Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

Suicide: Fear, Loathing and Hope

This week, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to take their own lives. I read an article saying that the national suicide rate has climbed 25% since 2000 and is one of the few leading causes of death that is on the rise. In many (perhaps most) places in the U.S., suicide is a much higher percentage of deaths per capita than homicide. Something needs to be done.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts on this site, I’ve had a diagnosis of clinical depression for about half of my life now; I know what the depths of despair that can be reached by the soul are like. But let me give a few more personal details about my own experience so that you can evaluate my biases and understand the limitations with which my experience speaks to the broader experience of depression as a whole.

I have never had suicidal ideation–the fears and despairs that shake me when in the grip of a depressive episode actively drive me away from believing such an action would provide any escape or comfort whatsoever. That being the case, I do not have insight into what Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain thought during their last hours. All of my personal experience seems to indicate that my depression is chemically-based–when in the clutches of depression, I cognitively understand that the thoughts I keep having and the feelings I keep feeling are not who I actually am, not what I actually think about those subjects, and not the way I know I should feel. Since I’m not a doctor, I cannot speak to the potential causes of depression except to say that I imagine that those people whose depression stems more from cognitive issues–that is, cycles of unhealthy thoughts and perspectives–more than chemical issues, have a much harder time of it than I have. I am also fortunate that currently-available medication provides adequate control of my symptoms.

Additionally, my depression has never fully prevented me from being successful in life–even in the long months of my first depressive episode before I was diagnosed and began treatment, I still managed to make all “A’s” in my college classes. Never has a depressive episode prevented me from my studies or from working effectively. So, it is safe to say, I think, that my experience of depression, while not to be discounted, has not had the severity of consequences that accompany the experience for many sufferers.

None of the above is the subject of this post; it is merely information for you to evaluate the applicability and credibility of the thoughts that follow.

We Christians need to be doing something that is affirmative (in all senses of the term) to help- those who suffer from depression–and those who survive and thrive in spite of it. For too long, the Christian approach to depression and suicide has been one of wilful ignorance, fear, and passive condemnation.

It is poor theology that has driven us to this, I think. The easiest aspect of this to grasp from the history of Christianity is the idea that suicide is an “unforgiveable” sin that necessitates hell for the poor soul who chooses to end his or her own life. To begin, the logic on which this is based is flawed: it is fully possible to begin the process of suicide and repent before it has been completed but after the point of no return. In such a case, the intent of the person and the genuineness of repentence are things beyond our ability to ken and thus best left to God’s grace and mercy.

A further logical attack is found in the issue of culpability. The will of a person caught in the maw of depression has been usurped, or at least corrupted. While so ensnared, the will of the person is not fully her own. This is not to say that the person does not choose as any other person, but that the perceptions on which choices are made may be so distorted as to increase the likelihood of choices that would never have been made by the person outside of the influence of a depressive episode. This being the case, we must sincerely question whether a person who commits suicide is sufficiently in control of her will to be held responsible for the action. Without voluntary choice, there can be no sin–to call an involuntary action sin on the part of the actor would be supremely unjust.

The issue of culpability is further confused by the action of martyrdom–is a person who refuses to take action that prevents him from dying committing suicide by an instrument that only happens to be human? I have no answer for this question, but my uncertainty leads me to believe that we ought to take a merciful view of those whose lives end so tragically.

Of course, such a position on suicide is also abiblical: The only sin that the Bible (cryptically) tells us is unforgiveable is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whatever that may be. Matthew 12:31-32. More important, I think, are Paul’s words that nothing can separate us from the love of God as laid out in Romans 8:38-39. Paul specifically mentions “neither death nor life” as things powerless to separate us from God.

The (above-described) old Catholic view that suicides were damned is well-known to us for the use of the idea as a plot device in fiction–the pain and suffering caused when a family member is refused burial in consecrated ground because he took his own life. This is an event based on history, of course, so there are multiple avenues for exposure to the idea such that we can say that an understanding of the meme is commonplace.

But there is a more insidious thought in bad Christian theology that prejudices us from showing the compassion we ought to for those who suffer from depression. Being a faith that grounds itself in the hope of a good God who loves us so much that God would come to us in flesh to be with us, we might easily fall into the trap of seeing despair as a sin against God.

You see, despair is a lack of hope and, as has been done by some religious thinkers, therefore a rebellion against and lack of faith in God and God’s goodness. This leads to the conception of the melacholic person (to use a more medieval phrase) as sinful rather than suffering. Or, to be more pointed about it, suffering precisely for that sinful rejection of hope in God.

My familiarity with this idea comes mostly from Early Modern (i.e. medieval and Renaissance) sources. But even in the Middle Ages there were those who argued for a natural explanation for mental illness–such as those who questioned whether some or all possessions were not really illnesses of the mind. Nowadays, I don’t think many articulate this kind of view–but I wonder about the extent to which it lurks below the surface in the thoughts of the faithful.

We have further stigmatized depression and mental illness in secular culture, seeing it as a weakness of personality rather than an affliction like other illnesses. We are quick to label people who commit attrocities we do not readily understand as mentally ill–some are content to label all criminals as somehow mentally defective. There are many negative consequences to this: first, it skirts the issue of culpability for people who commit crimes against others. Second, it allows us to avoid addressing the underlying social injustice that leads to some (but certainly not all) crimes. In the wake of new waves of school shootings, the very people who are adamant about keeping their guns simultaneously refuse to allocate resources to the assistance of those who need social assistance or mental help. This in spite of the many studies that dollars spent on schools save dollars spent on prisons or the anecdotal evidence that treating people better means that antisocial acts become less likely.

