among the most important themes in Christian theology, especially Protestant theology.  Paul first talks about this in Galatians 5.  Paul is writing to a group of early Christian converts who apparently adopted or began teaching that you need circumcision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  To know Paul is to know that Paul vehemently opposes this.  Moreover, his opposition to it is central to understanding Christianity for Paul.

Understanding the tension between Christ and the law is necessary to rightly interpret Paul’s opposition of flesh and spirit which follow.  From these tensions rise life in the Spirit and Christian freedom.  What makes Paul’s message so enduring and relevant today is that he knows “the flesh” can not only enslave us by consuming our heart’s desires.  The selfishness of “the flesh,” for Paul, can also consume religion.

For Paul, freedom begins in liberating us from the requirements of any outward law.  Paul’s point comes together in verses 1, 3, and 5.

For freedom Christ has set us free… I testify to every person who lets themselves be circumcised that they are obliged to obey the entire law…[but] in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

Here is the kernel of the whole chapter.  Paul is writing to a community of the earliest Christian converts.  Unlike Paul, many early evangelists of Christ’s message taught that to accept the good news and follow Christ, one first be circumcised.  After all, Jesus was a Jew.

For Paul, circumcision entwines someone in the whole of the law and its requirements.  Circumcision is the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, from which everything follows.  This meant Gentiles had to submit to circumcision and observe the law in order to receive and follow Christ.  Paul is a Pharisee, a devout Jew.  Ironically, he sees this as completely backwards.  It’s even opposed to Christ and the good news he brings.  For Paul, Christ liberates us to something else – life in love for others and the Spirit.  This is what Paul seeks to single out and life high above all else.

Freedom in Christ does not point to ourselves, whether it’s our own justification, selfish wants, or self-righteousness.  This is where Paul’s judgment on the fruits of the law is so total and profound.  The 613 laws of the Torah were never intended to self-aggrandize the Jews or the individuals who followed them.  Quite the opposite:  The law pointed to honoring and remembering God in all things.  The Law taught to a life of disciplined devotion and humility, self-restraint and sacrifice (literally and otherwise), hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor.  It is these fruits of following the law that Paul wants to recover.   However, the logic and purpose of the law had become something else.

What Paul could not allow was any self-justification or self-righteousness before God and neighbor.  Nothing could be more antithetical to Christ and what Christ had done.  But, this is precisely what the law had become, especially by separating the righteous and sinner.   If separation and self-righteousness had become the essence of the law, Christ had totally overcome it for Paul.   For Paul, in Christ, Love of God and neighbor became the one overarching gospel that relegated and overcame all others requirements.  This Spirit testified to it.

Verses 4 and 5 make Paul’s judgment of the law clear.  He writes,

“You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”

Clearly, righteousness no longer comes from the law for Paul.   It comes from grace, through Christ, and by the Spirit.

Faith, therefore, points someone’s trust beyond the law, beyond any justification or self-righteousness that can be outwardly judged or self-expressed.  Faith is required because in Christ, there is freedom.  Love is the eternal law.  Paul reminds us of the original purpose of the law in verses 13 and 14.  He says,

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servant to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Any selfish use of the law for justification or self-righteousness is a perversion.  Love is the whole law, its requirement and commandment.  Outward fulfillment of the law can lead to self-righteousness.  The separation of self-righteousness does not justify.

By distinguishing the law and Christ, Paul theologizes the opposition of flesh and the Spirit.  The opposition of flesh and Spirit is the next step to understanding the freedom Christ offers.  But, it is easily misunderstood and misconstrued.

GalatiansThe Spirit opposes the flesh in the same way Christ frees us to move beyond justification of the law.  If God’s law can become a tool of separation, self-justification and self-righteousness, then it is no better than any other selfish work or way of life.  In such a community, the love between self and neighbor is distorted and grace-less.  This is what happens with religion becomes self-righteous or a religion of separation and justification.  Only life in the Spirit frees us from this kind of life to love God, self, and neighbor.  God in Christ reveals to us what love and self and neighbor really is.  This was the intention of the law and the message of the prophets.  It is now fulfilled in Christ.

