Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jesus Isn't Fair, Either

One of the themes that has echoed and re-echoed across this nation after our housing bubble went inevitably kerpop is that of fairness. Millions of folks bought houses that were utterly beyond their means, homes that were either too big or...more likely...whose value had been absurdly inflated by relentless churning speculation.

Those struggling homeowners soon found themselves deep "underwater," as their equity dried up and their income took a hit from the crumbling job market. It weren't just a few folks, neither. Last year, 2.8 million American households faced foreclosure, a rate that is on track to hit 3 million even in 2010. The sheer volume of collapse hasn't just stirred a government response. Banks, realizing that they can't manage or sell that many homes, have often been renegotiating the interest on the loans for these houses. But that hasn't always been enough.

This last week, some banks have started to reduce the amount of principal as well. Meaning, they're deciding, heck, remember that $475,000 townhouse you took out a jumbo loan to purchase in 2008 right before your wife lost her job? The one that's worth $275,000 now? Let's make that a $300,000 loan instead! It's the only way to keep folks in their homes, and while it's a desperation measure, it works best for the banks and for those who would otherwise find themselves out of a place to live.

For some of us who bought smaller and earlier, and who've never ever not once even come close to missing a mortgage payment, this can seem, like, TOTALLY unfair. We were wise. Diligent. Aware of market dynamics. Focused on living within our means. We saw the bubble for what it was, to the point of solemnly warning folks we knew not to buy at the peak of the market. And I did utter that warning, over and over again.

But the world is full of fools and dreamers, suckers ready to believe something that is obviously too good to be true. Why should they be rewarded or cut slack? They should bear the penalty of their stupidity. Moving their family of five into Grandma and Grandpa's basement for three or four years is the only way they'll ever learn to stop making dumb decisions. They made the bed. Let 'em sleep in it. Or on the street. Whichever.

Problem is, self-righteousness and an overdeveloped sense of what is and isn't fair have no place in the heart of a Jesus follower. That was, as I recall, the whole point of that little story he told about the laborers in the vineyard. That story, of course, had mostly to do with quelling the spiritual resentments of those who have always done what's right. We want to be rewarded, and we want our reward to be bigger than the reward of those who come stumbling into the Kingdom at the last moment.

As an ethic, though, it reminds us that Christians don't desire others to suffer. We are not to want others to be diminished or humiliated. Period.

If we find ourselves grumbling because someone is being given another chance, or forgiven a debt, then something has gone very very wrong with our faith. When we allow ourselves to want that suffering as just recompense for cluelessness, or want others to be cut down a notch or two because it's what they deserve, then the spirit of grace that lies at the beating heart of Christ is no longer within us.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Forming A Militia Doesn't Count as Christian Fellowship, Kids

Amazing how things in life repeat themselves. It was at around this time in Clinton's first term, as I so recall, that the Angry White Men began to lose it. The seething fury at not being in charge of the country grew, coupled with a deepening paranoia about the role of government in American life. Suddenly we were faced with Branch Davidians, and then Timothy McVeigh.

Over the weekend, there was an aggressive response to a Michigan-based militia calling itself the Hutaree, who were apparently thought to be planning an attack on...well...something. It's not yet clear.

Hutaree immediately struck me as rather notably ungrounded in any of the key concepts of Christianity. This is because it is apparently just a word they made up to describe themselves. Having spent an hour or so yesterday perusing their website and their forums, the Hutaree have...well...a rather interesting worldview.

They are solidly conservative, and if their forums are any indicator, certain that they are participating in a Tim LaHaye novel. They're radically pro-Israel, and their postings on their forum are woven up with little snippets of Hebrew. You know, mixed with reviews of weapons and military gear, just like my church newsletter.

More up my alley, they self-describe as Christian, but their version of Christianity is an intentional mix of texts that appear to justify a radically martial view of the world. You keep all the dualistic, apocalyptic, "world is black and white" stuff. You keep the teachings that use martial metaphors, while being sure to forget that they are metaphors. You ditch, in it's entirety, the Sermon on the Mount. And most of the Gospels. And most of the writings of Paul and His disciples. These things get in the way of our Red Dawn fantasies.

As I've noted before, that binary view of the world is one of the most dangerous possible misreadings of our faith. It is antithetical to the democratic process. It is also radically in opposition to the core teachings of Christ, and the spiritual ethics of Paul and James and John. When you mix it in with our culture's radical individualism, tendency to feel aggrieved, and love of firearms, there's the real potential for fugliness.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

How to Play Tea Party

Over the past year, the peculiar rise of the "tea party" "movement" has drawn a tremendous amount of attention from the nation's media. As a thousand or so tea partiers arrived here in DC to protest ObambimateurminationCare, or whatever it is they've attempted to rename health care reform, I've been again struck by some of the defining characteristics of the movement. Let me lay some of those out there:

1) Signs Made By Preschoolers. I can't not notice this. Whenever Tea Partiers get out there, they have signs made with magic marker. They are clumsy and roughly done, and stand in stark contrast to the well-printed and designed signs of those who often oppose them. It is a defining feature of the movement.

I think it's supposed to be a mark of authenticity. But honestly, it's just sloppy. If you look back to the populist movements of the early 20th century, you do see hand-made signs. But they used stencils. They looked neat. Organized. Focused. They commanded respect. Surely, surely, amongst all of the folks in that movement, someone must be an assistant manager of a Kinkos. Find that guy. Do a better job.

That may be a highly visible feature of the movement, but it's just surface level. Let's move on.

2) Race: Everyone sees this. In the multihued America in which we live, it is astoundingly obvious. The Tea Party makes the Republican National Convention look like Showtime at the Apollo. Yeah, some of the tea partiers will tell you they have lots of black friends, and their granddaughter is biracial. That's real nice, but honey, y'all are still one big Honkeypalooza.

That doesn't mean they're racists. Not at all. In fact, I think that only a fringe of that fringe harbor nasty ethic hatreds. But it does mean there's a rather impressive monoculture going on...and monocultures have a tendency to fall deep into uncritical groupthink.

3) Class: This is more important. Most tea party folks are working class. They're the folks who used to make things in factories and grow things on farms. They're people with rough hands, with oil and dirt under their fingernails. Though they'd blanch at the very thought, they are the proletariat. They were the flesh-and-blood engine of America's industrial and agricultural might. Now, of course, there's not a thing for them to do besides an eight hour shift at Dennys, followed by two nights a week behind the register at the Gas'N'Go. They are tired, overworked, and underpaid, and their backs hurt.

4) Rage: These are angry, angry people. They are angry because the America they thought they knew is gone. The jobs are gone. The sense of America as a shining city on a hill? Gone. They're on the front line of the collapse of our industrial might.

Why? Well, there's the rub. The reason for that collapse is...well...them. Tea partier's aggressive independence and rugged individualism meant that for decades, they voted for the party of the unfettered and free market. Freedom! Business! America!

That brought about globalization, as capitalism did what capitalism does. The ethic of profit maximization heartily endorsed by American conservatism drove manufacturing to places where it was less expensive. So tea partiers lost their jobs. The ethic of unfettered markets meant that big corporations and agribusinesses flourished, crushing uncompetitive small businesses and small farms under their low, low prices. So more tea partiers lost their jobs. It's the nature of the market, folks. When you voted for Reagan, and then Bush, and then Dubya, that's what you voted for.

