America, we have a problem

(c) All-Nite Images. Via flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA). Some rights reserved.

(c) All-Nite Images. Via flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA). Some rights reserved.

When I woke this morning to the news from Dallas, I just felt gut-kicked. I’m sure a lot of you felt the same way. How many more killings must we endure? What will it take to make it stop?

As I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, my depression just grew. Even the heartfelt and eloquent calls and prayers for unity and reconciliation seemed somewhat empty—not because they lacked passion or authenticity, but because even those just feel like more band-aids slapped on a gaping wound.

My opinion may not be any better. Certainly I’m as powerless as anyone else in pinpointing causes and offering answers. Part of that is because it’s not easy. There’s no single place to point blame, any more than there is any single solution to apply. Complex and nuanced issues are uncomfortable for us to confront. We’re more interested in fixing blame than healing wounds. We care more about voicing our rage than confronting the evil in our own hearts.

Which is probably why most of our responses—even the most articulate—ultimately amount to little more than kicking the can down the road…until the next black kid is murdered, or the next cop gets gunned down, or the next mass execution of innocents, or the next mom shoots her babies.

America is an angry nation right now. And in my experience, anger comes largely from fear. Fear of feeling victimized. From feeling wronged. From sensing you have no real control. We’re angry at other nations that fail to fall in line with our values. We’re angry at ideologies that conflict with our sense of moral superiority. We’re angry at refugees and immigrants who wish to share our benefits. We fear what all of that will do to our comfortable, privileged lifestyles.

Mostly, though, it seems we’re angry with each other. We can’t even carry on civil conversations about politics or economics or religion without calling each other sophomoric names or posting opinions and memes that do nothing but exacerbate our divides. We’ve come to believe that any thought that disagrees with our own lacks legitimacy. We view each other as enemies and compromise as weakness. We are obsessed with the us/them divide.

But what’s worse perhaps than this escalation in anger is our pervasive belief that our anger is righteous, and therefore any actions we take to express it are justifiable. That indulging our anger through acts of hatred and violence is acceptable. That somehow justice is served when we retaliate.

We forget, though, that justice and revenge are not at all the same thing.

Whatever the underlying causes, and whatever the ultimate solutions may be for our escalating culture of violence, at some point America has to deal with its underlying anger problem.

And that means you and I have to deal with it. We have to do the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We have to see each other as human.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matt. 7:12, NRSV).

We have a choice to make, America. And it’s more than a political or cultural or economic or religious choice. It’s a choice about who we are fundamentally going to be.

And if you’re one of those people who want to sacrifice other human beings at the alter of your anger, let me ask you: How’s that working out? Is your life better because of it? Are you really happier? More secure? More peaceful?

There is, as the Apostle Paul put it, a “more excellent way.” But the path to that way doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t come easy.

It requires something of us. It demands we release our sense of justified outrage and self-righteousness and embrace the worth and dignity of every single human life. It compels us to face issues of privilege and entitlement and to realize that there are other humans on this planet who have every bit the value, even if their experiences, beliefs, cultures, and perspectives are different.

It means we have to recognize those voices that claim to report “news” and “facts” for what they are: hucksters of coliseum-type entertainment, selling our fears and anger back to us in the name of ratings and the dollars they bring.

I hope that we can be brave enough to do the right thing. I hope we can realize that love is a bigger weapon that fear and anger and hate.

Because ultimately, it’s the only one we have.

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” (Matt. 4:16, NRSV).

America was once a place where people saw light and hope. May it be so again. And may we be its instruments.

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May we celebrate love with grace

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I am indeed thrilled today for my LGBTQ friends and fellow allies who are rejoicing the US Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the rights of all people to enjoy the benefits of marriage. It’s been a long and difficult journey, and I join you in your celebration of this dramatic moment in our history.

At the same time, I know many others who are deeply troubled by this decision because of genuine, authentic and very legitimate religious beliefs. People I also love deeply who have not yet—and may never—come to see marriage equality as something they can support within their understanding of their faith. I sincerely mourn for your pain today. I pray God’s comfort for you.