As a matter of illustration, Paul goes on to provide a list of works of the flesh.  It’s a list of rather negative stuff.  What qualifies everything on the list is not that they are all sensuous, bodily, or break some religious moral rule.   Rather, every work of the flesh Paul lists is selfish or self-indulgent.  Works of the flesh serve immediate desires, our selfish reactions, and outward judgments of ourselves and others.  Paul suggests that these are not where the Kingdom of God is at.

In contrast, Paul also provides a list of fruits of the Spirit.  They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  What is obvious about this list is that everything on it moves us beyond our immediate wants, reactions, and outward judgments.  Moreover, these fruits are cultivated by loving ourselves and others.

What’s most profound about this list – from a religious standpoint – is these things are good beyond any law or requirement.  These fruits are good in and of themselves.  Paul is explicit:  “There’s no law against these things.”  This is life in Spirit.  We are free from any need for self-justification, religious requirement or constraint.  Life in the Spirit is possible because of God’s grace.  This is what we see in Christ.

This life is the freedom Christ offers.

Jesus’ silence before Pilate, or the politics of madness

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.  Mark 15:1-5 NRSV

ImageJesus’ silence before Pilate has always puzzled me.  It’s one of the most obscure parts of Jesus’ passion.  Kind of like Jesus, himself, that passage has begged an explanation.

I think Jesus’ silence is obscure for most Americans because it’s hard to relate to.   Americans are passionate about defending their rights.  We feel entitled before both state and law because deep in our psyche is a disgust for government.   In the passion, Pilate symbolizes such government.  Jesus is our hero because he stands silent before the powers of tyranny and ultimately overcomes them.    His victory is cosmic and his silence at trial is stoic.   We don’t question that someone had to die to free us because this is part of our belief in revolutionary freedom.  Jesus stands to die defiant before the powers.  The power of God overcomes the power of Rome, and we win.   This is Mel Gibson’s Hollywood hero, the American Jesus.

We have a hard time imagining that Jerusalem’s leaders or the jeering crowd could be us.  We drown those ideas in anti-Jewishness.  The political failures of Jesus trial have nothing to do with us.  It’s just one of those nasty moments of wrong belief and bad government.   Jesus’ win, however, has everything to do with America.  The hero’s silence is not his weakness, but a sign of his strength.  We can’t imagine Jesus either hopeless or helpless.  That would be heretically unchristian or un-American.

There are enormous problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ silence at trial.   My main problem with is that it conveniently ignores way too much, and fills Jesus’ silence with cultural assumptions that say more about American Christianity than Jesus or what the Gospel writers likely intended.

Jesus’ silence doesn’t explain why Pilate gets caught in the middle.  It doesn’t explain his confusion over Jesus’ crime.  It doesn’t explain why Jerusalem’s leaders kowtow to Rome and why they insist that Pilate eliminate Jesus for them.  It doesn’t explain why the crowd wants Barabbas over Jesus.   It doesn’t explain why Jesus doesn’t cry out to defend himself.  The teacher could’ve shared a parable or proverb to point out the absurdity of the crowd’s judgment and his situation, as he had done many times before.  He could have at least apologized to Pilate for putting him in this awkward position of spilling what seemed to be innocent blood (Matthew 27:19).   But, he doesn’t.  Jesus acts helpless, and says nothing.

ImageThere’s a better way to interpret Jesus’ silence, one that is more relevant.  Considering the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial is fruitful because they mirror our own.   Jesus’ entire trip to Jerusalem is dripping in politics.  Everything leading up to Jesus’ trial:  Jerusalem’s leaders trapping Jesus and taking him to Pilate, Pilate’s questions about being a King, the crowd’s calling for is execution, especially Jesus’ sentence and punishment, all find their significance in the political realm.  Capital punishment, particularly death by crucifixion, is an explicitly political form of control and punishment for Rome.    Jesus isn’t silent because he’s defiant, stoic or a hero.   Jesus may be silent because he has to be.  There are at least two reasons.

First, Jesus’ silence lets Pilate incriminate himself.  Empires justify themselves on violence.  They remain empires because they keep a monopoly on violence.   Jesus’ silence meant Pilate had to make a decision to fulfill his duty as Rome’s governor or release him as a matter of conscience.  Pilate doesn’t see what Jesus has done wrong.  (Mark 15:14)

The American version of Jesus’ trial is partly right.  In the passion, Pilate does represent the power of government.  But, not just government, he represents empire and all earthly power and justice.  The gospels depict Pilate as conflicted.  He tries to compromise and have Jesus flogged.  But, the crowd insists on crucifying Jesus.   They’d rather free Barabbas, a thief and rabble rouser, than face the possibility that Jesus is the messiah.  Popular opinion and group think wins out over conscience, and Pilate relents.   Empire executes its function.  Rome crucifies Jesus.  Pax Romana destroys the shalom of God.