Even outside the issue of criminal behavior, mental illness remains a thoroughly uncomfortable issue for us. There are arguments–like those of Thomas Szasz, outdated and unsupported by evidence though those arguments are, that there really is no such thing as mental illness, only nonconforming behaviors that are easier to label as illness than to otherwise confront. There is the valid (but perhaps overemphasized) concern that mental illness provides governments and societies the excuse to use their coercive force on nonconforming individuals, a point on which Dr. Szasz (and Michel Foucault) provide some warning to us. But we are quick to turn these doubts about the particulars of mental illness into doubt about the existence of the whole thing, and that is unacceptable.

To be fair, the treatment of people with mental illness has greatly improved over the last few centuries. If you’re unaware of the origin of the term “bedlam” in the meaning of “chaos and pandemonium,” the word derives from London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, tourists could pay to view (and even further torment) the insane. We have (thankfully) stopped performing lobotomies. But we still have issues with medicating those with whom we’d rather not deal with the actual issues of their behavior, with refusing to help the least fortunate who have mental health issues, and with discussing the issue with much depth or compassion.

Where we, as a society, have corporate responsibility is for allowing our culture to create conditions that are conductive to depression. We push the wrong values–money, fame, power, material success, productivity and achievement as worth–that don’t actually make people happy. We actively create conditions that push people away from doing the things that are beneficial to mental health: from taking time to relax, to be mindful and thankful, to create meaning in our lives and to pursue things about which we are passionate, to focus on our faith and our relationships with others. We turn a blind eye to the injustices and oppressions that can, given time, crush both mind and soul.

As Christians, we can, and should, do more. In Methodism, we talk about the Kingdom of Heaven as both “a future promise, and a present reality.” Anyone who prays the Lord’s Prayer, asks that ” Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As I have argued and will argue, the Kingdom of Heaven is ontological, experiential and epistemological as much as it is a promise of exterior change–the Kingdom of Heaven is when all things are in right (and righteous) relationship with one another. That depends on interior life as much as exterior change, for relationships are ultimately bundles of meaning narratively constructed by the mind. When our narratives, our perceptions, our beliefs and understandings match with those God intends for us, we are experiencing some part of the Kingdom of Heaven–hence present reality. That experience necessarily drives us to love others, to work to make the world a better place, and to lift up those who are suffering–our doing so is participation in God’s promise of the future fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We must recognize that mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer, nor is it a wilful disobedience to God, nor is it easily remedied by telling the afflicted either to “pull himself up by his bootstraps” or “to trust God more.” Our role must be to offer succour to the suffering in any way that we can; to advocate for systems, organizations and practices that provide resources for those suffering from mental illness, to dispel the stigma that follows mental health issues and, ultimately, to put people first.

 

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

A Rebuttal to Materialist Science

Yesterday, I came across an article (“Are you sleepwalking now?”) on the digital magazine Aeon that I could not help but respond to, because it seems to be such a patent example of someone misusing science to “prove” things well beyond science’s ken.

The article is here: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering. It is well written and certainly thought-provoking, so it’s potentially worth reading on its own. More to the point, it is required reading for this post.

To practice what I preach, here’s my fair disclosure at the beginning, in case this is the first of my posts that you’re reading. I’m a faithful progressive Christian who believes in both science and God. As an existentialist theologian and somewhat of an epistemological pessimist (I’d say “healthy skeptic,” I believe that personal consciousness and experience is the foundational starting place of examining metaphysical questions. Hence why I might take the article so personally, though I think that my arguments stand on their own and I’m explicitly trying to go out of my way (unlike Dr. Metzinger, I think) to admit to what I believe that cannot be proved and what does or does not actually meet with standards of scientific inquiry.

The article was posted on the 22nd of this year by Dr. Thomas Metzinger, a professor at the university of Mainz, where he teaches theoretical philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of the mind (the subject of his article). He has written numerous books, given a TED talk and is undoubtedly a highly-intelligent person well-versed in the subject matter.

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the assertions he makes in his article.

The article begins with what I can only describe as a masterful metaphor for the movement of “thoughts and ideas” from un- or subconscious to conscious, one that equates them to the motion of dolphins traveling at speed, occasionally breaking the surface of the water and often under it.

From there, Metzinger poses the questions he believes he can answer. He writes, “Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish between mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?” (emphasis Metzinger’s).

This question perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question when it comes to thinking about the mind. Experientially, I think that we can agree that we have thoughts that we would assert we have consciously and willfully called to mind and formed and those thoughts that seem to be generated spontaneously and inexplicably—in other words, the conscious and the subconscious.

The only complaint that I have with Metzinger’s formulation of these questions is the rhetoric that subtly slips in to begin his arguments from the inception of the question. On the other hand, this is easily forgivable as something most, if not all, of us are likely to do even unintentionally.

The next paragraph begins Dr. Metzinger’s tenuous assertions. Relying on the “empirical findings” of neuroscience and experimental psychology in mind-wandering, he asserts that, “Much of the time we like to describe some foundation ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth” (again, emphasis is Dr. Metzinger’s).

Here’s my first complaint: there is no description of these “empirical findings.” Dr. Metzinger does not explain what experiments have been conducted, whether they are peer reviewed, whether they have been replicated, what the specific results are—or, really anything other than that they exist and we should allow him to interpret them for us. This is not evidence; this is the basic rhetorical technique of asking the audience to rely on your authority as evidence enough.

The first sentence of the following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter: “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naïve, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free-will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosopher’s call ‘personal’ versus ‘subpersonal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions).” What!?! How did we go from “empirical findings” suggesting that there are a lot of subconscious activities going on to positing that we should look to a solely biological basis for consciousness? This is a logical non-sequitur in the extreme.

