Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy

The plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much smaller than one might think, flanked on two sides by the monasteries appended to the structure to accommodate some of its caretakers and inhabitants from the six denominations that share in the ownership of the edifice. By modern standards, the entire Old City of Jerusalem is cramped, the narrow streets winding through clusters of centuries-old buildings. The fact that the plaza is nearly always full of people reinforces the sense of compactness and confinement.

That alone can be overwhelming, and it causes many to miss what is perhaps the most important modern symbol attached to the site–an old work ladder (the “immovable ladder”) placed high upon the wall to facilitate repairs made sometime before 1852, when the “Status Quo” agreement established that changes to the building must be agreed to by all custodian parties. To date they have not agreed to move the ladder. This strife is emblematic of the current state of the modern nation of Israel.

On the drive to my office this morning, I heard a piece on NPR about “pilgrims” to the plaque announcing the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (where there was previously a Consulate building). The things I heard instigated this post.

There are many, particularly American fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, who believe that the support of Israel is part of some Biblical prophecy (that I must admit I cannot find in my copies of the Bible) about conditions that must be established to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

So many problems with this kind of theology; I feel driven to address at least some of them. First, Jesus tells us that no one knows the time of the Second Coming except the Father; this seems to indicate to me that mankind cannot manufacture a set of circumstances to “trigger” such a cosmic event. Second, a focus on bringing about an apocalyptic end time leads us away from what Jesus called us to do. Jesus tells us that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is about helping those who need help, pursuing mercy, justice, righteousness and–above all else–love. It is not about forcing God’s hand or patiently awaiting for Jesus to unilaterally fix everything. We have been wondrously and blessedly invited by our Creator to participate in the bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth; let us not squander such a gift.

But to get to the heart of the matter, we need to look a little deeper at the foundation of this position. The argument starts with the statement that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them in the Old Testament. This requires a literalist view unnuanced by things like the passage of time, the Incarnation, or the socialio-religious views of the people who participated (under inspiration from God) in the writing of the Old Testament texts.

Let’s break that down into several problems. To take the idea literally that God gave ancient Canaan to the Isrealite people after the Exodus (particularly in the beginning of the Book of Joshua) requires us to also believe that God authorized and endorsed the wholesale slaughter of native Canaanites. This requires reliance on Divine Command Theory.

In short, Divine Command Theory is that, because God is the Creator of all things, what God commands is absolutely and incontrovertibly morally righteous. At its simplest, this seems to be common sense, right? But what happens when we are told that God has commanded an action and there’s something within us that just screams that that’s not right?

While I have argued (and will continue to argue) for an understanding of morality that is contextualized, I have firmly rejected the idea that morality is relative. I affirm that morality is established by God as creator and sustainer of all that is. Perhaps the most functional approach to Divine Command Theory is to determine whether accepting any particular command as from God would contradict our understanding of the nature of God or–more bluntly–make a hypocrite of God. I think that most Christians (hopefully all!) could agree that God is not a hypocrite.

One approach would be to turn to C.S. Lewis’ idea of “natural law.” For Lewis, our conscience is the action of the Holy Spirit within us (what we Wesleyans might call “prevenient grace”). While Lewis uses this as an evidence (but not a “proof”) of God’s existence, if we accept the assertion of “natural law” as true, we might use it instead to determine whether calling something a “divine command” would lead to a contradiction of God by God. In essence, if our conscience, as the action of the Holy Spirit, would conflict with what we are told is a “divine command,” either our conscience or the command is not of God.

Some Christians might recoil at the thought of “contradicting Scripture” with “our feelings;” I imagine some might go so far as to call this Montanism. There are two equally strong responses: (1) we are not “contradicting Scripture,” we are interpreting Scripture, and (2) why don’t we then look to see if we find contradiction of a supposedly-divine command in Scripture.

Paul tells us in 1 John 4:7-21 (ESV), “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, adn whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We are told in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not murder [or kill, depending upon interpretation and translation],” and “Thou shalt not steal” (as the land was already in the possession of the Canaanites). In the person of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s way is one of love, peace and self-sacrifice, not one of violent conquest. So Scripture gives us a contradiction to resolve if we are to call God’s command to conquer Canaan just and right because God ordered it. Is that a God of love? And if the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament (which we must surely agree to), why didn’t God send a messiah who would reconquer Judea from the Romans?