Perhaps, the same is true of Pax Americana.

Second, Jesus is silent in the face of Pilate’s questions because God is defenseless against human foibles.  It’s hard to imagine God defenseless against humans.  But, Jesus is.  The problem is that most Christians understanding of God’s power is wrapped in worldly fantasies of power – supernatural power, instrumental power, military power, personal power.   All revolve around the idea of the will, control, and self-determination.  Jesus offers a different picture of God’s power, one not at all like these.

ImageJesus is defenselessness against our sin and human foibles.  And, this isn’t the first contradiction Jesus’ silence before Pilate exposes.  The contradictions intensifying through Jesus’ trial eventually rupture.  They rupture upon Jesus’ public and humiliating death.   But, the madness of contradictions revealed in Jesus trial and death begin in the empty void of Jesus’ silence before his accuser.  In his silence, the insanity of the whole situation begins to set in.

Jesus is innocent, but he’ll die.

The crowd condemns Jesus, but they won’t be guilty of killing him.

Pilate doesn’t know Jesus or his crime, but he authorizes his death.

Jesus came to save, but he cannot or will not save himself.

The death of God happens in Jerusalem, the city named of God’s reign and peace.

In the face of death, the Son of God says nothing.

Facing the Son’s death, God stands by and does nothing.

Nothing makes sense.  None of this intended.  The whole is absurd.

Jesus’ silence strips the sin of his world and ours completely naked, unabashed and unadorned.  The rage of madness and its contradictions must work themselves out.  After all, they are our – not God’s – creation.

This interpretation of Jesus’ silence fits better with Paul’s idea that Jesus really does lay both sin and his evil age bare.  He transforms it, and changes everything.  But, it’s still hard to imagine anyone staying quiet at a trial like that.   It’s still hard to imagine Jesus not defending himself or saying anything.   Any American would have.  At least, Jesus could have injected some reason for the insanity of it all.   He could have decried himself a victim to the crowd, or defended himself against others’ accusations as he did several times before when he spoke against the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee.  Any of these would have made more sense.  But, in Jerusalem before Pilate, he says nothing.  “You say so,” is all he says to Pilate.  Why?

Jesus, at least, shared something in common with those he was teaching and preaching.  As fellow Jews, they were his kinfolk.   They were all children of Abraham, who share a history and covenant with YHWH.  Jesus also shared a love and reverence for God’s revelation, the Law, with the lawyers and Pharisees.  But, when it came to defending himself against a world that didn’t know him and wouldn’t hear him, there was nothing to say.  Perhaps, it was futile, even pointless.  There was nothing to say because there was nothing he could say.

If Jesus would have answered that he was the messiah, he would have admitted himself as “King of the Jews” in the eyes of the crowd and Jewish leaders.   There was no other king than the ruler installed by Rome approved.  This would have condemned Jesus under Roman Law.  Pilate would not have been guilty of betraying his conscience.

If Jesus would’ve denied he was “King of the Jews,” he would have denied he was the messiah Israel longed for.   He would have admitted to being just another itinerant teacher or insurrectionist against the empire.  This would have only intensified the situation with confusion if he would have defended himself or told the truth.  His silence, instead, drew out the truth of the situation.  Jesus didn’t need to give an account for himself because it really came down to what the crowd and Pilate thought, or accepted.   “Who do you say that I am?”

In Jesus, God was on trial.  He was defenseless because God has no defense.

I think many of us can relate to Jesus’ situation.   True, we can’t relate to being accused of being a King and we can’t relate to facing crucifixion.  But, I think almost all of us can relate to the politics of his situation.  We can relate to the futility and despair of a situation in which it’s impossible to say anything.   We can relate to what it’s like to be helpless in the face of what others think.   That’s the situation Jesus faced answering Pilate’s questions.  It’s also the political climate of the U.S.