Nevertheless, the statement is revealing: it’s a 21st Century version of the “bag of chemicals” argument made in the early 20th Century (i.e., that all of our thoughts and actions are really the result of chemical reactions in body and brain without any real volition or self) so readily rebutted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

Rather than solely referring to Mr. Chesterton (whose arguments should most definitely be read), I’ll point out a few of the specific problems: (1) lack of any evidence for this provided; (2) lack of consideration of the broader findings of neurological research (which I’ll refer to in more detail in a moment); (3) the solipsism and circularity of the argument (how is it that Dr. Metzinger is so special as to realize the falsity of the illusion and then to explain it to others by random chance of his own mental events)?; (4) the complete and willful ignorance of the human experience. We might phrase the last objection in terms of Occam’s Razor: which is more likely, that when we feel we are exercising our will we are or that there are multiplicative, subtler and (so far) inexplicable mental processes going on that cause this illusion?

In the case of neurological research that seems to point to other than a solely materialistic explanation for cognition, I’d point you to Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul in counterargument. In that book, Dr. Beauregard (a neuroscientist rather than a philosopher) explains how in certain experiments regarding addiction relief, it has been shown that the active cognition of the mind can actually alter the material function of the brain over time by creating new neural pathways. The whole topic of “neuroplasticity,” which is showing us that our brains remain more subject to change in adulthood than we previously thought, seems to cut against Dr. Metzinger’s argument.

As a caveat, when Dr. Metzinger says we ought to get rid of “black-and-white distinctions,” I think he’s right in that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about the topic of free will as some interaction between personal volition and influence (or perhaps deterministic) influences. But this is nothing new in the philosophy of the mind (or theology, for that matter) and I’ve myself argued for such a position in previous posts. But when Dr. Metzinger’s seemingly-suggested resolution is to ignore one half of the equation entirely, we’re stepping backward instead of forward.

The logic further falters as Dr. Metzinger continues, writing: “As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination.” I would remind you that the dolphin story is a metaphor, by itself it cannot logically hint at anything except the to extent that it can be shown that the metaphor validly represents the things it is trying to explain (though this article contains none of that).

There’s a glimmer of reason after this, though, where Dr. Metzinger says, “Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

I’d like to point out in the above that Dr. Metzinger wisely uses the words “seems to be” to indicate that he is speculating here. The problem, though, is that despite these subtle hints about the actual logical foundation of his argument (being very slight), he presents most of his ideas as authoritative through the rest of the article’s language.

For sake of time and space, I’m going to skip a few paragraphs where Dr. Metzinger discusses the positive and negative effects of daydreaming. He continues, “My view is that the mind-wandering and the DMN [what he calls the default-mode network of the active parts of the brain during rest periods) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time” (this time, emphasis is mine).

Again, Dr. Metzinger begins with words of speculation (“My view is…”) but then makes assertions as if they are fact. He’s put the cart before the horse here by assuming that the idea of the self is an illusion rather than a reality. And he’s done that without any evidence whatsoever. It seems here, as I think has become fashionable for some intellectuals investigating the still relatively terra incognita of the mind, to assume a Buddhist sort of worldview and then force the science to fit that mold. But the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion is a religious and philosophical idea, not a scientific one. There is no defensible logic to starting with that assumption and working backwards. That’s simply not how science works.

The truth will out, as they say, and it certainly does in the next paragraph. Dr. Metzinger writes, “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’” (emphasis mine). It’s a little late in the game here to make that confession—honest scholarship starts with a confession of biases that are known to the writer and probably unknown to the reader so that the reader can read critically. I think that this drives home the disingenuity on Metzinger burying the language of speculation with such extensive assertions of truth.

But it’s the assertion itself that is so ironic—who is making the confession if there is no self? The sentence, under Metzinger’s argument, is itself nonsense. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the materialist approach to the mind—even the people who maintain that position cannot (and do not seem to try to) live as if it were true. The only way it is possible to interact with the world is through an understanding of self. That understanding may see itself as more or less connected to everything around it, but no one acts or thinks without reference to an “I.” If that “I” is an illusion, then there’s really no “I” to make the discovery that it is an illusion in the first place. Hence the circularity of this kind of logic.

To drive the weakness of Dr. Metzinger’s philosophy home, he then refers to “evolutionary psychology,” that perennial favorite of materialist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Evolutionary psychology is the field of making unfalsifiable assumptions about the development of the brain (and therefore mind) according to subjectively selected “societal needs” and then presenting those assumptions as fact. Dr. Metzinger joins in by arguing about the societal role of the “fiction” of the self, how “[h]umans have evolved to be a bit like method actors,” and asserting that “The self-as-agent is just a useful fiction, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.”

This statement is unfalsifiable by scientific method because consciousness and self are, by their very nature, subjective. And yet, Metzinger presents his assumptions as the inevitable conclusions of science despite the fact that true scientific method (nor basic philosophical logic) would touch such a conclusion with a 10-foot pole. Further, Metzinger delicately (and probably quite deliberately) avoids issues like the “hard problem of consciousness” by simply denying that there is one.

In a further bout of spontaneous honesty, “But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.”

Metzinger is, for such an esteemed scholar, remarkably willing to conflate belief with fact and then to work backward from there.

I think it is sufficient to stop with a detailed rebuttal of Metzinger’s argument there, as the rest of the (lengthy) article simply repeats the same logical errors, rhetorical slight-of-hand and materialism as religious belief (in that it is the given from which all other inquiry begins) as science.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the arguments of the religious that have generated this kind of reactionary response. When we deny the usefulness of science because of religion (which, as I’ve often argued, we oughtn’t) it seems a natural (though not logical) response to use science to deny religion. And that’s really what these kinds of arguments are ultimately about (otherwise, why explicitly deny the existence of an immortal soul when the very argument makes such a distinction meaningless).

Frankly, I’m tired of it, on both sides. I’m tired of atheist materialists trying to claim philosophical and metaphysical truth through science and I’m tired of fundamentalist Christians denying evolution because the Bible doesn’t mention it.