But when you exist in a monoculture, which lacks the capacity to critically consider it's own presumptions, you aren't going to be able to make that connection. You just know that EVERYTHING IS GETTING WORSE. Your anger is inchoate, formless, and can't seem to find it's mark...because you can't see that you are responsible for your own downfall. Aimlessly angry people are easily manipulated, and so deeper they go, lost in a trap of their own making. It's hubris in it's most classical form, writ across the broken lives of the common people of our republic.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Naked Community

So the other day, I found myself wondering what my little suburb of Annandale would look like if it were naked. Not stripped of clothing, mind you. That would be very unpastorly of me, and I'm also afraid my own contribution to that collective event would be rather unsettling. But rather, what it would look like if the two great powers that define and "clothe" our culture simply weren't there when we woke up one morning.

The powers in question: mammon and the sword. The sword is coercive power, and it is wielded by the state to undergird the legal frameworks of our society. Mammon is symbolic power. It drives the market, and is itself dependent on the power of the sword to establish and enforce the value of currency.

So our bedside radio chirps to life at 6:45 am one spring morning, and we hear it breathlessly announce that there is no longer any law enforcement. There are no longer any laws. No traffic cops. No courts. Nothing. Not only that, all currency is no longer valid. Our plastic is just plastic with random data encoded into a magnetic strip. Our cash is just paper with some trippy pictures on it. It all simply ceased to be meaningful or accepted.

Far fetched? Sure. A bit silly? Undoubtedly. But still interesting.

What would your community look like on the day of that announcement? The answer to that question, I think, is an interesting measure of just how healthy a society is. If the first word that pops into your head is "looting," followed by the word "pillage" and the phrase "everything on fire," then perhaps the place you are is not healthy. If you immediately think of staging a raid on your local Best Buy, then perhaps the you that you are is not healthy.

If, on the other hand, a society could just dispense with those things without batting an eye, then I think it would be in a rather different moral position. Would we still do what we do to fill our days? Would our relationships within our communities remain the same? Would our patterns of consumption be changed? For most social groups, the answer is yes. The changes would be huge. But the closer we get to modeling the Way that Jesus taught, the less impact this thought exercise would have. I can't imagine it having any meaningful impact within an Amish community, for instance.

How we react when we are truly, really, totally free is a good measure of where we stand relative to the Kingdom.

I Am Not A Dog

As I gaze over at the little bundle of hyperactivity that is now napping on the mat by the front door, I marvel at just how genetically similar she and I are. Of the twenty-four thousand or so genes that make up the human genome, we share around 75% with our canine pals. That's a significant majority, the kind of majority that Nancy Pelosi can only fantasize about. You know, when she's not fantasizing about Fabio, human cloning, and hot tubs full of ghee. But that's a mental picture best left unvisualized.

Yet I am quite evidently not a dog, as much as that lifestyle might occasionally have appeal. The 25% of my genetic material that is not shared results in an entirely different species of mammal. Through the addition of different genetic material, the entire character and nature of a creature is changed. Though I share varying proportions of genetic material with most organic life, it's why I am not a dog, or yeast, or a bonobo monkey.

Which leads me to wonder why so many folks are so incapable of seeing Christianity for what it is. Here I flagrantly steal from De Debbil Dawkins Himself, who introduced to the world the concept of memetics as something that defines the norms of a culture or subculture. Memes are the symbolic equivalent of genes, units of information that self-propagate within and across cultures. They are ideas, thoughts, and concepts, all of which transform the character of a society or social organism.

In order to fully grasp the nature of a culture or a movement, you need to look at the totality of it's memetic context. Only by understanding the complex interplay of those norms and symbolic frameworks can you get a handle on the nature of the critter. If you leave something out, miss something, or willfully overlook something, then your understanding of the entity you are observing will be waaaay off. Yeah, we share 96% of our genetic material with baboons. But though the mechanics of things like human digestion can be partially understood by observing baboons, the complexities of our culture and our capacities for reason and symbolic exchange are significantly more than four percent different.

Tea party participants excepted, of course.

Which is one of the many reasons it strikes me as absurd to approach any tradition based on a refusal to honestly assess the full scope of it's memetics. Within my tradition, there are those who blithely ignore any intimation that Christian faith shows the memetic influence of other traditions. Like, say, some of the evident traces of the cultic practices of the Canaanite High God El, who merits a direct shout out in a couple of places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Or the rather more destructive spin introduced by dualism, which makes it's entrance into Jewish thought immediately following the Babylonian diaspora. That binary Marduk/Tiamat cosmology clearly informed Jewish apocalyptic, and then spilled over into Christian apocalyptic thought. There it remains, despite the best efforts of Jesus to subvert it. Recognizing the pastiche of cultural norms, insights and observations that have formed the symbolic framework of a tradition is essential if you are to truly grasp it's nature.

Then again, those who would dismiss Christianity as ignorant or inherently destructive based on a carefully selected subset of our textual material aren't getting it, either. For Christians, the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth are radically defining. He is, for our worldview, far more influential than that 4% of genetic material that differentiates me from a creature that seeks to impress the ladies by parading around with a big blue butt. And no, I don't, not even in the privacy of my own home.

The love ethic Christ embodied is so intensely defining as to transform the nature and character of the entire Christian worldview. If you look at the totality of our conceptual genome, it is what makes us what we are. It makes the difference.

Of course, when we go beyond approaching Christianity academically, and it becomes experiential and existential and...spiritual, things get a bit different. Those of us who know ourselves as Jesus people know it goes deeper than norms and symbols and memetic epistemology.

But to get there, you have to be a part of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Among the many feeds I read is the TED blog, which brims over with delicious esoterica and occasionally over-precious cutting edgeness. This last week, I watched an interesting presentation by Sam Harris, the atheist whose "Letter to A Christian America" I had such fun deconstructing a year or two back. In his speech to the gathered intellectual glitterati, the good Mr. Harris presented the core thesis that science can, in point of fact, provide a foundation for moral and ethical discourse.

Having watched it, and then watched it again, I'd have to say that while he and I have some major differences, some of his core theses are rather impressively simpatico. In particular:
  • I agree with his assertion that the idea that morality is not relative, but is in fact consistent across individuals and cultures. What is good and right for sentient beings isn't mediated by cultural biases or preconceptions. Meaning, just because something is viewed as "right" in a society does not mean that it is, actually, good. When a member of the Taliban or a Stalinist says they know what is "good" for humanity, they are materially and objectively incorrect. Harris admits that this assertion of the good is something he shares with religion, even in it's more oppressive forms.
  • Harris identifies well-being and happiness as the central purpose of sentient life. Not just one's own happiness, mind you, but the happiness of other beings. We who are aware favor the well-being of other beings who are aware. It's a defining feature of the good.
  • When presenting exemplars of the "good," meaning images or sample individuals who represent commonly known archetypes for what Harris defines as "good," Harris uses two. The first is the Buddha. The second is the Dalai Lama. Yeah, they're not Jesus. That would be rather remarkably out of character, and too risky for an atheist in a Christian culture. But they are representative of a faith tradition for which Harris clearly has respect. Meaning, he's not dogmatically anti-faith. Just mostly so, particularly if that faith is Abrahamic/monotheist. This seeming openness has gotten him some occasional flak in the atheistic community, perhaps because by using exemplars who reach his "rational" ethic through ecstatic means, he leaves the door open to faith being...well...not a bad thing. Ah well.
  • Harris views the goal of human existence as radical well-being, and suggests that it is appropriate to describe that highest peak state of human knowledge of the good as "spiritual" or "mystical." Given his exemplars, this is not surprising. But hearing a vanguard "militant atheist" use these terms...not redefining them or insulting them, but respecting them in refreshing.
Though there are many areas in which I'm happy to disagree with Harris, and I have a teensy little quibble with the idea that religious experience and practice is somehow less capable than reason in guiding us towards knowledge the good, this was a surprisingly affirmative little talk.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Songs of Void and Emptiness

As I reflected on the violence of organic life yesterday, and how oddly incompatible it is with the love of God and enemy, I found myself looking upwards into the refracted blue of the sky and thinking about all that which is not life.