This is no time for gloating, for “I-told-you-so,” for demeaning folks who have been long accused of being demeanors. There is nothing to be gained by that. My own position has only come about through a lengthy and often very difficult period of listening, study, and prayer. Because of that, I must respect that others are in that same discernment process, and may come to different conclusions.

The long and glorious history of our faith is full of days like these where people of good conscious disagree on how we interpret our holy writings and traditions. Happily, none of those days have destroyed us.

May today be no different.

If today is a celebration of love, let it be a celebration of love not just for those with whom we agree, but for those with whom we disagree. Let us enjoy the gravity of the moment with dignity and grace for those who still struggle to understand.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It goes both ways.

Celebrate love. Extend grace. Keep it classy.

Shalom,
Joe

I don’t like you, but I really want to love you

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“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” –Matt. 5:43-47 (MSG)

So I’ve been trying to do something really radical lately.

I’m trying to love people I don’t like.

This is one of those strange paradoxes of the Christian life. We know, or at least we assent to the notion, that we’re called to love our enemies.

But if we’re honest, for most of us, all that really means is that we hold those with whom we’re in conflict at arms length, agreeing without words to stay out of each other’s space.

But that’s not love. That’s just polite avoidance.

By both his words and actions, Jesus provides an example for how to not only tolerate, but actively love those we deem unlovable.

Actively, as I was reminded by a friend in a recent conversation, is the key word here.

For me to love my enemy means more than just passively setting aside animosity. It means actively seeking his or her well-being. It means—more often than not—sacrificing my own wants and desires so that someone I disagree with, someone I strongly dislike, or even someone who means me harm, can actually benefit from my actions.

The more I try to love people I don’t like, the more I find out that it’s not just hard. It’s actually costly. It requires something of me, something sacrificial.

It requires that I examine my motives, confront often previously-unrecognized prejudices, and become vulnerable. After all, there’s no guarantee that it will be reciprocated.

I’m beginning to believe, though, that learning to love people we don’t like might be among the most important things we can do if we truly want to follow Jesus.

Let’s face it. Arguing, fighting, insulting, bullying, and belittling don’t work. If they did, the problems of the world would have been resolved long ago. No authentic relationship was ever built on coercion.

And yet, those things continue to be our default settings. When confronted with ideas we find disagreeable or offensive, or with people we find rude or ignorant or otherwise flawed in our eyes, we move instantly to criticism and condemnation.

What we fail to recognize is that, in doing so, we rob the other person of their very humanity. The moment we categorize someone as this type or that kind of individual, we have made him or her a thing and not a person. In our minds they are little more than an object to be sorted into our narrow definitions and classifications.

This, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. As he declares the outcasts and unlovable to be blessed, he reminds them of their humanity. A humanity of which the religious and social elite of their communities too often had robbed them because of their failure to live up to accepted norms and standards.

He reminds them that each human being is a creation of God, loved by God. Equal under sun and rain, in good times and bad, whether good or evil.

And he reminds them that loving one another—actively and unconditionally—is the most powerful thing they can do. In fact, it’s what opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

We’re good at loving people who look like us, think like us, act like us and talk like us. We’re good at loving those who share our beliefs and values and worldviews.

But when we come up against opposition, with people who look different, believe differently, behave differently, we turn instantly to condemnation.

Disagreement challenges us on a primal level. Feeling that we’re “right” about a particular viewpoint reinforces our sense of well-being and identity. When confronted with the notion that we might be wrong about something, we react defensively out of a need to protect that identity.

That’s why loving those we dislike is so costly. It requires that something within us—an opinion, a preference, a belief—must, in some fashion, die.

But what comes to life in its place is always something better and more beautiful.

And when our “enemies” experience that, and when others around us see it, it is a catalytic force for transformation and reconciliation.

So I’m going to keep trying to love people I don’t like.

I’ll fail. A lot.

But I hope by actively seeking the best for them, I’ll find the best in me.

And ultimately, in us.

Authority

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(This is the eighth and final installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Thanks for walking through the season with us! To view the entire series on a single page, click on the Lent 2015 tab above.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]  [Part 4]  [Part 5]  [Part 6]  [Part 7]

Today’s reading: Matthew 7:13-29

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

He had redefined the law. Fulfilled it.