To be clear, I have no problem with atheists saying that science leads them to believe in a solely materialist explanation for existence—they’re well within their right to draw that conclusion, even if I think it is the wrong one, just as some are led to faith because of their interpretation of metaphysical likelihoods based on science. Reasonable people may disagree, as we lawyers like to say. It’s when they claim that science proves their belief that I become offended as a person of deep faith who nevertheless is willing to make careful distinction between what science shows us (and often defers to science to inform theology) and what must be left to faith and belief.

At the same time, I’m upset both by the closemindedness and bad theology of those who question science based on Scripture that in no way asserts that that’s a proper (or even valid) way to analyze the world and the fact that, knowing I’m a Christian, many people with whom I’d like to have a real (and respectful) conversation about these kinds of topics will not listen logically because they somehow assume I’m that kind of Christian.

As I’ve said many times in the past, science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions, which unfortunately must be relegated to the realm of belief, conviction, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s use science to examine and explore the material world, to learn what we can about all that we can. But let’s also admit when science is of no use and properly categorize those beliefs about the metaphysical as matters of faith, no matter who they come from, believer or not.

Sacrifice and Eternity

I don’t know what the world to come will be like. I have no special insight into what happens to us and where we go when we die, what will occupy us in eternity. Like most of us, I suppose, I have my hopes and comforting beliefs about what the life eternal will be; my stubbornesses about which I say, “If there’s not X, I’m not going,” like I have some control over the situation; those feelings you–every rare once in a while–feel and think, “This. This feeling lasting forever; that must be heaven.”

I try not to cling too tightly to any preconceived notion of what awaits us, instead trying to trust in God that it will be far greater than I could imagine anyway. Frankly, I’m not too concerned about whether heaven is some entirely spiritual dimension of existence or embodied life in a world restored by God to perfection on the last day.

But there is one thing that I do believe strongly: even in the life to come, there will be sacrifice.

I don’t mean sacrifice on the cosmic scale, no dying that others may live, no giving up all that I have so that others may have something, not the sort of things that make us look at others who can make those kinds of sacrifices with such awe and respect. I mean the more mundane, everyday sacrifices we’re already called to make. The lesser sacrifices necessary to mutual relationship: I’d rather do X in our free time, but since you want to do Y, let’s do that instead and we can do X another time. That sort of thing.

Perhaps this sounds a strange thing to fixate on, but I think it’s a necessary expectation based on the few things that the scriptures and traditions of our faith do seem to tell us about the world to come. Christ promises us “eternal life.” The words used to create that phrase in the New Testament carry the connotation of not just surviving, but thriving–active, vigorous, fulfilled, unceasing, experiential life.

That means a few things. First, we will be ourselves–perfected perhaps, the dross burned away–but recognizable as ourselves. And why wouldn’t we be if we believe that we are purposefully, “wonderfully and fearfully made?” Second, we will not be idle. I don’t know what kind of activity is planned for us–though I’m fairly certain it will not be sitting on clouds strumming harps, singing ceaseless hymns and trying not to think of toilet-paper commercials. Third, we will be together. There’s no good and dependable answer to the question who “we” is (I believe, based on my limited knowledge of God, that all will be there eventually), so let’s sidestep that conundrum for now. Third, we will be in relationship with God and others forever. Again, why wouldn’t we be? The overarching narrative of both the Bible as a whole and the Gospels in particular is that ours is a God who values relationship.

Let’s look at those three things together. We’ll be ourselves. That means that, just like we do now, we will have our personalities, our preferences, our likes and our dislikes (we can go down some dizzying rabbit trails trying to think about the scope and limitations of what preferences and personality traits qualify as being righteously permissible, just as we could with what kinds of activities will be permissible, but let’s not today). We will do things. As a person with preferences, there are some things I like to do better than others. And we will do them with others.

When people come together, it is natural for personalities to clash at times, for preferences to butt up against one another. Unhealthy relationships can be ruined by this, but healthy ones engage in minor sacrifice to work out such petty disputes. Those relationships that do become stronger for it–when you know that I’m willing to give in for your sake sometimes and you’re willing to give in for mine in others, we know that we mean something to one another.

It is fashionable to talk about this phenomenon as a quid pro quo these days, “deposits and withdrawals from the love bank” if we’d like to resort to some especially cloying purple prose. Human nature being what it is–and some people being who they are–I suppose that sometimes that’s a fitting description. But for the best relationships, you don’t make those compromises simply to get future compromises; you do them simply because you care about the other person.

There’s every reason to think that the relationships we enjoy in the life to come will be the best of relationships. For that to be the case, we will eternally need to make some minor sacrifices for each other at various times.

So best to start practicing now, because some aspects of the life to come are not about the where, the when and the what; they’re about the how, how you see others and your relationships with them. That’s one small reason that we say that the Kingdom of Heaven is both a present reality and a future promise: there are aspects of perfected existence that we may participate in here on Earth if we’re willing to. Christ’s incarnation accomplished more than cosmic salvation–it gave us an example of how to think and act so that we do not have to wait to participate in the fullness of the life to come.

As Milton says in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Jesus showed us how to do the former. Those happy little sacrifices we make for the ones we love are an essential aspect of creating that double joy of relationships that both affirm each person involved and become something greater than either. No reason to think that will change in the world to come.

The Storm

I live in Southwest Houston (Sugar Land to be exact); the past few days have been a trip to say the least. Yesterday morning, K and I quickly threw our most precious belongings and our beloved dog into our cars and drove to K’s parents’ house after a mandatory evacuation order was given for our neighborhood. Today we find ourselves effectively corraled into that home by high water, but we otherwise remain high and dry and–according to neighbors who stayed behind, our home does, too.

Last night it looked like that would not be the case. The rains were heavy all day, and by 11:00 a.m. The street we had used to travel here (clear at the time) had become impassable. We watched and waited as the waters crept closer to the house, moving furniture and valuables upstairs and mentally bracing ourselves for being flooded and without power.