Creation itself is mostly nothing. Even I, as I write this, am mostly nothing. Yeah, I'm an organic life form. But if you drill down to the atomic and subatomic level, the physical form that is currently typing this contains far more emptiness than neutrons and electrons. The keyboard onto which this is typed, for all of it's clackity solidity, is also mostly nothing. But we miss this, because our perception is so limited.

As we look out into the immensity of the cosmos, that emptiness finally strikes us. It is at a scale that we cannot grasp, of a vastness of temporal and spatial measure that goes well beyond our ability to conceptualize. We can get a bit of it, through metrics and analogies. But the reality of it is well beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp.

And it isn't just empty of mass. It's empty of measurable feeling. It is, to us, both terrible and beautiful...but is completely oblivious of those categories. Love and hatred and loss and joy are not words that have any relevance to the lives of stars, or in the aeons over which a nebula dissipates. Though the mechanics of physics govern this immensity, and they can be grasped rationally, those natural laws are not themselves "reasoned." They simply are.

The resultant interplay of those forces also cannot be meaningfully described in terms of interpersonal or social morality. When tectonic plates shift, and a city crumbles or vast waves scour the land, and hundreds of thousands die, it is not malicious. Or cruel. Or hateful. It just is. When atmospheric conditions produce intense tornadic activity, and a town is razed, it is not that creation is feeling peevish, or is angry with the town for not being tougher on crime. It simply is what it is.

The vastness of the heavens and the interplay of matter and energy aren't moral or ethical. The music of the spheres is atonal, jarring, and disinterested in the needs of it's audience.

This poses an interesting paradox to the contemplative person of faith. Why?

Because when one spends time emptying self of self, and letting awareness of all things silence the endless internal jabbering of thought for a while, when you return from that peak state you return changed. But you are changed in a way that does not seem to reflect the great cool amorality of physics. Mystics are not hard-nosed pragmatists, or mechanistically utilitarian in their approach to other creatures. It has a rather different effect.

Confronted with creation's vast, near-chaotic dynamism, one becomes calm. Immersed in it's amorality, other beings suddenly matter more. After embracing that which knows no care or love, deep compassion for others is stirred. It is...paradoxical.

St. Augustine once famously called creation the First Book. As he and Calvin both affirmed, it's a nearly impossible book to read and comprehend...thus the need for our sacred texts to guide our understanding.

But perhaps it's not a book the way the Bible is a book, written in symbol. Perhaps it's more like a song, which is best understood not through analysis and deconstruction and debate, but by simply being still and listening.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Songs of Sex and Violence

This morning, as I stood outside next to a puppy who was more interested in playing with a pinecone than doin' her business, the spring air around me was filled with the songs of birds. As we move from home to car to cubicle to car to Dennys to car to home, we often miss the onset of the riot of sound that comes with Spring. In a few weeks, the night air will be filled too, with the song and hum of the insects, but now, the music is all avian. As I listened attentively, I could make out the individual songs and their meanings, which filled my heart with wonder at the nature of creation.

Behind me, a mockingbird sang in it's distinctive voice: "getthahelloffamyPROPATEE!" A sparrow twirred with it's signature "thisisMYTREEyousonnavathisisMYTREEyousonnava." In a flash of white and black, a chickadee alighted on the dogwood in my front yard, and warbled "heyBabeewannarideinmyBENTLEYmyBENTLEYmyBENTLEY."

For all of our romanticizing it, nature is not really a place filled with happy prancing ponies and kittens and posies. Even now...especially is both strikingly beautiful and savage. That's easy to miss in the tameness of the 'burbs, where nature has been beaten down and restrained by asphalt and ticky tacky. But it is still there. The songs of the birds that fill the air and stir us to dreamy thoughts are war songs, cries and shouts of violence, charged with implicit threats to interlopers. They are songs of sexual prowess, as blunt and direct as the hoots and calls that would follow Shakira if she walked the streets of Mexico City in a booty skirt. That's the nature of nature. It's the nature of life, which any honest observer would note is almost entirely about consumption, copulation and combat.

Yet in the face of that, we Jesus people have an ethic that seems strangely dissonant with the basic dynamics of organic life. It's why philosophers like Nietzsche, who affirmed that life and vitality are woven up with Power, had so much trouble with Christianity. It was an affront to the whole process. Having read a great deal of Nietzsche, who I can't help but love dearly, I find great truth in what he declared. Similarly, I think the writings of Ayn Rand reflect the reality of nature red in tooth and claw. But she just annoys me, probably because she couldn't write. Nietszche could capture in one pungent aphorism what it would take Rand an endless circuitous 30,000 word rant to say. Reading her is an exercise in frustrated impatience. Ayn! You've already made your point! We get it already! Stop! AAAAGH!

But I digress. Whichever way, the norm of radical love for the Other stands in opposition to the Will to Power that chirps and warbles in the Spring.

It's simply not reflective of the processes of organic reproduction. It is, however, reflective of sentience. When we go beyond awareness of self, and become aware that other beings do not exist just to be devoured, defeated, or deflowered, that they are as we are, then we're ready for the morality taught by Christ.

Ready for a different song, perhaps.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad God?

As one of the three progressive Christians with a robust theology of hell, recent conversations require me to explore if my heckology counts as a form of coercion.

Hellfire and damnation tend to be the bludgeons that drive a significant portion of Christian "evangelism." You reach out because of your deep love for the unsaved unbelievers, knowing that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they will be cast eternally into the Lake of Fire. This is what leads Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron to get out there with their bananas. It's why Jack Chick is still in business. It's why that guy with the bullhorn is yelling bellowing scripture passages on your campus. And though this bugs the bejabbers out of most human beings, the folks who do it think they're doing right. Why?

Because as folks approach that tension between 1) the central ethic of love for God and neighbor and 2) the many warnings of the eternal consequences that come when you don't listen to Jesus, they become fixated on door number 2. You've got to save the sinners! Save 'em from HEEELLLL! Hell becomes the focus, and the Gospel becomes all stick and bad cop, as the masses run screaming from Jeezilla and into church as he rains atomic hellfire breath down on unbelieving Tokyo. Fear can be a powerful motivator, and folks are happy to use it to coerce belief.