ImageIn a democracy, being able to speak freely and reason together is essential.   Our democracy is not simply a majority rule.  What makes modern democracy different from ancient democracy is its foundation on reason and belief in rational society.  It’s built on the idea that the reason that makes freedom and universal rights possible, also distributes opportunity and authority rationally.   The most important thing we can do in a democracy is talk about how we should govern and be governed.   For democracy to work, we have to talk about politics – rights, laws, and civil responsibility.   We also have to talk about religion, if religion is going to shape our moral fabric, civic virtues, and sense of responsibility.  If reason and political discussion break down, democracy grinds to a halt.  Political processes are channeled off to the privileged.  The freedom we take for granted is taken from us and usurped by those who govern.  This is the America I live in, and it’s difficult to see how the political discourse our democracy needs will get better.

Over the last five years, the best conversations I’ve had about politics and religion have been on Facebook.  Perhaps, this seems idiotic.  I don’t think it’s the norm.  But, if you find Facebook friends who read generously, think critically, and respond thoughtfully, Facebook can be an excellent medium for exchanging ideas and political discussion.    Facebook allows you to think about what you want to say before you say it.  It allows you to edit yourself before you “speak.”  You can’t interrupt others, and you can use links to cite your information.   Like most online forums, all this mitigates some of the difficulties of discussing difficult topics.  Social media can be an excellent medium for sharing perspectives and thoughtful debate if it’s conducted with care, discipline, and respect for your interlocutor and subject.

But, that’s exactly what’s become impossible.

While the internet and social media have created new possibilities and democratic space for thoughtful and invested dialogue, it has also become a platform for infotainment, conspiracy, and reactionism.  Well-funded media routinely sell distrust, contrarianism, and self-righteousness to us.   The internet has become the jeering crowd, but its pointing its fingers at everybody.  All of this has changed the nature of the internet and political discourse.  We’ve allowed American freedom to be reduced to self-interest.  We’ve allowed political discussions to become mainly divisive, toxic, and cynical.  Inject religion into any discussion that matters, and it seems to only get worse.

ImageThe politics of madness – universal self-righteousness, conspiracy, and reactionism – have become America’s political norm.  How many of us have been on Facebook, Twitter, or email and shared an honest or heartfelt perspective on current events, only to be met with emotional reaction or hostility?   No questions, no request for clarification, no attempt to understand – only offense and reaction.  Maybe you tried to reconcile or provide an explanation.  Maybe you tried to reach understanding by being open to their point of view, only to have your words came back to you empty.   We’ve let personal opinion, a sense of victimhood, and emotional reaction to stand unquestioned.  Any attempt at common ground or rational discussion is quickly torpedoed.  In a democracy, this is madness.

We can watch the news or listen to AM radio to appreciate where this widespread attitude comes from.   Self-righteousness, “us and them,” and the feeling of being attacked have become the easiest political situation to understand.  So, it is where most politics go.    Infotainment and poison politics has grown America’s capacity for feeling offended to debilitating levels.  Political self-righteous and commentary have become an industry.   It’s all become self-generating.  In both social and commercial media, it’s hard to imagine anything different.

I try to imagine God or Jesus speaking up in in this context, and the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial become very vivid.

Too many of us live in the fantasy that the truth, the real truth, will be self-evident.  Whomever has it and speaks it will silence the competition.  This is the fantasy that Jesus’ trial exposes.  In fact, the opposite is true.  In reality, the truth of any situation is fragile.  It’s easily drowned out or silenced.

I recently posted something political on Facebook.  Someone I appreciate and respect responded.   What I posted offended them.  The topic was not new to us, but my choice of words was an affront to them this time.  I tried to clarify myself, but I realized I was making it worse.  My words came back empty.  I lost control over determining what my own words meant.

I’m not god and I don’t see the world from a vantage point that makes me superior to everyone else.  But, academically, I knew my point of view on this issue was valid.   Two posts into this Facebook conversation, however, I realized my mix of topic and words were too loaded.  No response was going to convey what I wanted.   The politics surrounding this issue were too divisive.   It didn’t matter how much my political and religious convictions intersected on this issue.   The politics rendered my words useless.  I should’ve stayed silent.