This morning the rain is a light drizzle at best. Nearby rivers and creeks have not yet reached their high points, so we’re not out of the woods yet, but things are looking more optimistic than they did under cloak of darkness.

And thus it’s hard not to feel a sense of grace and protection as I drink my coffee and type this post this morning. But I must reject that assumption, because it is based on a tacit implication that somehow I (or the family members with whom I’m sheltering) merit such protection more than others who have lost everything in the storm and flooding. That simply is not true, and I do not believe in a God that plays favorites like that.

I do not believe that we should be looking for God in the rising tide or the pouring rains–this is not a punishment for a city’s wickedness. It is a natural event, something born of natural forces created by God in time immemorial but which is not directed purposefully as an instrument of divine wrath or favor.

Where we do see God moving in this catastrophe is in the good works of people truly loving their neighbors. The news is replete with daring water rescues (and one of our church’s pastors and his family were rescued from their roof in a brave mission undertaken by another of the pastors and our youth director). The outporing of aid in the form of material support, chuches opening as shelters of convenience or necessity, and the massive effort led by the “Cajun Navy” all indicate people following Christ, whether they do so consciously or not.

And that leads me to where I hope that God will move through all of this tragedy–our God makes a habit of pulling beautiful things out of tragedies, after all. In the context of this storm, I have seen people put aside all of the divisive issues engulfing our nation–race, immigration, economic disparity–to love one another. To be sure, those issues will not just go away; hoping that we do not have to confront them in the interests of justice and healing is both naive and counterproductive. But, if we can hang on to the sense of unity born from this strife, we may be able to make serious progress in addressing the ills that plague our nation–most particularly the lack of civil discourse that grips us.

To be sure, the road to recovery for us will be a long on. Even not having lost material possessions, I currently don’t know when I’ll be getting back to work and how long I’ll be feeling the inevitable economic slump. Others still have it far worse than I.

Nevertheless, it’s my hope that the storm’s legacy will be longer-lasting than the devastation–that the unity we’ve found here in Texas will pave a way forward for us and for our nation.

Is liberal theology the future of Christianity? Should it be?

If you read my blog, you know that I stand firmly on the side of liberal/progressive theology. I have a deep conviction that a liberal interpretation of faith and scripture gets us closer to properly understanding Christ than available alternatives—and I believe that it leads to not only a stronger, more resilient faith but also a better world. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

But I also try to maintain some humility and avoid the arrogance of assuming that the interpretations that I favor are automatically superior to others with which I am confronted. At the very least, we ought to be aware of and to understand differing interpretations as a check to our own. We ought also to understand alternative theologies to better understand and live with the people who hold them. As important, though, we need to be constantly challenged in our theology to refine and affirm it—this cannot be done only with echo-chambers of like-minded individuals.

And so, in a microcosm of this tension I try to maintain, this combined confidence and skepticism, I write this post on some of my thoughts about the future of Christianity.

Watching the struggles of my own denomination (the United Methodist Church) with conflicts between liberal and conservative theologies, I wonder whether the Christian Church—as a whole—can sustain itself on conservative theology. I have written, sometimes admittedly harshly, in other posts about the ways in which I believe conservative (to be fair, ultra-conservative) theology hurts the witness of the Gospel.

Recent events within the UMC—the election of Rev. Karen Oliveto to Bishop of the Western Conference, for instance, make it seem increasingly likely that there will be a split between the conservative and liberal elements of the UMC. The actions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association seem to underline the preparation for this split and its inevitability.

I believe that one of the greatest testaments to the love of Jesus Christ would be for the United Methodist Church to remain unified, living and worshipping together despite differences in what should be considered ancillary theological matters (I detect no differences in doctrine on the creedal values and statements). However, I am increasingly convinced that a split is coming.

There is a cynical part of me that believes that this is a good thing, which leads us to the crux of this post: I wonder if a conservative daughter organization of the UMC, and really any church adamant about conservative theology, can survive. I have a growing suspicion that conservative churches will wither and die.

I would like to say that this would prove that liberal theology is a superior interpretation of our faith than conservative, but this does not logically follow. The reason that I believe that conservative churches will continue to see their numbers fall in the coming years until they become unsustainable is that liberal theology has a much better chance of converting the ever-increasing population of unchurched young people. Conservative theology butts heads with many of the social values of younger generations, and I believe that this is ultimately irreconcilable.

But, to reiterate, that liberal theology might be more attractive to future generations (to the extent that any theology is, and that’s a significant question) does not make it correct theology. The Crusades were popular among Christians but certainly un-Christian.

So, here’s the dilemma I have—I really want to say that this perceived (and, mind you, totally unscientific) belief that liberal theology has higher chances of bringing new people into the Church is emblematic of C.S. Lewis’ “natural law,” that it is a subtle but God-breathed recognition of the conscience for the better morality. Wanting does not make it so, and there’s a grave danger of arrogance and the same dismissal of the other side of the argument that I often point out in conservative’s use of the phrase “authority of Scripture.” Hypocrisy is not a look anyone can pull off, myself included.

I think that all sides of the conservative/liberal theological split would agree that theology should never be adapted to become more attractive to potential converts. It should only be adapted when the newer theology seems to be correct for its own sake, without reference to the opinions of others. Unfortunately, I doubt whether we humans can separate those things from one another, and—even if I ultimately deny the claim—it is a question that ought to be considered, wrestled with and fully addressed when conservatives accuse liberals of altering theology to suit what makes them happy. Then again, the liberals might fairly accuse the conservatives of altering theology to suit what makes them feel safe. Ultimately, this just means that humans ought to carefully consider their own motives when reaching theological conclusions.

Despite my skepticism, which I believe should be maintained for a healthy theology (and a healthily low level of arrogance), I do believe that liberal theology is right and that it is a good thing—I refuse to speculate about the movement of the Spirit in matters such as this, for that would be to presume far too much—that what I believe is the better theology resonates more with younger generations. For me, this means a hope that the dwindling of avowed Christians may be reversed and, in the process, create a Church that is more faithful to Christ.