We are equipped with not only theological arguments, but also social and historical arguments to help resolve the contradiction. First, we know that the Book of Joshua was not written at the time of Joshua, but most likely after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The Israelites needed a national story that explained why they had the right to the land against both foreign invaders and against the Samaritans who remained (and had in many cases taken possession of land formerly in the hands of the Babylonian captives). We also know that the beginning of Judges contradicts the invasion and conquest narrative of Joshua–in Judges there is a more gradual immigration of the Israelites into Canaan and an assimilation with and then change to the dominant culture. The archeology supports the Judges version over the Joshua version (Jericho for instance was not occupied at the time in which the Joshua story is set).

Elsewhere in the Old Testament we have evidence that part of the writing of the Scriptures represent the evolving understanding of God by the Israelites (and in relation to other cultures at the time) rather than as the verbatim “Word of God.” In Joshua 6:21, we are told that the Isrealites “devoted to the city to the Lord” by killing every living thing inside it. Saul is later “commanded” to do the same thing to the city of Amelek, killing every living animal to devote them to the Lord (1 Samuel 15).

But archeology has shown us that the Israelites were not the only ones to think of dedicating cities to their god by killing all inhabitants. In th Mesha Stele (discovered in Dhiban, Jordan in 1868–once the land of Moab), the Moabite King Mesha has written, “And the men of Gad lived in the land of Atarot from ancient times; and the king of Israel built Atarot for himself. And I fought against the city and captured it. And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Kemosh [Chemosh] and for Moab.” So, it seems likely that killing all of the inhabitants of a captured city as a devotion to the national god was simply a cross-cultural understanding of how things were done, and not a specific and unique command from God.

So all evidence seems to point against utilizing Divine Command Theory to claim that God definitively told the Israelites to conquer Canaan and that Israelites have somehow received eternal title and ownership of the Levant directly from God. This is not to say that God did not place the Isrealites in Canaan or lead them to it–I think it’s fair to say that God did. In my journals of my travel in Israel later this year, I noted just how geographically perfectly placed the Israelites were for God to incarnate there when Jesus came. Disbelieving the command of God to conquer all of Canaan and to slaughter its inhabitants does not mean disbelief in a purpose and design to the Israelites settling that land.

If we view the Old Testament’s claim of the Isrealites’ sole right to the land as just that–a claim of the Israelites and not a command of God–then we cannot blindly say, “God gave Israel to the Jews, they should have it and no one else” and turn a blind eye to Palestinians.

The word “Palestinian” comes from the word “Phillistine” in the Bible. The Phillistines were the Phoenician settlers of the coastal cities in what is now Isreal, like Tyre in the north and Gaza farther south. They also occupied the land in the time of the Old Testament, so without recourse to a divine mandate that only the Jews have possession of Isreal (or dominion over, if you prefer), there is an equally-historic claim to the land by Palestinian inhabitants.

Israel has not been kind to the Palestinians. From a certain perspective, I can understand how the Israelis arrived at their positions and policies–the mindset of being surrounded on all sides by Arab nations that would be all-too-happy to see Israel fail as a nation (or be reincorporated into Arab nations) must be overwhelming. But understanding does not mean that I condone those positions or policies, or that I can support them.

I do not deny that there are security threats to the people and nation of Israel from certain Palestinians. I do not deny that there are bad actors on both sides. Nor do I deny that Jews should have a homeland and that the nation of Israel should exist. But the majority of Palestinians are good people who are being oppressed by Israel through military force, economic isolation and use of a legal system that ultimately equates to Israel exercising whatever law it wants to over Palestinian territory.

The move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem–regardless of whether Jerusalem is the de facto capitol of Israel–exacerbates the plight of the Palestinians. That Christians are supporting this oppression in the name of God is unacceptable. Maybe I’m wrong, but based on everything I’ve learned and studied about Jesus, he would be far more interested in caring for Palestinians than ensuring that Jews had the rights to the land.