I tried to think of a reply to either save the conversation or recover my point from this person’s interpretation.   But, I eventually realized I was being obsessive.  There was nothing I could say.  It was my problem.  I had to accept the futility of the discussion.  I couldn’t concede my perspective and stay true to myself.  Yet, I couldn’t accept the other person’s reaction because they were reaction to something I didn’t say.   It was all lost in interpretation.  I wanted vindication or validation for my situation, and got neither.  There was nothing more I could do.  Anything I would say was meaningless.

I’m not saying I was like Jesus.  The stakes aren’t even close to the same.  I was not accepting damnation and facing crucifixion.  But, I think my situation, like Jesus’, was futile.  Words became meaningless.  “You say so,” was all either of us could say.   There was nothing either Jesus or I could utter to escape our situation or save it from its politics, madness, and tragedy.   Telling the truth or defending ourselves would only make things worse.  Words became empty, meaningless.

Jesus wasn’t being a hero.  No messiah wants to die.  There was no rational argument he could make to explain the situation to Pilate or Jerusalem’s leaders.   There were no words Jesus could defend himself with.   Only silence could express his helplessness and expose the insanity of what was happening.   It wasn’t Jesus’ silence that condemned him.   Pilate did.  The crowd did.  Jesus experienced something almost all of us experience:  literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  It’s the madness of a hopeless situation.

Most can also relate to my situation on Facebook.  Maybe you avoid these situations altogether.   It’s where our democracy has headed, and it’s deeply scary to me.  I don’t think the political situation Jesus was in is much different than our own.

When self-righteousness rule both personal and public opinion…

When the politics devolve to “us against them”…

When hope is lost in a cycle of defensive reactions…

When words fail us and madness sets in…

We want what we reject, and we reject what we want.  Order is kept with violence and its victim(s) are rendered wordless.  This was the politics of Jesus’ situation.  His only hope was for someone to accept responsibility for the brokenness and severity of the situation.   But, neither the crowd nor Pilate was willing to.  So, Jesus was left defenseless.

And, it could happen all over again.  This is what America’s political environment has come to.

God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.

a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

At what point did sharing a personal testimony get caught up in sticky traps of “who’s right and who’s wrong?” Why can’t I share my search for God or love of church without fear that I sound like some close-minded religious fanatic? When did sharing my discovery of the Gospel become so complicated…complicated by those who would spin my story into some lecture about my religion or my church or my God at the exclusion others? And…what about those who don’t care, who share their faith and testimonies without grace and reinforce religious stereotypes? Today, the atmosphere around sharing a personal testimony or religious conviction has become a barrier for the church, corporately and for individuals. When did talking about faith became such a minefield?

If we look deep into the fabric of our world, we could go back to the Enlightenment for an answer. That was the period centuries ago in which the measure of truth in our Western world became fundamentally different. The Enlightenment was a turning point in the scientific revolution.  It marked a seismic shift in the authority of religious truth. Today’s politics of truth are shaped by this shift, especially the politics between religion and science. The Enlightenment opened the door to the idea that each mind, equipped with the power of observation and reason, could question and apprehend the truth and reality.  Truth, in this way, became distinct from its foundation in the church, revelation, theologians, and traditional authorities. The politics of truth between religion and science shape how religion and religious people are perceived today. It shapes our stereotypes about religious fanatics and their fanaticism. But, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

The tension we feel about sharing our personal testimonies of God and religious convictions today are also shaped by the culture of the previous generation.   The 21st century is deeply shaped by end of the 20th.  While the Enlightenment raised the ongoing problem of “What is the truth?” and “How do we know it?”    The tension today around sharing our faith with others is less about how we know the truth and more about the question, “Who’s truth?”   It’s a question of religion and individualism. A generation of Babyboomers, born after WWII, struggled against nearly all external forms of authority – the authority of their parents, society, its institutions, even the past.   We live in the wake of that culture struggle. It shapes our world’s strong sense of individualism.  Today, the individual holds sway over all matters of religion, spirituality, morality, and society.  Individualism is a conviction that shapes both the Right and Left politically, our views of government, as well as most popular churches and forms of spirituality.