Love. Unbridled, unconditional. Counter-intuitive, upside-down, inside-out.

Love that puts the welfare of others ahead of self.

Love that places no burden on others. Love that sees through God’s eyes.

Love that sees through God’s heart.

The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Their religious leaders had gotten it so wrong. It was so easy for them to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect their comfortable traditions, their strict legalism, their cozy doctrine…that, Jesus said, was a wide and easy path.

Anyone can cling to those things that benefit oneself and exclude those who don’t measure up. Anyone can call others to conform to their self-interest.

Anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies.

But this way of love, a love that gives and sacrifices and humanizes even those who would do us harm…this way is narrow. This way is hard.

This way is life.

Repent. Reorient.

Discard the way of false truth that destroys life on its way to self-salvation.

Real truth reveals itself in real love. Real peace. Kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness. Against these, there is no law.

Bear good fruit, Jesus says. Not the bad fruit of the Pharisees and religious elite that poisons and kills, but the fruit of love that nourishes and flourishes.

You can call out my name all you want. Use me to declare your own power and righteousness till you’re blue in the face. But unless you love, you’ll never know me.

Good news. Kingdom news.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

Follow.

Love is the way to life. Love that respects the God-breathed humanity and dignity of each other person. Love that blesses the undeserving.

It had to be true. No other “truth” could measure up.

There was authority in these words, in this man, like none they had witnessed before.

It was as if their leaders, the ones who claimed God’s truth, who called them to follow God’s law, who confidently declared who was “in” and who was “out,” didn’t really know God at all.

To truly know God, to be citizens of his kingdom, was to truly understand that love alone fulfills the law.

This was a kingdom worth living for.

This was a kingdom worth dying for.

Treasure

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(This is the sixth installment of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

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Today’s reading: Matthew 6:1-24

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Love perfectly, Jesus said. Respect the worth and dignity of each person. Even those with whom we disagree.

Even those who would do us harm.

Lofty words. High ideals.

But how?

If the Pharisees in their righteousness cannot instruct us, what does it look like to put this perfect love into action?

I lift my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?

The religious leaders make a great show of their piousness. Their worthiness is obvious.

My help comes from the Lord, creator of heaven and earth.

In secret. Jesus says to do it all in secret. As if one hand doesn’t even know what the other is doing.

It’s not about how others perceive your deeds of kindness, your acts of sacrifice, your stirring words of prayer.

You don’t need their approval.

For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Whether in public or in private, pray like it’s just you and God.

Father…Your kingdom come. Make our lives like yours.

Show us how to love the way you love.

Feed us your very self.

Make us forgivers so we can experience your forgiveness.

Protect us from the trials we will face. Deliver us from persecution.

In this prayer, God’s way becomes our way.

This is no chant or charm, no formula for getting what we want.

It’s a door to a relationship. Where what we want becomes exactly what God wants.

What do you treasure? Your comfort? Your convenience? Your morality? Your power?

All these are so easily lost. In a moment, perhaps. Over time, certainly. Slowly, imperceptibly disintegrated by forces unseen.

But love. Love. There is a treasure which cannot be destroyed.

A heart of love sees things as they are. Undarkened by self-aggrandizement. Undimmed by self-indulgence.

Pure reality, bright and clear.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

There is but one way to pursue Kingdom life. One reality to which to pledge our allegiance.

On earth as it is in heaven.

Next: Judgment

Indulgence

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(This is the fourth installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

[Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]

Today’s reading: Matthew 5:21-37

You have heard…but I say to you….

If the righteousness of the Pharisees is not righteousness, then what is?

Jesus is challenging the very core of what they had been led to believe. Striking at the heart of what their leaders had taught for generations.

Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Swearing oaths.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were very clear about these matters.

Or were they?

Dig deeper, Jesus says.

Don’t murder, yes. But what leads to murder? Anger, condemnation, unforgiveness. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already murderous.

Don’t commit adultery, yes. But what leads to adultery? An attraction triggers a thought, a thought triggers a fantasy, a fantasy triggers objectification. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already adulterous.