There are two factors that further arouse my suspicion and opposition to the stance that “good Christians must support Israel at all costs.” First is the confusion of American-conservative-style patriotism with the Christian faith. The only way that the U.S. could be called a “Christian” nation would be because Christians within the nation have risen to the challenge to love their neighbors as they are commanded to do: opposing racism and sexism, caring for the less fortunate, being tolerant to people of other faiths (and cooperating with them in the government of the nation), welcoming immigrants, pursuing true justice and mercy, standing against deceit and corruption in those who lead the nation, and honestly striving to make the world a better place–not just for Americans, but for everyone. But to claim a divine mandate for America that means that Christian Americans can do no wrong and justifying them no matter what they do is dangerous to true faith and bordering on idolatry.

The second factor is that there is a sizeable population of Palestinian Christians. Yes, most Palestinians are Muslim, but there are many Christian Palestinian suffering the same oppression as their Muslim counterparts. This means that, a position to support Israel unconditionally that is somehow founded on the Christian faith requires us to contribute to the suffering of other Christians. I don’t think that that should matter, there’re are no exceptions or nuances to “love your neighbor” based on their religion–quite the opposite in fact if the Good Samaritan story is taken into account–but there does seem to be some additional hypocrisy added by that fact.

Ideally, I think, Christians should be working to help pave a path that gives dignity and protection to both Isrealis and Palestinians and that allows them to live together in peace and collaboration rather than the military occupation that currently stands. We certainly shouldn’t be treating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site.

 

Thinking About Kavanaugh

Since I’ve been asked to post some of my thoughts about American politics by a reader, it seems only right to reward the kind of feedback and responsiveness I’d love to see more of from readers as quickly as possible.

So, here you go, yet more commentary on the Kavanaugh nomination (though the first from me).

To begin, I am disappointed in the behavior of both major parties in our country. There have always been “winner-take-all” politicians in the world, but zero-sum, no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs politics is now the status quo. Somehow along the way, we’ve lost the rigorous dedication to civil discourse, the ability to compromise and collaborate, and a focus on the common good over pandering to a limited electorate. This is true of persons on both parties.

I watched Senator McCain’s funeral with great sorrow. Not only did the event carry with it a sense of Shakespearean drama (I couldn’t help but think of Mark Antony’s funereal speech in Julius Ceasar, though both motivation and results differed in our reality–thankfully), but it really did seem that we’ve lost one of the last noble politicians–those who could vehemently stand for an ideology without demonizing or marginalizing anyone who disagrees. There’s some amount of revisionist idolization in there to be sure, but in his death McCain managed to become a momentary symbol of that more general loss.

I am afraid that both the Democrats and the Republicans have handled Kavanaugh’s nomination in such a way that it cannot but be polarized and polarizing. Worse still, suspicion of political motivations to the actions of both sides now guarantee that the results of the FBI investigation conducted this week will be automatically discounted by those whose opinion is not supported by the investigation’s findings. The Democrats will say that the investigation was too limited and too short if they don’t like the results, and the Republicans will call conspiracy if they don’t.

And that brings us to my real thoughts on Kavanaugh specifically. I watched a good portion, but not all, of both Dr. Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s. But what I want to say in this post is not about the truth of the allegations against him. In fact, here’s what I have to say about the truth of the allegations: I don’t know. Based on what I’ve seen, I find no reason to believe a motivation in the three accusers other than sincere belief in the allegations made against Judge Kavanaugh. I found Dr. Ford’s demeanor fully credible. I don’t see that Ford, Swetnick and Ramirez have anything to gain by publically accusing Kavanaugh, but they do have much to lose.

In all honesty, I just don’t feel qualified to give anything other than my humblest of opinions as to the truth of the matter. So, putting that aside, let’s turn to the issues I do feel I can comment on.

Let me start with some comments as a lawyer to clear up misconceptions I hear frequently in discussions about the hearings and confirmation.

This is not a legal proceeding; it is a political one. Legal standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “a proponderence of evidence” or “burden of proof” are not the proper standards to refer to in the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. No one is considering criminal prosecution here, so let’s stop pretending like criminal standards matter.