At the same time, it would be problematic at the least for conservative interpretations to die out. This is not a fair comparison, so please do not take it as such, but consider Arianism. The early church had to actually wrestle with and confront this heterodoxy; now we take its inaccuracy for granted. Conservative interpretation is infinitely more supportable than any established heterodoxy (though I find it ultimately insupportable). If we lose faithful, good-hearted people of conservative theology—of whom I’m sure there are many—we lose a “loyal opposition” that forces us to carefully evaluate and defend our own theology. No theology should be taken for granted.

Neither should we seek to maintain conservative theologians as strawmen or zoological exhibits—we must remember that, at least on some issues, their interpretations may be right. Most important, we must remember that our faith has many mysteries that may be unable to resolve, and thus we ought to be willing and ready to live in harmony with those Christians with whom we disagree on certain theological matters.

Because of my convictions, I sincerely hope that liberal Christian theologies will prevail over conservative ones, and that this will cause a revival and re-expansion of our faith. At the same time, I hope that we maintain a diversity of theologies that can challenge us and further refine our understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

As a final caveat, I have to admit that I cannot be sure that the conservative factions within Christianity will die off—many seem to be doing quite well, and some very conservative factions, such as the Mennonites, have endured for quite some time in the face of competing theologies (albeit in small pockets).

Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

Yesterday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allows religious-based organizations involved in foster care to discriminate in the provision of services based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” It previously passed the House and there is no reason to suspect that Governor Abbott will not sign House Bill 3859 into law.

As an attorney, (but not a constitutional law attorney, mind you), I have a strong suspicion that this bill violates the Constitution’s protections of religion, right to privacy and, as only recently affirmed by SCOTUS, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. We shall see.

But this is not a post about the law. This is a post about my views on the matter as a Christian and a foster parent. I’m appalled, but unfortunately not surprised.

There has been a growing movement among conservative Christians–especially in Texas, I think, though my lens is distorted since that’s where I am–to protect the right to refuse people services based on religious belief. This is both theologically untenable and ridiculously counterproductive from the standpoint of evangelism and discipleship.

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to refuse to: (1) place children with certain families because of the family’s differing religious views; (2) place children with persons or families whose homosexuality–as the Methodist Church would put it–is incompatible with Christian teaching; and (3) provide certain services (abortions or vaccines, for instance) to children in their care. There is no question that this legislation is motivated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

I hear about this bill and what the Christian churches involved in lobbying for the bill say through the legislation is: “My right to force my values on other people is more important than helping children without homes. I want to help children without homes, but only if I can do it my way without any risk of repercussions.”

That is not a witness to the Christ who tells us, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Nota bene that the statement does not read, “whatever you do for the least of these who believe in me just like you do….”

The Texas foster care system has been judged by a court to be illegally deficient in the protection and services provided to foster children. There is a shortage of foster parents and a surplus of children who need homes.  Is this really the time to move for the right to exclude foster parents who are otherwise qualified and vetted to take in and care for children from “the system?”

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m pretty passionate about my own interpretations of the Christian faith. But I’m also not so egotistical and prideful as to have surety of my religious understanding so as to completely discredit, disregard and disrespect those of other beliefs–Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, there comes a point where I feel that the hypocrisy is so blatant that I cannot help but take offense and I am filled with a righteous-seeming anger that the actions of other people acting under the banner of Christianity are besmirching my faith and sabotaging my own ability to evangelize and disciple to the world. It’s an uphill battle when you have to start a conversation about your faith with, “No, that’s not really what Christianity is about. I promise.”

Just last night I was in a church meeting where the perennial question, “How do we get more millennials to come to church?” came up. The best answer: stop doing stuff like this! Stop putting self-affirmation in front of helping people and making the world a better place? Millennials smell hypocrisy like a bloodhound tracking a scent, not that they need to be able to when judgment is thrown before mercy in such blatant manner! People are leaving the church (or never giving it a thought in the first place) not because of outdated furniture, color schemes or worship styles but because some make of it an instrument of oppression and transgression rather than one of confession and profession.

As a foster parent, how dare the government spend time trying to exclude some of my willing helpmates rather than actually fixing a deplorably broken system for the benefit of the children? It makes my life tougher even as I’m trying to help. That’s not good for an already-overburdened system.

There. That’s enough said about being appalled. Why am I not surprised? Because this is just one more milestone on the current trajectory of many Christians. We see this in the demand for people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and talk about the “war on Christmas” or the “war on Christians.” A little secret: no one needs to make war on Christianity for the relevance and the effectiveness of the church to dwindle into nothing–we’re doing a great job of that ourselves.

More broadly, it’s an indication of current trends in American culture–let’s blame others so that we can discriminate against them rather than truly trying to solve the suffering of the world.

When our priorities are correct, the revelation of our faith in Jesus comes naturally and is inevitable. When we make our goal protectionism over all else, I’m afraid that Jesus turns away from us in shame. Can you blame him?

ChristianPunk

As far as I can tell (via the OED), the first usage of the word “punk” was in Early Modern English, to denote a prostitute. Let’s gloss over that historical tidbit…

The modern connotation of the word conjures up a style of music, leather jackets, mohawks, piercings, tattoos and taboo-breaking culture. Based on the experiences of my own youth, I think of the late 90’s remnant of the 70’s culture hanging around Piccadilly Circus in London. That was probably the closest I really got to punk subculture in high school. Being a theatre nerd, I had friends who flirted with punk-ness, but it’s hard to look back and know to what extent they found a genre of music that spoke to them, a fashion to follow, or an ideology to take to heart.