Divorce? You make it too easy, says Jesus. You indulge your selfishness and dehumanize your spouse. Has she no more value to you than your crops or livestock? Do you care so little for her as to drive her to a life of poverty and indignity?

And those vows you make? Why must you swear by heaven or earth, or anything else for that matter? Is your word not enough? Are you so insecure that you need to manipulate others’ opinions by the power of your oaths? Have they no humanity of their own?

Indulgence.

We indulge anger and we murder.

We indulge lust and we commit adultery.

We indulge selfishness and we objectify.

We indulge insecurity and we manipulate.

This, he says, is the righteousness of the Pharisees. Obey the rules, period. You will be measured by your behavior and your behavior alone.

The sin, says Jesus, is more than our behavior. It is a heart that refuses to honor the humanity of others. That places more value on “me” than on “you.” And, by extension, on “we.”

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you think that life is all about you and how you behave, you’re missing the point. You might as well be blind or maimed, because that’s basically how you’re going through life as it is.

So what is righteousness? What does true righteousness look like?

Next: Perfect.

 

Blessed

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(This is the second installation of The Awesomeness Conspiracy’s 2015 Lenten devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. Follow us to receive e-mail updates for each new post.)

[Part 1]

Today’s reading: Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them.

Who is blessed?

The knocked down, the kicked at, the spit on. The lost, the overlooked, the forgotten. The soft, the tender, the pleasers. The losers. The nobodies that nobody wants to be around.

Who is blessed?

The ones who never feel blessed. The ones who think “blessed” always refers to someone else—someone richer, someone prettier, someone smarter, someone popular.

Blessed. Even these, Jesus says, are blessed. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There it is again. Kingdom.

The crowds who had just experienced Jesus’ healing touch—the diseased, the sick, the suffering, the demoniacs, the epileptics, the paralytics—now being told they’re something they never thought they could be.

Blessed.

Blessed? Why? What has changed?

Healing. Kingdom. Jesus.

But what does it mean to be blessed? What is blessing for?

The sin of Israel had always been its insistence that it was blessed just because it was Israel. Rather than share its blessing, it coveted it.

Israel was blessed—chosen—not to rule the world, but to fulfill a purpose. A vocation.

Salt and light.

To add richness and flavor to the life of the world. To shine God’s love on its neighbors.

But when the salt has lost its flavor, when the light has been hidden, then what?

Repent. Reorient.

But how?

Blessing. Healing.

Be blessed, Jesus says, so you can fulfill your purpose.

Be healed, Jesus says, so you can live Kingdom life.

You who feel un-blessed have been restored. You’ve been touched by the Kingdom.

You’ve been touched by Jesus.

You’re empowered to be who you were meant to be.

This is good news!

(Next: Righteousness)

“Delmar’s been saved!”

Some interesting conversation emerged over on my Facebook page after my last post about American individualism and its infiltration into the church.

One of the things that jumped out at me as part of that discussion was the popular notion that Christianity is primarily about our personal relationship with Jesus, and that “salvation” is something that is made available to each of us as individuals as we make a choice to enter into that relationship.

I want to be careful here. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a key tenet of Christian faith. Not only that, I believe it to be integral to my own identity. I believe it is, as theologians say, salvific. That is to say, it is at least in part what saves and is saving.

But I also believe that the notion of “salvation” as a strictly individual transaction is not, in fact, the primary message of the gospel…and the Western church’s insistence that it is may be part of what is currently tearing at the fabric of society in our world today.

These modern times

Bear with me a moment for a little philosophical background…

We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the mid-17th through early-18th Century movement most famously embodied by Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). It was a time when humanity began to see the possibilities that science and reason could provide rational explanations for everything, including our very existence.

The modernist movement spawned by the Enlightenment period began to reject religion as a source of meaning in favor of a belief that only knowledge—not religion—could be certain, objective, and good…and that only reason could ultimately lead to truth.

This required a radical commitment to freedom of individual thought over against collective religious certainty.