The only standard that matters is “do we believe that this candidate will carry out the duties of a Supreme Court justice competently, faithfully, impartially and to the highest degree that the people of the United States deserve?”

In other words, the proceedings are not ultimately about Kavanaugh answering to the Judicial Committee, the Senate, the President or the Congress as a whole. They are about those bodies doing everything that they can to ensure that the candidate confirmed is accountable to the American people. Many of us–especially the politicians–have lost sight of that.

Additionally, let us not treat Kavanaugh as if he’s entitled to be confirmed. This is not a matter of “once the president nominates him, the burden shifts to someone else to affirmatively disqualify him.” The first concern in such a matter must never be the specific candidate, but the good of the citizenry. That should mean a neutral playing field.

So, when other people lament Kavanaugh’s treatment by the press, the Democratic members of the Judicial Committee, or anyone else, I can only partially agree. I can only agree to the extent that everyone deserves to be treated with civility and respect. I cannot agree to the extent that some deservedness of preferential treatement is assumed in such comments.

No one is entitled to be a Supreme Court justice. Personally, I’m a bit suspicious of anyone who makes it their avowed ambition to be one–I think that cuts against the expectations of neutrality in interpretation of the law, humility and selflessness that should be expected of such a person.

I also want to clarify comments about defamation. It is long established law in our country that those who are candidates for public office (or who hold such office) are under most circumstances barred from making claims of defamation. This is a function of the First Amendment right to question or criticize the operations of government and a check on the government itself by ensuring that the nation may freely debate the character and actions of its leaders. Those who run for office (for the most part) give up the right to complain about what people say about them.

On the other hand, I also believe that a respect for the democratic process must be placed above the result of any particular nomination. I do not agree with many (perhaps most) of Kavanaugh’s political ideas or jurisprudential philosophy. I do fear that his presence on the Court could threaten a reversal of long-established rights in this country, such as Roe v. Wade. But that is not a reason in and of itself to take the position any price should be paid to keep him off of the  Court.

Our nation was designed with checks and balances in mind, and there are ways to counter judicial results we don’t like–at both the state and federal levels, statutes are passed with some frequency because the legislature does not want to keep the legal result reached by a court. While the conditions under which such legistlative override are sometimes complex, we should not be mistaken for believing that any one decision within our government is an irreversible loss to anyone who doesn’t like the result.

I am willing to concede that I do not know whether Kavanaugh committed the acts of which he’s been accused, though I did find Dr. Ford’s testimony highly credible. What disqualifies Kavanaugh in my opinion (and I’m far from the first person to say this) was his own testimony on the same day.

Kavanaugh’s vitriolic description of hit-jobs, conspiracies and an intense hatred of Democrats showed a man who lacks judicial temperament. What we need in this country–across the board–are people who are willing to reserve judgment, consider the possibilities, have humility in the limitations of their knowledge and admit that they do the best that they can under the circumstances. Kavanaugh revealed himself to be a man more than willing to be partisan and to politicize judgments that should be made from a more even-keeled position. His extreme distrust of Democrats indicates a prejudice I find he would be unlikely to set aside simply because he puts on his robe and takes a seat in our highest court. For me, that’s the end of the analysis. There are other candidates, plenty whom the conservatives can get behind, who are otherwise qualified to hold the position (whether or not I agree with their views).

Now I’m going to share some thoughts on the matter as a Christian and lay theologian. As a Christian, I believe that people can change–it’s a fundamental part of our faith. Had Kavanaugh said from the get-go that he behaved irresponsibly as a kid, but that he’s grown past that, I would have had profound respect for that. Had he done that, I think I would have to give much more thought to the seriousness of the allegations against him to determine whether I personally thought him fit for the office.

But he didn’t. Instead, he tried to downplay and mischaracterize his youthful indiscretions for his personal gain. Again, the truth of the allegations against him aside, such dishonesty and dodginess is unacceptable from a person who wants to sit in an institution where the pursuit of truth and fairness is paramount. As most of the late-night hosts have remarked, his disingenuous explanations of commonly-known slang terms was deserving of ridicule. In this time of Russian bots, “fake news” and “alternative facts,” I believe that one role a Christian must play in current politics is to stand for truth and against disinformation and purposeful deception or propaganda–even (and especially) when we don’t like what that truth is.