Thing is, my transpersonal spirituality is completely compatible with eternal judgment. I view the existential boundaries between us as ultimately meaningless, and creation as the canvas onto which our eternity is painted. If we hurt others, that's our pain. Forever. If we seethe with hatred towards our ex, that hatred will burn in us permanently. Everything we do is, for all of the protestations of this Heraclitan age, etched forever into the face of being, of which we are a part.

So... does this count as coercion? Does my spiritual awareness of my connectedness to the beings around me and to creation "coerce" me into being more gracious and kind towards them?

Well, yes and no. There are times, particularly when I'm ragingly cheesed at someone, that my monkey-gut-response is to bare fangs and go for the jugular. At those moments, my cognitive and heart assent to the idea that the universe is not meaningless and without justice holds me back. Yeah, it might feel good at that moment to let 'em have it. Rip 'em a new one. It might even have immediate practical value. But ultimately, such actions have profound and permanent consequences. So I steer away from destructive actions with the same aversion that one might feel for a yawning precipice or that guy on the corner who's shouting obscenities at no-one in particular and brandishing a Glock. Go that way, says the tightness in your gut and the rapid beating of your heart, and bad things will come of it. In some sense, then, I do have a fear of hell, and it does occasionally guide how I act.

On the other hand, I don't really feel that as coercive. The love-ethic imperative that Jesus taught is just an inescapable part of the fabric of all being. That there are ontological consequences of living by it is, for me, no more forced than the breaths that I must take to maintain consciousness. Sure, I could resent breathing. I could be annoyed that I'm forced into the process of respiration, and shake my fist at my Maker for coercing me into filling my lungs without ever first consulting me or respecting my free will. I could fight the power, hold my breath, and pitch a defiant hissy until I pull a total faceplant.

But that would be pointless. Stupid, even.

Just as organic life is maintained by the processes of breathing, so justice, peace, and our place in the fabric of God's creation are established by our participation in the ethic of love that radically defines us. That's not coercion. It's just the Way of things.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ronald Reagan Was My Favorite Founding Father

The news out of the great state of Texas lately has been all about history. Or, rather, the version of history that the conservative Texas school board wants to present. After deep concern was raised with some of the perceived liberal spin on the curriculum, politicians in the Lone Star State have decided to mandate the teaching of certain elements of history in their textbooks.

Now, I'm not opposed to absolutely everything they're doing. I think rejecting a proposal to teach the importance of hip hop in the early 21st century was probably for the best. Yeah, I know, progressives are supposed to get all melty at the profound cultural ramifications of Lil' Wayne. Lord knows there are plenty of dissertations out there about the Sociopolitical Subtexts of "She's a Ryder." But ultimately, it seems as historically significant as the Lindy. Meaning, it's a footnote, or a little pull-out box.

But much of the rest of their proposals are just a Lil Crazy. There is, of course, the requisite Reagan hagiography, as American conservatism continues to celebrate the 20th centuries' least sentient president. There is also a new mandated defense of McCarthyism, coupled with a requirement to present the inaugural address of Jefferson Davis alongside that of Lincoln's. Thomas Jefferson has been deemed inadequately Christian, so out he goes. Similarly, there's to be a de-emphasis on the Enlightenment's role in American revolutionary thought. The word "democracy" has also been booted, in favor of "republic." I'm sure this has nothing to do with the fact that the board is Republican.

This is deeply annoying, sure. But it's a profoundly human habit. It is, in fact, quite Biblical. Take, for instance, the significant thematic differences between the Deuteronomic books of Samuel/Kings and the Chronicles. In 1 and 2 Samuel, which is an older record, King David is presented as gifted, passionate, musical, and charismatic. He is also presented as being deeply complex, filled with Clintonian desires of the flesh, tormented by loss and betrayal, and strongarmed by his Machiavellian majordomo Joab. At the end of his life, the Deuteronomist's historical account shows him as feeble and helpless, an impotent shell of himself, manipulated by Bathesheba and Nathan into giving power to Solomon.

But the Chronicler, who was writing at the time of the building of the Second Temple, well, they've got a totally different picture of David. As the archetypal King over Israel in a time when Israel was looking for heroes, David needed to be perfect. So all of the imperfections kinda sorta got edited away. David became the King of Kings, the noblest and wisest and most perfect King that ever has been. Those awkward stories about sex and betrayal and loss? Never heard 'em. David was for the Chronicler what Reagan is for today's conservatives: A Perfect Head of Hair On The Dear Leader of the Shining City on a Hill.

Problem is, when we wander away from the real, and start turning the complexities of the human story into perfect airbrushed's not a good thing. In the absence of the real, and in the absence of at least striving for objectivity, societies have a tendency to fail to self-correct. And folks who uncritically consume their own propaganda invariably end up in Very Bad Places.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Faith and Coercion

My recent musings about voluntarism lead me, inevitably, to think about the role of coercion and social pressure in religion.

As in anything that involves human beings, participation in religious communities is often something folks do because they've been made to do it. This goes well beyond the "Oh Yes You ARE Going to Church Today, Young Man" hectoring that occurs nearly every Sunday morning in every Christian family that has a tweener.

Coercion to participate in religious life goes far deeper than mom threatening to take away your screen time. For many, it has deep sociological and theological roots.

Sociologically, that coercion occurs in communities that have religious homogeneity. If you're in certain portions of the American South, you just go to church. It's what people do. If you don't, there are significant social judgments made, and significant pressures applied. It's not quite the same in practice as the pressure to be a Shiite in Iran, but the essential principle is the same. You are faithful because you will be culturally penalized if you aren't.

The same can be true in microcosm within a faith community. If those who are part of your immediate circle all hew to a particular creed, that creed can easily be conflated with the bonds of friendship and family. If you don't believe, then, honey, you are so getting cut off. If you question or resist, we won't like you any more! No more Ski Trips for Little Ms. Questions!

Theologically, religion can be coerced through the implicit and explicit threat of eternal existential narstiness to be inflicted upon the heretic and infidel. For those with a spiritual bent, this can be a terrifying thing. One's whole life can be woven up wracked with fear at the many ways you may not be adequate, and the fires of Hades are brought out again and again like a damnation sorority paddle, which is then applied vigorously to the tushies of backsliders. Better do what Pastor says, sinner.

That theology, though, is the theology of the Law. It's just a way of enforcing compliance, and as such, it's a form of worldly power. Legal structures stand on the foundation of the coercive power that underlies them. They draw their power from the knowledge that they will be enforced, and that failure to comply with them will result in unpleasantness. But even though it is practiced by fundamentalists and condemned by atheists, coercive theology is not meaningfully Christian.

We are, after all, no longer under the sway of the Law. The next time you hear someone going on about believing so you don't have to dip your sorry behind in the Lake of Fire, it's helpful to remember that this really ain't the point of the Gospel.

Fox News: Balanced Between the Pernicious and the Absurd

One of my favorite portions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church...and yes, I have favorite portions...dates from way, way back in 1789. It's that little bit early on about the importance of seeking truth, and how important that yearning for the true is to a life lived according to the standards of goodness and holiness. It states:
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior's rule, "By their fruits ye shall know them." And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd that than which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it. (G-1.0304)
This has always struck me as one of the most helpful portions of our often-dry constitution. Seeking truth and fighting through the filters of our selfish subjectivity tends to make us more open to loving those who are different. Those who care about the truth have a tendency to bear the fruits of the grace that Christ proclaimed.