This is the reach of individualism.  After the Babyboom, personal testimonies, if they are more than personal stories, are subject to politics, i.e. the politics of religion and individual authority.   Individualism assumes religious testimonies and convictions belong to personal experience.  The truth of our faith and testimonies raise the question of “who’s truth?”   The politics of individualism are inherently defensive. Religious passion and conviction elicit this cultural clash between religious authority and personal experience or opinion. To guard ourselves against outside authority – whether other individuals, society, religion, traditions, institutions, or government – individualism tells us that personal experience and perspective shape reality. The politics of individualism puts tension between us and others because others are external authorities.  They are part of the world outside. Such individualism and its defensive politics muck up almost all possibility for any open exchange or trusting environment for people to talk about their life-changing experiences, faith, love of church, even God.   Being positive is good; too much religion is bad.

The problem is that personal testimonies cannot be more than personal under the sway of individualism, no matter how transforming, how convincing, how important, how deeply felt or how certain. If we push our faith or spiritual experiences off on others, it causes problems. If we share a personal testimony about God, church, or the Gospel, and generalize the certainty or power of our experience onto others, we simply do what many people – inside and outside the church – expect.  Religious people tend to be fanatical, self-righteous, and  judgmental.  Religion leads to close-mindedness and unilateral politics and truth-claims.  It’s inherently antagonistic to dialog and mutuality.  There is no room for differences.  Organized religion, especially, lacks integrity and limits individuality.

The challenge, of course, is that sharing our testimony is the heart of evangelism!   On the one hand, many of us who have experienced God, rapturous love, formerly evasive self-acceptance, or saving grace overflow ourselves.  The desire to reach out can bubble up.  On the other hand, we are also called to invite others into life with God’s hope and affection.   But, the difficulties individualism, defensiveness, and our politics of truth live in our skin.   Also, many of these barriers are our own making as Christians. How do we start all over? How do we take our testimonies beyond the church and its internal dialog? How do our message, mission, and identity reach beyond our community of the like-minded? Why has sharing our faith or witness with others become so offensive?

Theologians often intervene here, too.  They reshape the problem of individualism in a different way.  Theologians remind us that the authority of religious tradition, scripture, and church leaders endure.  We are often unaware of their deep roots and history, and are important.   Scripture, tradition, and the church’s collective life put our individual convictions and personal experiences in perspective. Individuals, by themselves, don’t speak for the church or all faith. But, this often ends up being a theologian’s argument. In our everyday world, we are called to share our testimony and invite others to Christ in a culture where the individual reigns and is held in utmost importance.  Even those of us in the church reflect this cultural conviction. Backed in a corner or disagreement, most of us aren’t afraid to assert our own authority. Most of us defend our personal convictions and spiritual experiences as individuals. We react strongly to anyone that seems to limit us – whether it’s church leaders, liberal or conservative Christians, atheists, or anybody else. In this way, even the church is shaped by individualism and its politics. The politics of truth are inside and out.

Individualism keeps us all safe from religion and outside authority by keeping faith personal.   Church leaders, as well as individuals in the pew, aren’t afraid to argue that personal testimonies and convictions don’t escape our experience and opinion. These are the very dynamics that make it difficult to share our personal testimonies, whether in the church or without.  If I share my testimony with too much passion or too much certainty, with too much conviction and push it off on others, it creates problems.   It gets in the way of anyone actually hearing my testimony. Defensiveness against authority colors everything.  Moreover, bold and forceful Christians reinforce the stereotypes. They are ambassadors of the truth – a truth that is self-righteous and exclusive.  Those who don’t want to be this kind of Christian let others define evangelism. We stay in our communities with like-minded people talking about outreach, but struggling to practice what we preach. We share our faith amongst ourselves. What about sharing it with others?

It’s been months since I’ve last posted. Life’s been full of busyness, changes in large and small proportion. But, the challenge to increase my witness has been brewing in me for some time.   It’s occupied my soul and mind as I’ve spent time alone with God, gone to meetings with church leaders, preached at services, and listened to the Spirit stirring beneath the surface. I’m in a period of transition in my life and I feel the challenge to focus my life and respond more fully with a greater sense of witness. There isn’t a better time than Easter morning to share the simple invitation again:

Share a positive witness of God’s boundless Love in Christ.  Share it honestly and vulnerable, in love and without exclusions.  Hazard your testimony.  Venture your witness.  Learn to tell your story in act and word – in public, with a friend, an acquaintance, online, at work, or in a moment when the Spirit leads you. Pray for that moment.