I am disturbed by the sense of personal entitlement that Judge Kavanaugh displayed in the hearing. The general thrust of his argument was, “I’ve played by the rules of the country’s elites, so it would be unfair to deny me this position.” He responded to questions about his drinking by saying that he worked hard as a student, checked off the boxes of privilege for those with the resources and connections to attend Ivy League universities, that his position as a varsity sportsman and talented student somehow entitled him to behave however he wanted outside of those pursuits. His response to Democratic questions were not those of a person humbly submitting to vetting before potentially being given a high honor, but of a defiant man daring to challenge others to explain why he shouldn’t be given that honor.

Privileged entitlement is one of the biggest social issues in modern culture, I think. It is inextricably involved with racism, sexism, anti-immigration discrimination, the wealth divide and most of the other hot-button issues of the day. Kavanaugh’s nomination and the accusations against him, I think, have generated so much traction because these events seem so emblematic of the issues of privilege and entitlement in our country.

I am suspicious that, for some but certainly not all, an unacknowledged sense of entitlement is part of the opposition to full inclusion within the Christian faith.

I am extremely troubled by Trump, Jr.’s comments that he fears for male children more than female children in light of today’s #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings. Frankly, I’m pretty tired of the privileged trying to make themselves out to be victims. It’s not a good look. But take my indignation with a grain of salt–I am after all a white Christian heterosexual male who was born into an upper-middle-class family.

Nevertheless, I do not think that we’ve yet made sufficient progress in the rights of women that it’s time to start having conversations about how we protect men in the relatively few situations where they are falsely accused.

All of this begs the question as to what I think Christians should be doing to help in today’s environment. I have some particular things to say based on my own theological understanding of our faith, but let’s save that for some other post. For now, let’s focus on some things that I think most (hopefully all) Christians can agree upon.

First, let’s stand for truth. Let’s stop absorbing our preferred news source, assuming that everything they’ve said is exactly the way it is, and making assumptions about the facts without doing much to confirm them (as best we can). Let’s hold those who blatantly disregard the truth responsible for such behavior.

Second, let’s practice some humility. It is possible to stand for strong convictions while admitting that one is not so special as to be absolutely, unequivocally sure of the truth. In light of that, let us treat each other with respect. We can disagree without hating those who disagree with us. We can protest without hating the people who stand for what we’re protesting. Sometimes, often perhaps, that’s not easy. But that’s why we must practice.

Third, let’s actually listen to one another. This necessarily flows from the second point. I will admit that one is likely to encounter some people whose beliefs are entirely unfounded and unmoored from reality at some point along the way. I will also admit that it is a waste of time to engage with some people, because they will not be reasonable enough to engage in real conversation. But I don’t think that those people constitute the majority, and you still have to listen to everyone to know who is who.

Fourth, let’s try to walk the line. What line is that, you ask? The line between understanding that the truth and what people believe are both important, though they’re not necessarily the same thing. When I advise clients as an attorney, I often tell them that they need to treat the beliefs of the other side as true. Not because those beliefs are true, but because those beliefs are nevertheless realities that must be negotiated in order to achieve a desired result.

For the Christian in political discourse, this approach is important both pragmatically and morally. First, we cannot love one another well without trying to understand where other people are coming from, whether we agree with their perception or not. Even in our strife, even in politics, we must endeavor to act with love toward one another. Practically, you’re never going to convince anyone of anything by telling them that the way that they feel is flat-out wrong and should never be considered.

In my judgment, much of the current anti-immigration sentiment is based out of fear of loss–loss of culture, loss of status or income, loss of the “way things used to be.” I may not think that the fear of those kinds of loss are based in fact or are proper responses to immigration, but that doesn’t change the fact that many who feel that anti-immigration sentiment are scared, and if you can’t help them manage that fear (or at least acknowledge it), you’re not going to be able to reach a relationship with them where you can honestly talk about why they might (by their faith, for instance) be called to change those views.