Today, I stumbled across a particularly egregious-feeling bit of not-truth, one that troubled me deeply. It was over

Yeah, I know. Misrepresentation? On Fox? Surprise, surprise. But as much as I find Fox distasteful, they are still among the top 10 sources of online news. So for many, what they say is, well, news. It defines the perception of reality of a significant portion of the Yoo Ess of Ey.

The bit that caught my eye had this tagline: "Not Again: Meet Obama's Controversial New Pastor." To which I said, "Huh?" I know President Obama has been seriously slack in getting his sorry behind to church. As a pastor and DC denizen, I know he's not made a church selection...and, the way I see it, is unlikely to. So how could he have a new pastor?

Well...he doesn't. Not in any meaningful sense. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The pastor in question is Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical and the founder of Sojourner's magazine. Rev. Wallis, though certainly liberal, is a pretty moderate voice. Wallis recently came out against some amazingly ignorant comments that had been made by Glenn Beck about "social justice," in which Beck had condemned a social justice emphasis as both fascistic and communist, and told folks to basically bail on any church that ever quoted from the Gospel of Luke.

So now, in a non-editorial piece that presents itself as news, Fox has declared that Jim Wallis isn't a "progressive evangelical." He is, instead, a "socialist activist who has championed communist causes." Sojourners, the magazine he publishes, is "a far-left magazine" that has, unsurprisingly, also "championed communist causes."

This really rather remarkable bit of 50s throwback agitprop comes to Fox unfiltered from an affiliated right wing group. It represents a perspective so utterly consumed by it's own worldview that the reality of who Jim Wallis is becomes irrelevant. Such a willful disregard for truth isn't just a bit of spin. It's not the sort of thing where you can say, well, gawrsh, that's just my opinion. I'm entitled to my OPINION, aren't I?

Perhaps, in so far as we all have the freedom to misrepresent and deceive to serve our own interests. In doing so, though, the fruits we bear are the farthest thing from the gracious and the holy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I Hate Community Service

I wended my way back to the local clothing closet today, to spend a few more hours sorting and prepping clothing for folks in need in and around the county where my church is located. It was a rather sparse day for the center, as it was pouring rain...hardly the sort of weather that brings out folks who are struggling financially.

It was a good time to get stuff done, and I got into a crankin' groove, racking jumpers and pants and sweaters in a functional voluntaristic Tai Chi. After sorting and hanging several racks full of clothes, one of the clients who was just sorta hanging around watching me work decided it might be less boring if she helped out. "You're working all by yourself, honey? They've left you all alone? Lemme help out!"

She was a youngish African American woman with a big swatch of blue died into her hair, and she and I passed a few genial moments. She'd worked up until about six months ago, until she got sick and couldn't work. She didn't have kids, but loved 'em. As we sorted through little donated jackets and tiny skirts and dresses, she cooed and laughed, and called over to a very young Latina with a toddler on her hip whenever something struck her as particularly cute. "Hey, Chica! OOOOH!" She dangled a little skirt just the right size for the little girl. "Es muy bonita!" She was helping out. Making someone's day. Feeling useful. "I like this," she announced to everyone and anyone. "I'm going to do this again."

As I vacuumed up the place after closing time, there was a little cluster of local teens hovering around the center manager. They'd been there the whole time, and been working more-or-less diligently. Now, though, it was time for them to get paid. Meaning, they were getting the community service hours mandated by the county school system. "I've been here since eleven-thirty," one said. I should get three and a half hours." The manager seemed skeptical. Negotiations ensued. Forms were filled out. More negotiations ensued.

I've always disliked the community service requirement that seems to have spread throughout the school systems in my area since I graduated from high school. The idea, of course, is that requiring community service of all students as a prerequisite for graduation will teach the value of voluntarism. In order to graduate from high school in the county, you need 60 hours of service this year...which will be upped to 75 hours of service in 2011.

While this is certainly well-meaning, it's always struck me as a bit off. Why? Well, to start with, mandated voluntarism is an oxymoron. If you're being forced to serve, it ain't volunteering. It also doesn't seem to reflect the why of a service ethic. It can't be about racking up the hours. The act itself is the benefit. You serve because you're moved by the value of service. It's something you do out of the desire to help, for the simple joy of being a part of something that you recognize as valuable.

At some point, someone has to introduce you to it, true. My parents were the ones who nudged me into service ministry at my home church, and I was quickly hooked. In a world full of meaningless self-seeking and back-biting, here was something real, entered into without coercion, for the simple pleasure of serving another.

But the moment you make it a mandate, the moment you impose upon it coercion or the dynamics of a paid transaction, you've abandoned the ethic that calls people to volunteer. What this teaches, I fear, is that the reason to volunteer has everything to do with requirements and obligations and mandates. That approach may get teens into the shelters and clothing closets and food pantries. What it would seem less likely to do is get the adults that they become to choose to participate in the organizations that are the heart of our communities and the hope of those in need.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Snyder vs. Phelps and the Price of Freedom

It was perhaps inevitable that America's third most relentless attention hogs (Hi, Glenn! Hi, Sarah!) should make their way back into the baleful glare of the national limelight.

This last week, the Supreme Court began consideration of a case against Westboro Baptist, that sad dark cult of intensive hatred that blights Topeka, Kansas and is misused to assail the entire reputation of Christian faith. One of the many families who lost a soldier-son in recent conflict filed suit against Phelps after his family engaged in one of their trademarked hate-fests outside of the young man's funeral. After an initial $5 million dollar verdict for inflicting emotional distress, an appellate court overturned the award. Now it has come before the highest court in the land.

The issue is freedom of speech. Phelps and his brood are justifiably despised by essentially everyone. Even the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Phelps, described his activities as "highly offensive" and "repugnant." But the broader ruling asserted that the speech was "intended to spark debate about issues," and was therefore protected speech.

I can appreciate the intent of the Circuit Court argument, and think that ultimately it's necessary to permit even the speech of nasty pieces of work like Phelps if we take free speech seriously.

That said, I do wonder if the idea that this speech serves the cause of debate is know...true. Discussion and debate are not really things that the Phelps clan care a whit about. They are opening an exchange, sure. But they aren't opening a discussion or a debate. Not really.

Let's say I start a conversation with the phrase: "You are a worthless piece of ****, and you and your mother****ing piece of **** dead child can just **** my ****." That's not an invitation to have a discussion or a debate. It's an invitation for you to give me a little closed-fist dental work. What Phelps is doing is simply that, with a slight gloss of "religion." It's just being abusive and nasty-truculent.

That's not to say that plenty of folks aren't under the misconception that being cruel and hostile somehow constitutes debate. Tens of thousands of internet trolls seem to think precisely that. But while disagreement can get intense even within the bounds of normal political discussion, there is a point we reach when it ceases to be part of the dynamic tension of democracy. It's just screaming and tearing and brokenness.

Ah well. Maintaining even the freedom of those who have no respect for others is necessary for freedom itself to be maintained.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tribes and Cultural Christianity

In the last week, there's been a spate of particularly ugly news coming out of West Africa. Meaning, it's something that most Americans are utterly unaware even happened. There's just no room for it in our brains, what with March Madness and the Oscars, so why even bother putting it on the air?

