Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Sentinelese and Jesus

We've moved on, now, because things are only relevant for a few moments in our low-attention-span culture.

Yet today I found myself reflecting again on the death of John Allen Chau, an evangelical missionary who attempted to bring the message of Jesus to a notoriously violent tribe on an isolated island in the Sentinel island chain.

He was killed, of course, because that's what that Sentinelese tribe does to anyone who steps on their shores.

Was he naive and foolish?  Perhaps.  You can't convey anything to a people if you don't speak their language.  If you know that, and still go? Sigh.

Do I share the theological assumptions that drove his obsessive pursuit of this people?  Not entirely.  I'm sure he fretted that their souls would be lost forever if they didn't hear the Gospel and take Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  That terror for the souls of unbelievers has been around for quite a while, inculcated into evangelicals at an early age.

But I found myself struggling more deeply with the response of some progressive Christians to his death.  There was clucking and shaming...on #twitter, of course, because that's what that medium does to our souls.  There was this odd willingness to condemn Chau for...for what?

For trying to share the Gospel, because colonialism racism indigenous peoples something something.  There were folks going so far as to describe him as manifesting a "white supremacist Christianity," which is odd, given that Chau wasn't actually "white," not by any current variant of that pernicious, false category.

From the current ideological framework of the decadent American Left, though, he was in the wrong.  But if you're a left-leaning Christian, there's going to be an inherent dissonance in your thinking on this one.  Because, well, let's look at the Sentinelese for a moment.  What do we know about them?  Meaning, let's set aside the odd skew of ideology, and consider them.

We know that they're "indigenous," meaning they're from there, having migrated from Africa centuries ago.

We know they're socioculturally isolated, with a language that is functionally unknown.

We know that they are few in number, with perhaps no more than 200 total individuals, and possibly as few as 40.  This means...after dozens of generations of isolation...that they are a genetically compromised population.  They're inbred, and likely to become more so.  Think about the locals in Deliverance.  I mean, really.  That's them.

We know absolutely nothing about their belief system, other than this:

Like the Deliverance locals, they murder outsiders.  That's their response to the stranger and the Other.  They murder them.  They've killed local fishermen whose boats have failed.  If you washed up on their shore after a plane crash, hungry and desperate with your clothes in tatters, they would murder you.

Chau was there to tell them about Jesus.  That was his thing, and in the dwindling, dying wing of progressive Christianity, proselytizing is a bad thing.  But...did the Sentinelese know that?

No.  No they didn't.

They had absolutely no idea why John Allen Chau was there.  They couldn't understand a word he was saying.  They knew he was Other, and so they killed him.

Herein lies the tension that seems oddly unaddressed by those Christians who wish to posthumously scold Chau.  If you believe that colonialism racism indigenous peoples something something gives a people the right to murder strangers, then that belief lies in tension with your claim to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  Such a community is not "good," not if "good" is understood in Christian moral terms.

Let's set aside the "getting saved" angle for a moment.

From what Christian ethical basis is the slaughter of the Other permissible?  Where, in the Gospels or Epistles, is permission given to attack and kill the stranger?

There are such texts, certainly.  You can go to the Deuteronomic histories, or to some of the more challenging scriptures in Torah.  You can make the case that the Zealots made, or that Ezra made when he demanded that foreigners be cast out so that the people could be pureblooded.  But is that where you wish to be?

The challenge, for the Christian Left, is this: there is nothing about the Sentinelese response to the Chau that jibes with the Gospel.  Nothing.  It's a fundamental Matthew 25 violation.  It was "tribal" in the worst way, insular and violent and brutal.

Does such a community have no need of the teachings of Jesus?  What about their cultural/ethical response to the stranger is inherently worth preserving?

It's as radically wrong and as in need of the Way of Jesus as, say, refusing to allow a shipload of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis to land on your shores.  Or teargassing asylum seekers at the border.  Or letting a little girl die of thirst in your custody.

Such an odd, odd dissonance.

Friday, December 7, 2018

How I Learned to Love the "Vengeful Old Testament God"

For over a month now, I've been leading the Adult Education class of my wee kirk on a long, careful reading through the Psalms, those ancient spiritual songs of the Hebrew people.   Though we typically read one each week in our liturgy, it's rare that we stop and savor them, and it's been a remarkably interesting journey.

Part of the reason it's been so fascinating is the wild shifts in voice and tonality that comes from this millennia-spanning collection of sacred lyrics.  The Book of Psalms speaks from so many different contexts.  You've got personal anguish.  You've got pride in the power of the monarch.  You've got pride in the inherent blessedness of a nation.  You've got wisdom.  You've got woe.  You've got celebrations of creation, and wedding marches.

And intermixed in there, you've got a whole bunch of songs calling on God to kick in the teeth of those who oppose us.  My class has particularly struggled with these, as have I. 

Generally, the spiritual read we get from those texts is...nothing.  They feel more than a little brutish, more than a little petty, pulling the Creator of the Universe down to the level of our endless human squabbles.   It's easy, as one reads, to simply attribute such things to what is often described as the "Vengeful Old Testament God," which is to be distinguished from what theologians call the "Sparklefairy Wuv New Testament God."

I've never been comfortable with this distinction.  First, it diminishes Judaism, whitewashing the fundamental interconnection between the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and the person of Jesus.  This is just not kosher, so to speak.  Second, it assumes the Gospels and Epistles contain within them no smiting or wrath, which just ain't true.  Spend thirty seconds in the Book of Revelation, and you just can't miss that.  And if we're honest about the Parables of Jesus, well, they ain't exactly My Little Pony videos.

Where the Psalms start talking about personal or sociopolitical violence, it has always felt, to be honest, more like projection on the part of various Psalmists, as personal ambition or national pride has infected their view of the I Am That I Am.  

This last Sunday, we went to wrath again, as we read the 94th Psalm.  It starts right in with the vengeance.  "O Lord, you God of Vengeance," it begins, and we all rolled our eyes.  But then we read on.  It was...different.

Meaning, for the first time in a Psalm mostly about smiting, I was right there with the Psalmist.  Sure, the Ninety Fourth Psalm calls out for God to be vengeful, to wipe the wicked from the earth, but there were two key distinctives.

First, this is a Psalm that rises from a more universal framework.  It's not calling for God to be the god of a particular nation.  The God hat is invoked is not the judge of just one people, but of all the earth and all nations.  All of the Psalms that sing most brightly seem to share this characteristic, as the earth itself rises to bear witness to the One that is greater than any person or nation.

Second, the Psalm is expansive in its understanding of justice.  Sure, the Psalmist wants things to turn out well for them.  But their interest goes deeper than transactional selfishness.  They care about the damage done by corrupt, self-interested leaders, and the impact they have on the most vulnerable in their culture.  What matters is that justice be done...not simply justice for "us" or justice for "me," but justice for all, with a particular focus on the poor and the oppressed.

It's the cry of the powerless for some measure of balance, for those who lie and manipulate and trample over others to be held to account for their deeds.

And for once, that call on God to not let that stand felt...good.  It felt good.