In summary, the best way for us to influence how our politicians behave is to model that behavior ourselves so that we are not hypocrites when we demand the same sort of behavior from them. This, I think, is a moral imperative of the Christian. Happily, I think it coincides with our civic duties.

Gnosticism: Ascension without Virtue, Salvation without Sacrifice

Why am I talking about gnosticism, an age-old system of belief? Because there’s something fundamentally enticing about what it offers, something that appeals to the less-impressive aspects of human nature, and it manages to keep popping up in society in unexpected (and frankly fascinating) ways.

What is gnosticism? Well, there are a number of variations, but I’ll give a description of those things that tend to be similar across those differences. If you want to look up specific examples, look to Merkavah mysticism in Judaism, Catharism, Marcion of Sinope, neo-Platonism and some forms of hermetic belief–though take caution, the extent to which any of these systems of belief fall into gnosticism and/or the way in which each influenced the development of the common ideas is subject to scholarly debate.

First, gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” The idea of there being “secret knowledge” that leads to salvation is key here. But that’s perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. In a brief retelling of the gnostic story, there is a supreme God (the Monad, meaning “the one”), the true God, who is only spirit. This God creates lesser spiritual beings often referred to as Aeons. The Monad and the Aeons together constitute the Pleroma, the fullness of God.

In the version of the cosmology known from the Nag Hammadi texts, the lowest Aeon, Sophia (“wisdom”), creates a spiritual being of her own (often referenced as the “Demiurge,” the “son of chaos” and known in the Sethite and Ophite versions of gnosticism as Yaldabaoth/Ialdabaoth ) without the permission of the Monad, and hides him in a cloud that obscures him from all else and all else from him.

Being an emanation of an emanation (despite the lack of photocopiers in the ancient world) and hiddent from all true knowledge, the Demiurge is considered at best to be supremely foolish and at worst to be blatantly evil. The Demiurge believes himself to be the only being in existence (in other words, God) and creates the material world in which we live.

So, for the gnostics, the material world is evil, essentially a prison created by the Demiurge from which our spiritual selves–our souls–cannot escape without attaining the (secret) knowledge of the Monad. Salvation here is not about love, sacrifice, self-improvement, repentence, faith in God or any of the other things that make Christianity such a powerful faith. It is a prison break.

A few notes before we move on. First, I see a similarity here between gnosticism and some forms of fundamentalist Christianity–not in belief but in result. In fundamentalist apocalyptic Christianity, salvation lies in saying “the magic words” about belief in Jesus. Because of the belief that God will destroy the material world anyway, there is no need to take action to reconcile, improve or ameliorate it. In other words, salvation is deeply perosnal and requires little or no concern for others. It would be unfair, of course, to say that all apocalyptic fundamentalists or gnostics have no desire to love or help others, but the system of belief makes that easier, not harder. In both, ritual action takes the place of compassion–see Cathar views on marraige, sex, and food, for instance.

Second, though it may be tempting, I would caution against drawing parallels with Buddhism here. Buddhist thought is remarkably complex, diverse and nuanced, so it is impossible (as in most things) to make a fair generalization with some applicability to all schools of Buddhist thought (I’ve heard that there’s a saying that it would take a lifetime just to read the names of all the schools of Buddhism). Nevertheless, I’ll point out what I think are some differences. Enlightenment in Buddhism does come from “secret knowledge” in a sense, but this “secret knowledge” is existential rather than abstract or categorical–it’s the realization of the connectedness of all things. Additionally, Buddhism doesn’t seem to use the mind/body dualism of gnosticism, instead viewing reality as matters of truth or maya (illusion). Because of these things, the path to enlightenment in Buddhism requires both growing realization of truth and action based on that truth–primarily compassionate action. For more detail and investigation, see Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

With that out of the way, let me make clear why gnosticism is heterodox to true Christian theology. First, Christian gnosticism sees Jesus as a savior-figure because he is the purveyor of gnosis necessary to transcend this world, not because of his demonstration of God’s love for us or the salvific act of his death on the cross. Alongside this, gnosticism views the material world as essentially evil and bad. This contrasts entirely with God’s declaration in Genesis upon creating the material world that “it [is] good.” The Incarnation of Jesus tells us that material embodiment is important to God, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how.