Punk culture was—and perhaps still is—about defying mainstream, consumerist culture. It’s easy to write off punks as troublemaking hooligans, but an ideology really does lie behind the spiked, dyed hair, the chains, the leering faces and the screaming thrash of the music. Or rather, ideologies, as punks are as varied as any other group of people. But in some ways, they’re alike. At its core, as I see it, punk is about a rejection of conformity in favor of diversity in individualism. Punks see a societal structure diseased in its consumerism and obsession with power and control, “us” and “them.” By challenging convention with unconventional appearances and behaviors, punks offer an alternative to tradition and its hegemony.

And yet, there is a community to be found in punk culture—you can recognize a punk when you see one. Punks hold in tension a preference for individuality exercised within the supportive network of an ideologically-based counterculture.

The word “punk” has made its way into literature as well—were I have more confidence in my understanding of its complex meanings. One of my favorite genres—cyberpunk—rose out of the angst of the eighties and nineties. The early authors of cyberpunk wrote about “high tech, low life” anti-heroes navigating a world in which technology had progressed beyond any centralized control and capitalism had evolved to an extreme that gave multinational corporations undisputed power over civil governments. It’s a genre that seems prescient as technology becomes ever more pervasive and our current president ignores traditional safeguards to keep personal and business interests out of direct political influence (ignoring, of course, the storied tradition of lobbying in our country). The cyberpunk characters of Gibson and Stephenson found their freedom in extralegal existences free from the constraints of corrupt legal and societal systems.

Of course, in literature, we now have a plethora of -punk subgenres: steampunk, juxtaposing imperialism and nascent modern corporations with Victorian society, science fiction and the occult; dieselpunk, combining a 40’s and 50’s aesthetic with…I don’t know what, actually. We could spend a good deal of time examining to what extent these subgenres have really embraced the “punk” portion of their titles, but such a digression is unnecessary at present.

What I want to focus on, given the title of this post, is how we ought to bring the punk mindset—at least parts of it—into our practice of Christianity. You see, at its heart, Christianity is countercultural—particularly compared with modern American culture.

Mainstream culture says that success is about money, sex and power; Christianity says that success lies in relationships, humility and love. Culture tells us that we can adapt Jesus to suit our predispositions; Christianity tells us that culture ought to conform to our understanding of Christ. Culture tells us that you can judge a person by his productivity; Christianity tells us that you ought not to judge but to love and support.

Without continuing ad nauseum, suffice to say that Christianity as I understand it rejects consumerist culture; the “us versus them” of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic divides; the struggle for fame, fortune and power. It stands for something instinctually better, as pragmatically more workable as it is ideologically inspiring. It uplifts the individual as a child of God while still emphasizing community, relationships and our inter-reliance.

So why don’t more Christians look like punks? I don’t mean physically, primarily, but there are some examples to be had of this, too. I have one pastor-friend who often wears a bowtie, simply because it starts conversations with others in standing out. I have met another who has a braided and beaded beard that serves as an “alarm system;” he can tell just by how people look at him how open his reception will be, the extent to which he can easily connect with a person. Even John Wesley stood out, as he refused to wear a wig (the fashion of the time) and infrequently cut his hair so that he could save money to give away.

I’m not the type of person who is comfortable visibly standing out all that much, but I know some from experience that when we try to follow our faith in the practical decisions we make in life—where and how to work, what attitude to have toward money, etc.—we will stand out.

Israel was set apart by religious rites, a scriptural law, and guidance for how to live with others. As the covenanters of the New Covenant, we ought to be set apart by our commitment to follow Christ’s teachings, commands and person. Because there are so many places where this might conflict with society at large, we ought to be visible as a group that defies the conventions and traditions of mainstream culture in favor of a more excellent way. We ought to be ChristianPunk.

Legislating Morality

Hold on to your hats, y’all, this post is going to be somewhat scandalous and controversial, I think.

There is a large block of we Christian who believe that our nation would be a better place if our laws forbade the things we think are immoral and punished those who infringed upon our beliefs about proper relationships and right behavior. I strongly disagree that this is a good idea or a worthwhile goal.

Why? Because mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Our focus as Christians in the world is the fixing of problems and the lifting up of people, not on the punishing of others because they act in ways that we don’t like but that are not directly harmful. The song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” (a reference to John 13:35) not “They will know we are Christians by our judgmental and self-righteous attitudes”—though many outside the church might argue that we’re closer to the latter than the former at present.

We need to consider carefully the role of the law in democratic society. Our legal system must balance the preservation of as much freedom as possible with the protection of citizens from wrongdoing and exploitation. The best way to do this—and this is how the legal system often works—is to focus on injury, not morality.

Some acts prohibited by the law (civil or criminal) are very clear in their intent to prevent injury—laws prohibiting theft and violence are designed to prevent actual and quantifiable harm from coming to others.

Still, America has a strong history of legislating morality. Hold on to your hats, because we’re about to get scandalous. Here are three things that are (or have been) affected by legislation largely on grounds of morality rather than prevention of harm: obscenity, drugs and prostitution. Before we proceed further, I do not mean to say that there are not significant moral concerns to be attached to each of these things or that they are good things—only that they are places where the law seems to overstep based on a certain group’s idea of what is right.

And here’s the practical problem—you can’t actually enforce morality with laws. Human beings tend to ignore laws that they don’t believe have a moral basis (or when they disagree with someone else’s morality), resulting in punishments for “crimes” in which no party has actually been injured.

“Obscenity” is an ambiguous, “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it” sort of thing. To help ground the discussion, I’m mostly going to focus on sexual content that falls under the typical definition of obscenity.

We live in an environment far more permissive of pornography than many others—pornography is ubiquitous, easily accessible to anyone with a computer, and often socially treated as “not a big deal.” There are very significant moral concerns to be tied to pornography—both in the way that the production of pornography has a tendency toward exploitation and in how the consumption of pornography insidiously normalizes the objectification and demeaning of sexual partners in general and women in particular.