The news comes from Nigeria, a country where my folks lived for several years, and which I had the opportunity to visit on several occasions many moons ago. In and around the town of Jos, a group of Muslims attacked Christians, shooting and hacking to death several hundred people. It's a reprisal for a similar attack undertaken by bands of Christians, and part of a long cycle of interreligious violence in that region. It is, or so it might appear, yet another example of the brutality that folks inflict on one another in the name of God. Look at the bloodshed that faith causes, one might say. If there were no religions to divide people in the name of God, then the world would be a much better place, one might say.

Problem is, that's not what is at play here. The Muslims were all Fulani tribespeople. The Christians were all Berom tribespeople. The recent attacks seem to be related to the theft of some livestock a while back, which was followed by reprisals, which were followed by more reprisals. The Berom all are Christian, but they also are ethnically and linguistically separate from the Fulani, and have been so since before Jesus and Mohammed showed up in that part of sub-Saharan Africa.

The violence has to do with the thing that causes most human conflict...that tendency for groups to organize around a shared identity that differentiates them from other groups. The most elemental of those groupings is that of blood, as our bond to family becomes the most significant Us. We are the Hatfields! What was your last name again, stranger? On another level come the bonds that come from shared culture and land. We are American! We Support Our Troops (tm)! On yet another come the bonds that come from mutual interest. We are the West Burlington Knitting Society! Death to the East Burlington Knitting Society!

When faith is delimited by the particular forms and expectations of a given culture or society, then it can become yet another rationale to shore up hatreds driven by blood and material possession. That, as I've been opining of late, is one of the more radical things about what Jesus taught.

The bonds of blood and language and culture...even the bonds of religious self-identification...are things that Jesus explicitly rejected. It is the hated Samaritan who is offered as the highest model of grace. It is the Syrophonecian woman who Jesus yields to in a serious breach of gender and ethnic protocol, in front of his disciples no less. It is the pagan Roman centurion's child who is healed.

When we start viewing Christianity as functionally identical to our culture, when it becomes yet another Us that permits hatred of those who are Not Us, then we've lost our Way.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Violence, Gaming, and the Circus

I am, as a pastor and a gamer, rather selective about what I play.

This does not mean that I'm persnickity about only playing certain gaming genres. I play 'em all. Real time strategy? Love it. Turn-based strategy? Sometimes that slower pace is just what the doctor ordered. Tactical combat shooters? Sure, why not. Role playing games? Yup. Tower-defense? Oh yeah. Side-scrollers? Uh-huh. Nifty little free flash-based physics games? Oh my goodness. Don't click on this link, or you ain't gonna get nuthin' done today.

But as I select my virtual diversions, I find that I'm attentive to the gestalt or the feel of the games I'll play. That means I find myself setting certain boundaries around my gaming, boundaries that reflect both my interests but also my ethical framework.

Take, for instance, my approach to violence in gaming. I am, in the real world, not particularly fond of bloodshed. The reality of war harbors no appeal for me, and is radically opposed to the ethic of lovingkindness that stands at the center of Christ's teachings. In the actuality of the meatspace world, I'm not fond of either violence or aggression.

But I'm perfectly willing to play games that simulate combat. Why? Because as a male homo sapiens sapiens, I find the competition invigorating. I am perfectly willing to fire a TOW missile into a hapless cluster of circling noobs in Warhawk, or lob a virtual grenade into a bunker in Battlefield 1943, because it's just sport. It's ritualized combat, in which the human desire for competition is sublimated into a non-lethal and mutually enjoyable pastime. Some martial games, like the turn-based combat strategy game Valkyria Chronicles, are actually notably moral. I've been playing through that watercolor-Japanime game for the last month, and marvel at how it's narrative arc explores themes of racism, loss, and the humanity intrinsic in even an apparently faceless enemy.

That said, there are games that I know I will never play. These are the games that don't just present combat, but actively celebrate brutality. It doesn't matter for me if they have received astoundingly good reviews for both their technical prowess and the huge adrenaline rush they provide. I just won't touch them, because I have this deep heart reaction to my immersion in them. They're not spiritually healthy.

Take, for instance, the recent release of the final game in the God of War series. God of War III has arrived to absolutely boffo reviews. But ain't never that game gonna show up on my PS3. Why? Because one of the things that makes it so much "fun" is an endless stream of visceral, brutal killings. Hear the neck bones of your opponents pop as you break their spines in Dolby 5.1 surround! Watch in full 1080p HD as you rip the eye of your enemy clean out of it's socket! As the review at Gamespot gleefully puts it, the game causes equal parts "...nausea and sadistic joy." That has no place in my gaming repertoire.

I'm also unlikely to play the recently released game Bayonetta, which included as a centerpiece a hypersexualized protagonist who dispatched her enemies using magically-summoned instruments of torture, some of which are the same horrid implements that sit in the dark underground rooms of the world's despots and monsters. This trend in gaming seems to follow a familiar pattern. It's an old, old pattern, that path towards the more extreme and outrageous, for the thrill that is harder and harder to find as we grow more and more numbed by what has come before. It's our own virtual Circus, not in the Ringling Brothers way, but in the Roman way. Where once wrestling and races were enough, now even eviscerating a Christian or two seems BOOOO-RIING unless we get a slo-mo bullet-time close-up.

Sure, it's not real. But the stories we tell and the tales we hear and the things we see define us, even if they're entirely simulated.

From that knowledge, games that celebrate the monstrous, the gruesome and the brutal have no place in my little wall of entertainment. Garbage in, Garbage out, as they say.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Anarchism, Violence, and the Law of Liberty

Over the last few months, there've been some dark and disturbing echoes of the early 1990s. Back then, the political dynamics of American society echoed with the shouting of the Angry White Man. Because people were mad as hell, and weren't going to take it anymore. Mad about what? Well, you name it. They were mad about the Man. They were mad because they felt out of control of their lives. They were mad because things were changing, and they felt that this wasn't their country anymore, and dammit, someone out there was to blame.

That inchoate, formless, aimless rage was mostly directed against the gummint, and was tolerated right up until Timothy McVeigh detonated his van next to the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The bloody reality that the rhetoric created tamped down the hatred for a while...or at least the public acceptance of that form of speech.

Now, many Americans are up in arms about health care auguring in the Union of Soviet American States. There are again twitchings towards force of arms to resist the taking away of our fundamental right to be bankrupted by little Billy's hernia operation. Obama's election really did rile folks up, and the rhetoric on the blogs of America's ultra-conservatives has again become almost indistinguishable from the manifestos written by McVeigh.

Truth be told, the kamikaze attack on the IRS building in Texas and the recent shooting at the Pentagon aren't really Tea Party related. Both attackers were libertarian/anarchist, with a healthy dose of plain ol' disturbed human being thrown into the mix.

The challenge, of course, is that the radical and anarchic individualism that lives deep in the American id can swiftly turn to the use of force to fight the powers that be. It's a classic tool of the anarchist on both left and right, as sabotage and terror are used to undermine the power structures that oppress. You can't build a new world where you're free to do whatever you damn well please without doing some ending-of-the Fight Club destruction, or so the argument goes. Put on your black bandana! pour yourself a Molotov cocktail! You need to blow it all up, tear it all down, and then do a tabula rasa hard restart.