Gnosticism sees the Monad as inherently unknowable. While it’s only logical that finite beings will never be able to fully understand an infinite being, Jesus is proof that God has revealed at least parts of God’s self to us. I note that there’s nothing within gnostic thought that absolutely prevents a similar view, but it does not seem to be a focus.

Gnosticism has little concern with sin under any common Christian conception. In gnosticism, the moral equation is simple–flesh bad, spirit good. The gnostic’s duty toward sin is to escape it, not to rectify it. There is no need for sanctification, for making oneself “good” in a moral sense because that idea just does not compute in gnosticism.

Additionally, gnosticism is individualized.  Is it possible to walk the Christian faith alone? I used to think so, but I am thoroughly convinced that the ultimate goal of Christianity to bring all things into right relationship with all else, and that obviates the possibility of sanctification (though perhaps not faith and certainly not Grace) in solitude.

In other words, gnosticism is what Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace.” It requires very little of the believer other than conviction that he has attained secret knowledge that accurately reflects the truth of existence. And that appeals to human nature–we’re always looking for the path of least resistance, the way to get the most “bang for our buck,” a religion that allows us to be and do what we were always going to be and do without wondering if there’s a better way. It’s easy.

So that being said, where do I see gnosticism in modern society?

There are certainly avowed gnostic believers of various stripes at work in the world today. The different sects and factions of purposeful gnostics are difficult to describe in short, except to say that these groups are diverse and often mixed with other esoteric ideas, particularly magical thought.

There are also perennial attempts by what I can only describe as “New Age” movements to draw upon gnostic-type ideas to appeal to potential adherents. The Secret, modern cults (particularly alien-belief cults, it seems), and other groups claiming to hold the truth of enlightment (and yet in unenlightened hypocrisy being willing to share such knowledge only with a chosen few) all draw something from gnostic tradition in the fabrication of their own systems of thought. I realize it is unfair to bring the great diversity of New Age thought and groups under this single umbrella, so please forgive my gross generalization.

Much science-fiction also draws upon gnostic ideas to set motifs, themes and subplots. Phillip K. Dick (one of my favorite sci-fi authors) often dabbled in–or dove in head first–to gnostic ideas in his works. To what extent he came to embrace some form of gnosticism in his own personal belief is perhaps debatable but ultimately quite likely. Look to see just how many of his works have been turned into films (though most of these are lighter on the side of gnostic thought).

The turn-of-the-millenium trilogy The Matrix also drew upon themes within gnostic Christianity, though the series made possible entire textbooks on the philosophical questions within the films, much to the joy of college professors needing something with which to relate to freshman students.

I have no issue whatsoever with gnostic ideas appearing in fantasy and science fiction–we generally refer to these as speculative fiction for a reason, and the ideas within these works should challenge our beliefs, contemplate alternative cosmologies and provide a space to explore alternative ideas.

The space where I find gnosticism most fascinatingly reborn, however, is in the semi-religion of materialist science. I’ve talked elsewhere about my skepticism regarding mind uploading, but it is not the only culprit here. Many scientifically argued bases for human immortality fall into this mold, as often do the general philosophies of transhumanism or posthumanism, though they do not inherently need to be so closely allied with gnostic thought. It is the imposition of a layer of religious thought that prioritizes the science over the existential effects or consequences of the science that leads to a blind gnostic hope that we can somehow escape all evils (if we’re only smart enough) rather than having to dig in the dirt, confront our demons, and pull out our own evils and destructiveness at the root.

But it is not just gnosticism that runs this risk–perhaps it only provides a convenient scapegoat to the warning I really want to give: to be given any serious consideration, any idea that claims to “improve” the human condition, whether secular philosophy, religion (even, I would say especially, Christianity) or other ideology must seek to do so by the confrontation and alleviation of suffering (almost undoubtedly through some form of personal growth and sacrifice) rather than simply offering some form of easy escape.

 

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.