The way we share our testimony says as much as what we say. We can shape a new politics of love in Christianity, one that shatters the culture of individualism and old politics of truth. Let the church let go of forced choices – who’s right and who’s wrong, us versus them, my truth versus yours.  This is not God’s power struggle.   God is a God of new beginnings, spontaneous interactions, uncommon relationships, vulnerable opportunities, and new expressions.   Christ is our example of this vulnerability, risk, love and its mission. Welcome others’ reactions, their objections, different experiences and perspective. If others object or suspect us of forcing ourselves on others or begging a debate, share honestly. Deny the false choice. Our testimony just is, in all its vulnerably.  It bears no burden of proof other than its effect on us, so we don’t need to become defensive. There is nothing to defend.

Resurrection, itself, is a symbol of powerful positive witness…shared honestly and vulnerably in Christ, with love and without exclusions. Individualism and its politics of truth present us with a problem, but a new politics of love in the church doesn’t have to.  It can overcome.

dark moments and ways forward

It has been a hard 36 hours.   Margo and I learned something a couple of days ago that potentially halts important plans that have been months in the making.    The news was not a bump in the road; it was a deal-breaker.   It could halt everything and potentially change the direction of our next few years.

The bad news involved circumstances and realities that are completely out of our control.   Hearing the news made us all of the sudden feel very vulnerable, victims of an impersonal world and other people’s bad decisions.  I wish I could share more details, but they are both complicated and personal.  Suffice it to say, what’s important here is that our very sense of security and self-determination was completely undermined.  It created a feeling of insecurity and dread that I feel still. The outcome is unsure and the feeling lingers.

I know others have been here.

We experienced this kind of loss of control over our lives before when Margo was first diagnosed with TTP in 2007.  We spent 30 days fighting for her life in an out-of-state hospital, racking up a bill we didn’t know would get paid.  This time, the circumstances were different.  But, the feeling of helplessness and insecurity were the same.  Emotionally and mentally, it was debilitating.   Everything was up in the air.  We felt trapped.  This was one of those moments when the flow of life, itself, was disrupted and you can question everything.

Everyone, I think, experiences these situations from time to time.  It can be from a death, unforeseen bad news, an innocent but bad decision, loss of work, break-up of relationship, loss of control.   Some live with the dark feelings of these situations chronically.  We live in a world where more and more of us are seemingly less and less in control.   Economic crisis, unemployment, divisive religious issues, shrinking churches, strained friendships, loss of security, increased isolation, hostile politics – no wonder we live in a culture that seems to perpetuate and profit from depression and escapism.   No wonder the airways are full of angry talk about security and freedom.   Along with trust and sanity, both seem to be so scarce these days.

Dark moments can hit from out of the blue or haunt us seemingly incessantly.  Few things can shake the foundations of faith like a loss of control in your life and an inability to see a way forward.  I’ve experienced that myself lately.  When this happens, many people either try to lose themselves in the busyness of immediate demands or others’ needs: going to work, hitting deadlines, focusing on getting kids to practice, keeping schedule, and making lunches.  Others lose themselves in other things: eBay, day trading, internet outlets like facebook, gaming, and online communities.  Not all are bad or destructive.   Connecting with others and healthy outlets can be a salve for getting through difficult feelings.  The ways to escape and channel the energy of dark times and their feelings of anxiety or insecurity are as many as the people who feel them.  Sometimes the darkness and feelings pass.  Circumstances change or we make our own adjustments.  Sometimes, the darkness lingers and is difficult to escape.  In either case, withstanding the difficult loss of control, helplessness, and insecurity is a passage of its own.  Faith, I think, plays an important role in keeping both our mental sanity and emotional flexibility, as well as strength and sense of peace.

One way people use their faith in dark times is to use faith, itself, as an escape.  This isn’t all bad.  It’s easy to suppress or counter dark feelings and chaotic circumstances by telling us God is in control or God will make a way.  This can be incredibly important.  But, it can also be a short cut and follow an incomplete understanding of God and faith in our lives.

In my view, the problem with turning to faith for escape is that it does not provide a new way forward.  It becomes an alternative – rather than a reason to face – reality.  The dark moments and feelings are real.  The situation that causes them are often real.  But, God and faith offer more than merely surviving dark moments by waiting out the situation in a bubble.  Again, this path forward isn’t always bad and sometimes necessary.  The difference is a matter of spirituality.  A simple way to make the distinction between an escaping kind of spirituality and using faith to move us forward into reality may be the difference between faith as belief versus faith as how we choose to live.