Problem is, this perspective doesn't strike me as truly anarchic. Anarchy is, as I grasp it from my admittedly Jesusy perspective, the radical opposition to human beings having coercive power over other human beings. It stands against both cultural and economic power structures because those power structures are almost invariably used to aggregate power in the hands of a few. It isn't really a particular socio-economic system, because the underlying assumptions of both societies and markets depend on coercive power.

The popular image of the anarchist, which many self-proclaimed anarchists have embraced, is completely at odds with the core ethic of anarchy. For those who reject the power of government and the market, the use of violence to resist that power means that you have internalized and are acting upon the very ethic of coercive power that you purport to reject. Inflicting harm or the use of violence to bring about a particular end is totally at odds with renouncing power over others.

When an angry soul strikes out against the Fed, or the IRS, or Wall Street, or the Pentagon, they aren't serving the cause of freedom from coercion. They are only showing that they haven't really internalized their resistance to power, and that they don't understand the Law of Liberty.

Which, I suppose, makes the Amish the only true anarchists. Or perhaps the Shakers.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Westboro Atheist Church

I keep my RSS ears on in the atheistic blogosphere, mostly because if there's an issue or a challenge confronting the faith community, that's a great place to read about it. In particular, I listen in over at the friendlyatheist, a blog written by humanistic math teacher Hemant Mehta. Mehta's the guy who once famously "sold his soul on eBay," meaning, he took bids from churches in return for a promise to attend their worship.

Over the last few days, there's been some debate there about the "Smut for Smut" campaign on the part of an atheistic student organization in Texas. In the event you haven't heard of this one, it involves a pretty simple transaction. If you bring a sacred text to the table the group has set up on campus, they will happily let you trade it in for the pornography of your choice.

Their point is simple: religious texts are filthy, nasty, dirty things, and are essentially the same thing as the "smut" that religious people find so bothersome. Therefore, atheists can to show theists just how misguided they are by being as intentionally offensive and insulting as possible.

I'm not sure quite how many Christians have been dissuaded from their faith by this event. Given the dynamics of human nature, I'd say, oh, probably none. Folks have taken offense, and many may have gotten into a lather about it. Look at these UNBELIEVERS! DESECRATING GOD'S WORD!

Honestly, though, I'm not bothered by it as a Christian. Measured against the vastness of the Creator's work, it's an entirely meaningless thing. Yeah, pornography creates a deeply unrealistic and ultimately destructive view of human sexuality. Yes, it's an intentional effort to offend. But it is no more philosophically meaningful than that dude at the county fair dunking booth who hollers insults at your wife. It's just an attempt to get attention, and it does that quite effectively. I don't care what you say, clown-boy. I'm saving my money for the funnel cake.

Mmmm. Funnel cake....

But as a reasoning person, it bugs me. There is so much of value in humanistic ethics, so much that could be positively expressed. Screaming insults and intentionally offending others might be atheistic, but it is not rational or humanistic. Yes, it gets attention, in the same way that everyone gathers around a fight in the school cafeteria. As a means for changing either individuals or culture, though, it is profoundly counterproductive.

This sort of monkey-poo stunting is the dark psychotronic performance art specialty of the Westboro Baptist Church. It is a form of self-expression that calls attention to itself, but not with the purpose of changing the perspective of the other. It exists to exacerbate and heighten conflict with the Enemy, whoever the Enemy happens to be. In doing so, it reinforces the bright line boundaries between the Us, who are correct, and the Them, who are horrible in every way.

Across the little flicker of screams and swords and shouting that is human history, this approach has never, ever, ever worked. Jesus people, at least those who pay attention to what he taught, already know this. But rational folks know it too.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Christian Atheism and the Golden Rule

Following on from yesterday's post, the exploration of the paradoxymoronic concept of the Christian Atheist continues. Though there is clearly no textual basis for making the claim that Jesus wanted us to be secular humanists, there is always that "Be a Good Person" argument for those wanting to be Atheistic Christians. We can be good without God, or so the billboards posted by atheistic organizations proclaim. Just be nice to other people, and things all fall into place.

For the person professing to be a Christian Atheist, one of the ways to avoid major neural crashes engendered by irreconcilable cognitive dissonance is to say: "Anyone who approaches the teachings of Jesus with an honest and open mind knows that the Golden Rule is the primary point and purpose of Christianity. I don't believe in all this Sky Daddy Easter Bunny Superstitious Nonsense, but the ethic Jesus taught was basically just for us to treat other people the way we want to be treated. I'm down with that, therefore, I'm a follower of Jesus who just happens not to believe in God."

I'm not about to start frothing and foaming about this perspective. I'm not going to give a long rant about not being WAAASHED IN THE BLOOOD OF JEEESUS. In fact, I'm not even going to say it's evil and damnable, because I don't think it is. Folks who live out their lives governed by an ethic of compassion and love for neighbor aren't enemies of Jesus or his followers. That's true of Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. It's even true of atheists. When that Day arrives, quite frankly, those who just can't do the faith thing but do unto others the way Jesus taught aren't necessarily toast. We know so 'cause Jesus said so, and it's His call, not ours.

However, that does not make those folks Christian.

To be Christian, you need to be radically governed by the Great Commandment. It is our One Law, the single measure of our faith that defines and guides every other aspect of our faith. But the Great Commandment is not just "love your neighbor as yourself." It is, as Jesus taught it, far more radical than that. To be that "highest ethic" Thomas Jefferson declared it to be, it needs to be more radical. So let's take a hard look at the Golden Rule.

When you present the Golden Rule to an atheist with a chip surgically implanted in their shoulder, one of the typical responses you'll hear is, "Yeah, well, that's a really sucky morality. What if I don't want for myself the same things you want? What if you're just imposing your own sociocultural perspective of 'love' on me, and I have another perspective? What about that? Huh? Huh? That's why Jesus is a dumb loser stinkypants and you are too." They'll typically throw the word "fallacy" in there somewhere, too, because it's a Very Smart Word.

Though this could be construed as WAAAAY overthinking the Golden Rule, it actually has legitimacy philosophically. Loving others can easily be interpreted in such a way that it permits acts of violence or spiritual abuse. "I only yell at you because I know what's right for you. I'd yell at me, too, if I was doing what you're doing." In this instance, the "right" is typically an attitude that is, in fact, mediated by culture and society. Even the structures of our ethical reasoning are frequently mediated by those biases.

But the ethic that Jesus taught didn't hinge on just treating others in the way that we expect is right. That Great Commandment has two inextricably interrelated components. Love your neighbor? Sure. That's part two. But before that, we are told to "love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul." This theocentric grounding radicalizes the love commandment, because in giving ourselves over to that first element, a Christian experiences the Golden Rule in an interesting way.

The engagement of our whole being in the love of God has a continually iconoclastic effect. It is the great shatterer of idols, and by idols I mean the false godlings of society, culture, and self. God is not to be confused with cultic practice, or with doctrine, or with dogma. God is not to be confused with ethnic identity or political orientation or material prosperity or nationalistic pride. God...if we're being orthodox about it...cannot be conflated with any category that exists within the bounds of space and time. That orientation becomes, as Christian existentialist Paul Tillich would have described it, an "ultimate concern," one that forever drives us towards progressing and deepening our love of others.