Still, those concerns are about the potential results of pornography and not necessarily about the thing itself. We could (and often do) pass laws that address the punishment of certain consequential acts—like the provision of pornography to minors or that otherwise involves minors—rather than blanket “obscenity laws.”

In Texas, however, our penal code still contains obscenity laws that prevent store owners from describing sex toys as anything other than “novelties”—if it is hinted at that the object could be used for a sexual purpose, it violates the obscenity law and its sale is criminal. So, it is with some frequency that the owners of or workers at “adult” shops are arrested over nomenclature. This situation, I think, makes clear that the purpose of Texas’s obscenity law is to govern the action of otherwise free and consenting adults because of one group’s moral views.

Let me reiterate, I think that pornography engenders addictive tendencies in its consumers and has the potential to create numerous interpersonal problems for those who view it. But I can’t be sure that pornography is categorically immoral. Even if it is—and it might be—that doesn’t mean that I believe that people should be legally prohibited from certain acts that are immoral so long as there is not a direct injury to someone else.

The ad absurdum of this argument is the criminalization of any activity deemed to be detrimental to a person on behalf of that own person. There’s a good reason that that kind of government interventionism and protectionism is offensive to most Americans.

I think that we can look at drugs in a similar light. While the addictive effects of marijuana seem to be scientifically debatable at present, we can be sure that there are prohibited substances that are highly addictive, ruin lives and lead to destructive behavior. That is why they are criminalized—to prevent harm before it happens. Unfortunately, the attempt at prevention appears to be largely futile.

The problem lies in the fact that we cannot stop drug use by criminalization—the last forty years have proven that the “war on drugs” is a failure with a high cost—both in a system that has given financial incentive to the establishment of dangerous drug cartels and that breaks up families by punishing rather than helping those affected. We will not stop the addicted by making the possession of use of illegal substances punishable by jail time.

Again, it is clear that drugs often lead people to criminal acts out of negligence or desperation—but these are already illegal. Driving under the influence, theft, child endangerment, assault, even murder are unfortunately too common in the world of some of the drug addicted. But since those things are already illegal, why do we need to criminalize the drug user for the use of the drug in the case (rare as it may be) where there are no consequences to others from the use? (I phrase it in terms of consequences because I’m unwilling to call illicit drug use “responsible,” but there are many other legal activities which might be self-injurious and not terribly responsible, too).

Likewise, prostitution has always been with us in civilized history. Some governments have permitted legal prostitution (ancient Rome and some of the modern Northern European states); others have outlawed it (the U.S.). In medieval Europe, the church even supported prostitution as a lesser evil at a time when social tendencies (at least for the wealthy) were for older men (in their thirties, often) to marry younger women (in their late teens or early twenties). This created a situation in which older married men feared the seduction of their wives by unmarried men their spouse’s own age. Prostitution seemed to provide a sort of safeguard against infidelity—for the young men, at least. As far as I know, there were no significant initiatives to help young brides bond with their older husbands.

Prostitution seems morally questionable at best and certainly a hindrance to the promotion of healthier (both psychologically and theologically) romantic and sexual relationships. But the reality is that none of our laws against prostitution have stopped the institution. Our attempts at regulation have only made things worse. By pushing prostitution into the realm of the illicit, we have deprived sex workers of safe and healthy working conditions that might be provided under regulation rather than illegalization, have institutionally supported human trafficking and sex-slavery by making such business profitable, and have deprived those who work in the sex industry of legal productions taken for granted by others.

And that lays bare the common thread for all of these issues—our attempt to criminalize these choices en masse rather than to focus on the injurious effects of such practices has made the situation worse rather than better. Our attempts at judgment have created additional suffering when we are called to mercifully relieve the suffering of others.

You may ask (and I hope you do) what the alternative is. It is rather simple—we persuade others about morality, we inform them about the potential harm that could come from the types of things I’ve described above, but we leave the law to criminalize only those actions that directly and tangibly harm another person. The American constitution is founded on the principle that one is free to believe what one wants but not free to act on those beliefs to the direct injury of another.

We addressed this belief in my constitutional law class in law school. In reviewing First Amendment case law, our professor would often remind us, “Often, the answer is not less speech, but more.”

The fundamental difference between the law and morality is this: the goal of the law is to prevent certain results; the goal of morality is to avoid certain intentions.

So, we ought to be focusing our faithful energies on eradicating the factors that lead toward the immoralities we seek to curtail. Want to curtail the use of pornography and prostitution? Help people focus on healthy human interactions and relationships. Want to limit drug use in our country? Fight generational poverty, the large disparity of wealth and racism to limit the oppressions that drive many to the escape of drugs.

Is it extremely uncomfortable to try to talk to others about moral issues? Yes. Will there be disagreements even among Christians about moral questions? Of course. Isn’t it just easier to legislate morality? Certainly. But is it better than calling people to be better rather than trying to punish them into morality? Absolutely not.

When Jesus tells us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to render unto God what is God’s, I think this idea is somewhere in his intent. The role of government is not the same as the role of our faith (thank God!) and we cannot expect to use the one to achieve the goals of the other. Jesus had no interest in using governmental authority to draw others to his message of striving to “become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” Why are we so interested in doing so? Our efforts would be much better spent on helping people make better choices and showing mercy when they make poor ones by helping to improve situations.

At the end of the day, would we be better off if we stopped focusing law enforcement efforts on criminalizing obscenity and instead spent more time promoting healthy human interaction? I certainly think so.

TL;DR

(1) Attempts by Christians to legislate morality have been a poor witness of Christ because these attempts have increased suffering rather than alleviating suffering.

(2) Criminalizing immorality does not create morality.

(3) Our efforts as politically-active Christians are better spent persuading others to be moral without the coercive force of the state, addressing the social, economic and political conditions that drive people to immoral behavior and helping others who have made poor moral choices to remediate the personal suffering their actions have caused and to alleviate the suffering they have caused for others.