Of course, the distinction is real, but it represents a false choice.   Spirituality can mean separating beliefs from actions.  But actions usually aren’t separated from beliefs, conscious or unconscious.  Nevertheless, the distinction is helpful.  If faith is simply a matter of what we choose to believe, then believing God will turn things in our favor, restore our sense of control, or take care of us becomes one way you use faith.  We believe something despite our feelings and circumstances.  But, this kind of spiritual approach is very different than one that uses faith to face immediate reality, take it in, accept dark moments of insecurity and our shaken sense of things.  Faith can be power in and into these moments of helplessness, not just go around them or survive them.

When the bad news came to Margo and I, at first I was extremely frustrated, even angry.  Because of my feelings, my thoughts raced.  Without thinking, I began to rant and blame.  I also immediately felt helpless.  “What are we going to do, now!?!?”  This question haunted me.  As long as it haunted me, a feeling of despair and helplessness set in.  In all reality, there wasn’t alot I could do except be patient and come to peace with alternatives I could not control, but I could face.

As I faced what might be, my difficult feelings compelled me to pray.  They were so real.  The loss of power and choices made me feel abandoned.  The situation reminded me of how much our sense of wellbeing and security in this world is based on our ability to make decisions, control the outcomes, follow our desires and seek (what we think is) our best interest.  When these are taken from us, the darkness of the loss is total and can feel equally unjust and debilitating.

Instead, however, I faced my feelings and my options.  I didn’t do it with cool confidence or grace.  I just refused to believe what my feelings wanted to say.  I was not abandoned; God does not abandon us.  I also knew faith wasn’t about being in control.  With all the tragedy and injustice in our world, God also may not be in full exacting control.  But, God’s power is also not a power we understand.  I know and trust God’s presence in all things – even darkness and tragedy.  Looking and expecting God in these concentrated moments of loss and seeming darkness is difficult, but also transforming.  It brought a peace the ways of the world couldn’t give me.

Prayer was a passage into humility, something my modern sense of power and control could not provide nor fully understand.  Nor, could it help me escape.  Accepting and taking in the humility, even humiliation, of my situation all was a profound feeling that helped me embrace what was happening.  All was not lost.   Salvation, whether here and now or in the hereafter, is not based on my own power to control my life & circumstances.   The substance of God was in present reality, not escape from it.  That’s where I found both myself and myself with God.   Together, I was able to find both peace and possibilities if things didn’t go our way.  The experience was transforming for me, and the future I was dreading.

I want to be clear about this.  This wasn’t a moment of “let go and let God.”  It was a moment of embrace, not letting go.  It was based on a spirituality and faith that God is in and amidst reality – not in flight from it.  The humility of it all was deeply grounding.  I emerged from the bad news and negative possibilities somehow more grounded, capable, alive and complete.  It’s something that is difficult to put into words.  It wasn’t just resignation or a change of mind.  But, it was also an experience that was incomplete without bearing my experience in testimony.

I’ve always been led to believe, by the Spirit I trust, that God’s passage in Jesus Christ is a passage of God from heaven in, to, and through our reality – not around it.  Jesus, on the cross, did not commit the great escape.  The only way we can believe he was the messiah, that we die with him and in him (like Paul), and that all creation is changed because of him is if we also believe that, somehow, Jesus came into the world and into its darkness.  All human reality came to a head and a turning point in his death on the cross and its humiliation.   In this passage, God, in Jesus, teaches us how to die and live.

I can only conclude that when Jesus says, “Bear your cross” and “Follow me,” Jesus does not point the way out of or around this world.   Discipleship and the cross are not a path or way around reality or escape from its dark moments, but a path to go through them – not alone.

In scripture, that’s where we find Jesus, Immanuel.   The only way to tell God’s passage from heaven to earth – for our sake – was to tell of God in sufficiently human terms.  Jesus was that human, who’s ministry and death bear all the marks of a real human life – birth, parents, temptation, struggle, calling, moments of embrace as well as betrayal, eventual humiliation and tragedy.  The point of the story is that God triumphs.  Jesus did not overcome to escape, but embrace and change reality.