That means, in terms of our practice of the love ethic, that the Christian is called to resist the desire to love only those who share our worldview. Christian orthopraxis requires us to apply lovingkindness in a way that is mindful of the needs and perpectives of those who are not Us. As Jesus taught it in the first century Near East, that included those who were outside of the boundaries that defined his culture. We are to love the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean, and the Samaritans. We are to love and show kindness to those who are set utterly against us. This ethos transcends ethos itself...and as such, it's as radical a morality as possible.

Christian atheism does not get us there. If our orientation towards the numinous mysterium tremens et fascinans of our Maker is removed, then the Christian ethic is not authentically presented. What you get instead is not evil, necessarily. It may quite possibly be good.

But it cannot meaningfully claim to be what Jesus taught.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Christian Atheism

My blog musings from this last month with a Presbyterian pastor who has come to believe that atheism and Christianity are perfectly reconcilable have engendered some interesting conversations around the dinner table and with church folk.

The lay pastor of my church, a big-hearted Korean evangelical, shook his head in dismay, and lamented the decline of the PC(USA). My Jewish sons, upon hearing of that idea, were both totally unable to process it. "You can't be both! They're exact opposites!" One of the saints of my church, whose faith is an endearingly idiosyncratic fusion of Christianity and New Age practice, was hornswoggled. "But that totally misses the point!" My Danish brother-in-law, an agnostic steeped in classical philosophy, queried, "Doesn't that piss you off? It seems to entirely violate the integrity of what you do."

So...well...does it? Without casting any aspersions or making judgments about a particular person, can one be simultaneously Christian and atheist? I've got a reasonably flexible and open interpretation of what our faith entails, so what might be the grounds for claiming to be a Jesus-follower and rejecting the reality of God?

As I see it, those grounds might be twofold:

First, it requires the assumption that Jesus saw himself primarily as a storytelling teacher of ethical wisdom. His goal was not the salvation of humankind, but was instead to teach a new way for human beings to live in harmony with one another. This is the Jesus we might recognize from the Jefferson Bible, Mistah Jeffahson's effort to edit out every single miracle and supernatural event in the Gospels, leaving only what he called "..the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

Second, it asserts that the heart of the Christian walk is the Golden Rule. If the essence of what it means to be Christian is a life lived in accord with love of neighbor and...more of enemy, then to be Christian all one needs to do is to manifest those traits. If you live by that great ethic, then you can rightly call yourself a Christian, even if you overtly and expressly ditch the whole "God" thing as an unnecessary and quaint relic of a less enlightened age.

I can see some truth in both of these statements, but think that they both fall short of the mark.

In response to point number one, there is the rather pesky witness of Jesus himself. None of the the writings that the Christian community has accepted as canonical present us with a Jesus who presents himself as a straight up storyteller sage. Not a single one. His teachings are radically theocentric. In the synoptic gospels, that manifests itself in his focus on the Kingdom of God. In the Johannine Gospel, his teachings focus on himself, and his existential intermingling with both God and the Holy Spirit.

But what about those other voices? The ones that the early community rejected? The ones They Don't Want You To Hear (tm)? Maybe they give us grounds to argue that Jesus was primarily a teacher of ethics.

Nope. If we move outside of canon, and into the non-canonical witness, Jesus does not get less spiritual. In fact, those "rejected" Gospels (like the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) are all hyperspiritual, full of mysteries and miracles and whispered secret magic.

Even Jefferson's Miracle Free Bible is not atheistic. If you retain only the teachings of Jesus, and delete every single manifestation of the supernatural, you are left with teachings and stories that invariably center on right relationship with God. Had Jefferson ditched those stories, he'd have been left with only a meaningless pastiche of sentence fragments.

One can still argue for a God-free Jesus, of course. But that argument is not based in anything other than the Albert Schweitzer debunked desire for Jesus to be a reflection of you, rather than being open to what even the Jesus-seminar bean counters will admit was probably the heart of his teachings.

But what about the moral argument? If the Golden Rule is the beating ethical heart of Christian faith, then can't you adhere to that, ditch all the superstitious claptrap, and still be following Jesus?

I'll get to that in my next post.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Israel, Palestine, Impartiality and Intractable Conflict

Both of my sons are Jewish, and they as of yet have not visited Israel. One of these days, I want to be able to go there with them. But for pretty much the whole span of my 41 years of life, Israel has not seemed like the sort of place that a responsible parent brings their kids. Brief periods of peace are interspersed with intense paroxysms of violence.

You've got hatreds that go back generations. You've got competing claims on the land. You've got radically different faith perspectives, which weave up into those claims on the land. But it's not just Israel and the Palestinians. You've got a broader situation in the Middle East that is insanely convoluted, in which a significant proportion of the Arab world can barely be grudgingly dragged to admitting Israel has any right to exist at all.

The Holy Land is a total sociopolitical mess. Same as it ever was...

All this adds up to a conflict between parties that every now and again drops from level five to level four, but then pops right back up again, like one of the torments of Tantalus if he'd been a conflict mediation specialist. Worst of all, you have forces on both sides that actively draw their energy from the conflict. They create and feed the tensions as a means of reinforcing their own vision of the world, existing in a dark symbiosis with their counterparts.

In this situation of conflict, my own denomination struggles to find a consistent voice. On our left flank, there are folks who see the oppression of Palestinian Christians and see an opportunity to get all social justicey, just like back in the 60s when they still had hair. They tend to gloss over wrongs inflicted by the "side" they've chosen. On the right, there are those whose theological framework assumes that the existence of Israel is necessary for the return of Christ, and who give theological preference to Jews says so in the Bible. They, too, are unwilling to recognize where their "side" may overstep the bounds of justice.

The heat of that struggle has occasionally burned/caught up folks of a Presbyterian ilk...and is in the midst of doing so again. A few years, back, we dabbled with the idea of divestment from military ventures in Israel...and got burned. More recently, some of our more lefty folks have come perilously close to endorsing suicide bombings. It's rocky terrain, and when we venture there, we have trouble maintaining our balance.

At our last General Assembly, Presbyterians of my particular flavor adopted as policy a statement of essential neutrality, and established a commission to take a look at what we could do to further peaceful resolution of the conflict in that region. That's the right approach.

The challenge, of course, is really implementing it. As this commission reaches the point at which it is to make it's report, it's really, really difficult to remain authentically impartial. You know, in the same way that the Maker is impartial.

There are some concerns that the results of the Committee report might be imbalanced. But given that it's not even out yet, I'm still awaiting it. Maybe it'll be even-handed. Maybe it'll skew one way or another. I can't imagine it will be quite as skewed as a recent pre-emptive pronouncement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center would have us believe, though. The Presbyterian Church is "ready to declare war against Israel?" Without even reading a report which has not even been released?

Oy. Level Five is so very predictable.

For me, that desire for an end to tensions isn't just an abstract yearning to do good somewhere, somehow. It goes deeper, because it's about my own flesh and blood. From that, though, I recognize my own stirrings towards imbalance. It's hard to sympathize with folks who reflexively hate your children.

But even in the face of that, I recognize that the intense complexity of the situation on the ground calls for avoiding any and all efforts to paint things in black and white. Because that approach doesn't allow for the intermingling and interchange that is absolutely necessary if any movement towards peace is to be found.