Predictably, the church of the time responded with fear and defensiveness. Fresh off the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants were scrambling to assert authority over their flocks. While the church was saying it was the ultimate arbiter of truth, modernism said humans could essentially take the place of God by attaining ultimate knowledge through science and reason.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

As James K.A. Smith points out in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (pp59-61), a great contemporary representation of the clash between religion and modernism can be seen in the Coen brothers’ cult classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In the clip above, we see a philosophical clash between George Clooney’s character, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his rube-ish cohorts Pete and Delmar. For Everett, it’s a modern world where the quest for individual knowledge is the path to utopia. His bumpkin friends succumb to the irrational superstition and magic of religion…even to the point where Delmar believes Pete has been transmogrified by the demonic sirens in the river (“We…thought…you…was…a…toad!).

But what’s interesting is how, in the span of about a hundred years or so, the church actually began to appropriate modernist thought patterns. Even while railing against scientific knowledge as the basis of truth, it acquiesced to the notion that the individual was the most sovereign expression of humanity.

As Western societies developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, so Western Christianity ran a parallel path. In its fight against modernism by rejecting science itself through invoking a literalist reading of scripture, the fundamentalist movement (which emerged to counter the liberal social justice theology of Catholics and mainliners in the mid-late 19th Century) chose to fight that battle in the heart and mind of the individual.

And thus the goal of Christianity—just like the goal of modernism—became personal conversion.

“Jesus was a socialist”

I have to admit to a bit of gratuitous click-baiting in the headline of last week’s post. The point was not to debate or defend socialism as an institution, but to point out that the gospel of Jesus soundly rejects any notion of the value of individuals over the value of community or collective humanity.

And so when we make the central claim of our faith to be about a personal relationship with Jesus, and we pursue intellectual assent to that principle (and call it “salvation”), we miss the point of Jesus’ message.

Again, I want to be careful. It’s not that Jesus’ message is not about a personal relationship. Even though that specific phrase is found nowhere in scripture, there is abundant evidence that personal relationships were of critical importance to the Jesus event.

My point is that Jesus’ message is indeed about personal relationship, but it’s also about much, much more.

Evacuation theology

Modernist Christianity (most specifically—but not exclusively—embodied in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps), with its stress on individual conversion/salvation, more or less follows the proposition that: 1) I am “saved” by intellectual assent and personal confession; and 2) I am called to love you; therefore I want you to be “saved” by whatever means necessary.

Also, our post-Enlightenment approach has suffered from a misdiagnosis of what Jesus actually means by “salvation” by making it all about the eternal disposition of one’s disembodied soul after death.

Again, I’m not arguing that a continued postmortem existence is not part of the message, but it’s not the whole message. Jesus’ promise of “eternal” life is as much about a quality of life here and now as it is about an ongoing quantity of life once our mortal flesh ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the early languages of the Bible connotes the life of God or the life of the ages. It is a present, as well as a future, reality.

So when we talk about salvation as something strictly individual that results in the transport of our immortal souls to some other-worldly “heaven,” we miss the point Jesus makes that the kingdom of heaven is sprouting up all around us, here and now, as we share his radical program of unconditional love in the times and places we find ourselves as human beings.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is not just a cute phrase in a memorized prayer, it is the actual goal Jesus has for God’s kingdom.

Salvation as holistic

I do indeed believe Jesus wants to save us all as individuals. But the modern Western church’s notion of salvation as primarily an individual transaction misses the larger biblical context for what salvation is really all about.

At the risk of being redundant, our Western/American arrogance and pervasive individualism get in the way of our ability to see what Jesus is doing and saying because we have 200+ years of indoctrination into the modernist primacy of the sovereign self.

What God has been about from the beginning has been the redemption of all things (Rev. 21:5). To me, that suggests that salvation is not meant to be individual, but holistic. And that it’s not about being swept away into the clouds when we die, but about a redemption and regeneration of the created cosmos, with love as the creative force that binds it all together.

So instead of saying, “I’m in and you’re out; but I love you and want you to be in, too,” a holistic approach is more like, “I’m a part of something, not apart from it. And if I’m a part of a greater whole, it’s only by the salvation of all things that my own salvation has any meaning.”

The longer we continue to put ourselves as individuals at the center of the salvation narrative, and the more we assert our rights as individuals over against the rights of others in our pursuit of our own salvation, the further we get from what Jesus actually intended.

Our challenge is to recapture that holistic sense of belonging, to become radically committed to the well-being of others, and to extend that commitment beyond our tight circles of those who look and think like us to those who disagree with and even persecute us:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (The Message)

“Jesus was a socialist…”

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It the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.

We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.

“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.

Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.

To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.

And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.

But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.

What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.

Case in point: the current debate over vaccinations. There can be no question that childhood vaccination against diseases like measles and polio is beneficial to the vast majority of people and to society as a whole. Yet, in our staunch political defense of individual choice, we have allowed an illness that was once virtually dead in this country (and much of the world) to now create a public panic.

Which leads to the question: Have our freedoms enslaved us?

And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?

For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.

And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.

The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.

And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.

Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.

Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.

But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.

The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.

And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.

The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.

To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.

21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.

But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.

That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.

But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.

The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?

Faith Not Fear: A story of inspiration

FNF_01

Dear fellow Conspirators for Awesomeness,

As a seminary student and someone seeking to discern a call into vocational ministry, I often find myself in conversations about discovering our purpose in the world. Often, we find ourselves talking about how we’ll know what God’s will is for our lives.

What I’ve come to believe is that, more often than not, God’s not so much directing us to a particular activity or position as he is encouraging us to find something that ignites our passions. Maybe, rather than waiting to hear what God is calling us to, we should do what excites us most and allow God to bless it.

A few months ago my friend Allie started a new venture called Faith Not Fear Apparel. FNF sells inspirational t-shirts as a means for people to start meaningful conversations, and gives away a portion of all sales to help empower others.

I wanted to feature FNF here on TheAwesomnessConspiracy.com both to help spread the word about their products as well as to tell Allie’s story. I think it’s a shining example of finding that place where your gifts and talents intersect with your passions, and watching God go to work with it in spectacular ways.

I recently had a chance to ask Allie to share the story behind FNF. And while many are rushing stores today for Black Friday deals, I thought today would be a good day to feature a possible alternative for your Christmas shopping.

What inspired you to start Faith Not Fear? 

Faith Not Fear Apparel was born out of a desire to “do more” to encourage people’s faith. After coming back from a life-changing mission trip to Haiti, I knew I couldn’t go back to sitting behind a desk, looking at the computer screen all day, when just a few days prior I put shoes on the feet of impoverished children, handed out Bibles and prayed with strangers. While sitting at my desk I kept wondering what I could do to make a difference here…as Mother Teresa said, “love begins at home.”

FNF_02Why t-shirts?

America is not a third world country and is privileged in many, many ways. But it’s a land full of hurting people, people who need Jesus. However, as a Christian it’s sometimes hard to start a conversation about God with strangers (or even friends!) − how do you bring it up a topic like that to that person behind you at the grocery store or that mom waiting to pick up her children beside of you. A t-shirt − that is was it! I decided that that was the way I could try to make a difference in my own community. It is our hope that by wearing a Faith Not Fear Apparel shirt that someone might ask you about it and give you the opportunity to share a little bit about faith/God/church with them. As a company, we strive to develop shirts you would be proud to wear and that have a simple, powerful message.

You said your trip to Haiti was life-changing. What was it about that experience that motivated you to do something like this?

With the root of the idea being planted in Haiti, 10% of the sales price of what we sell goes to support the ApParent Project, a nonprofit I visited there. The ApParent Project provides opportunities for Haitians to have steady employment. Haitian artisans learn skills, which enable them to provide for their children rather than send them to an orphanage due to extreme poverty. The Apparent Project distributes Haitian recycled, or “upcycled” items, which have become beautiful products including jewelry, home décor, pottery and more! They are making great strides in empowering Haitian people and keeping families together. To learn more about this heartwarming organization visit them at http://www.apparentproject.org

What’s in the name, “Faith Not Fear?” Is there a story there?

FNF_03Dave Willis, a leading expert on building strong Christian marriages, said, “There isn’t enough room in your life for both fear and faith. Each day, you must decide which one gets to stay.” This quote really stuck out to me − fear is something so many people (including myself) struggle with, it’s something the devil uses to paralyze us, so as the quote says, each and every day we have to make a conscious decision to squash those lies and choose to believe the promises from God.

How have other people spoken into your vision for FNF? Was it important for you to hear other voices? If so, why?

I have received a lot of encouragement from others to continue down this journey and each time I start to take a step back, God puts someone, even strangers, in my life at the right time to continue to push me! People have shared their heartfelt testimonies with me, and shared the reason they want a shirt whether it to be wear themself or to give it as a gift to encourage someone else. I love the way people want to shine God’s light on others using Faith Not Fear Apparel as a vehicle to do so. 

If we could fast-forward to a year from now and you could call FNF a success story, what would that look like for you?

I would love to walk down the street and see people wearing my shirts! I would also love to be able to send significant contributions to the ApParent Projects and be able to see the wonderful ways they will put the money to good use! 

What dreams do you have for the future of FNF…both in terms of product as well as mission?

I hope to expand the product line to include more designs and possibly a workout line of apparel. My main goal will continue to be to think of ways to shine God’s light on hurting people and find ways to help encourage people’s walk in faith.

To learn more about Faith Not Fear apparel, visit their fully-featured online store at www.faithnotfearapparel.com.

 

A prayer for Ferguson

pond5.com

pond5.com

I’m praying for Ferguson today.

Not just in that semi-sincere “Christian-ese” way that feels sorry for someone and says, “Oh, I’ll be praying for you.” I am literally on my knees. Praying. Begging God to make things right.

I’m praying that your city will find peace, and that neighbors can learn to live alongside one another without fear. That your people who desired nothing more than a nonviolent protest in response to a devastating announcement aren’t further victimized by criminals who used your pain as an excuse to loot and pillage, and your peaceful attempt to be heard as a cover for their selfish actions.

I’m praying for Michael Brown’s family. Your loss is insurmountable. And regardless of what the grand jury said, regardless of the evidence they saw, or maybe didn’t see, you deserved better than a cheap explanation from a slick politician.

I’m praying for Darren Wilson and his family. You have experienced something awful. You made a decision no one should ever have to make. You too are a victim of sorts. A victim of a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality that makes deadly force your first instinct instead of a desperate measure of last resort.

I’m praying for justice. Not revenge. Not retribution. Those are different. I’m praying for real justice, the kind that brings reconciliation, the kind where something beautiful grows out of something horrible.

I’m praying that we can stop calling killing of any kind “justifiable.” I understand self-defense. I get that “kill or be killed” is a real, powerful, primal instinct. But because it’s understandable doesn’t make it justifiable. Again, that word implies that justice was somehow achieved. It’s more than semantics. Words matter, and we need to be less careless when our words are this important.

I’m praying that we can stop promoting and elevating fear as a motivation for our actions. The more we do that, the more superficial the things on which we base our fear…to the point where we become afraid of each other based on something as ultimately superficial as the color of our skin.

I’m praying that our news media will honor its responsibility to inform citizens, discover truth, and uncover corruption rather than selfishly escalating viewers’ emotions and inflaming conflict in the interest of selling more of its product.

I’m praying that white Americans can begin to empathize with the different perception our black neighbors have of life in our country. That we can recognize our privileged position in society and admit that we are able to live without much of the daily anxiety African-Americans must endure every moment of every day. That we can stop deflecting the argument toward so-called “black-on-black” violence. Or the notion that had Darren Wilson and Michael Brown been of the same race, their confrontation would have never made headlines. Those are cheap excuses that keep us from confronting legitimate issues.

I’m praying that the people of Jesus, who should be best equipped to bring about the kind of change that can end violence and injustice, will worry less about the silent voices of invisible imps and demons tempting them to misbehave and worry more about the systemic sin of an industrial/political/military complex that stirs fear and mistrust in order to protect its wealth and power and privilege. I’m praying that we will take seriously the call to stand up for the poor and oppressed and marginalized and stop defending those who oppress and marginalize.

And finally, I’m praying for love. Not a soft, sentimental emotion, but a love that has the power to burst through horrifying events to create communities of genuine affection and caring. A love that refuses to fear and insists on kindness, respect, dignity, and the common good.

A love that breaks down barriers and exposes our mutual humanity.

That’s my prayer for Ferguson. And for all of us.

Amen.