Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

Pilgrimage, Day 7: O Brother, Where Am I?

Today we left Galilee, traveling first to the Harod Spring (where Gideon had his men drink the water to determine who would accompany him in battle against the Midianites) and the Jezreel Spring (at Tel Jezreel in Samaria, where King Ahab and Jezebel would make their capital).

From thence to Beth-Shean, the site of the palace of Egyptian governors in the 13th Century B.C.E. and the site of Scythopolis, one of the Greco-Roman Decapoli founded near the trade routes. Scythopolis was founded by the Ptolemys after they took control of the Egypt and the Levant in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death.

This brings me to my first point today: After conquering Egypt, Alexander turned West to visit the oracle at the Siwa Oasis (known to the Greeks as Ammonia). It was here that the oracle pronounced Alexander the son of a god and the man began to incorporate divinity into his own identity. Alexander’s conquest enabled the Ptolemys to build the Decapoli. Between Alexander and Augustus–not to mention the men who came before and after Christ claiming to be the prophesied messiah–I am struck by just how much the shadows of human men declaring themselves to be divine loomed over this land.

Scythopolis itself was nothing short of amazing, reminding me very much of Roman ruins found in Italy. Of course, many cultures had built at Beth-Shean at least as far back as the aforementioned Egyptians until an 8th Century earthquake caused the settlement to be moved. The Greco-Romans had built the largest city there, which was followed by the Byzantines, who rebuilt and expanded in their own time.

I must admit to completely nerding out about the ruins there (is anyone surprised?). Running water, heated bathhouses, Cyclopean architecture, a 7,000-person theatre, marble-clad streets (marble is not often found natively in Israel, if at all), intricate mosaics–all of the standards for Roman achievement. But I also realized a great deficiency in my own learning (much to my chagrin, of course). The Byzantines must have considered themselves the inheritors and reconcilers of the competing cultures of the Holy Land, combining the best of Roman knowledge and achievement with Christianity. Despite this, I know relatively little about them. I’ve read Precopius’s Secret History (though I don’t remember much of it), can recognize the artwork and can name some rulers and events. But almost all of my learning about the Byzantines is tangential, a side-effect of my Western-Eurocentric historical focus and mindset. There’s no time right now, but I must soon make it a priority to study that culture and civilization for its own sake.

From there, we headed south along the Jordan to Beth-arabah, the likeliest site for Jesus’s baptism by John the–well, you know. In a power play against Syria and Jordan, after seizing the Golan Heights and preventing the former from having access to Galilean water, Israel built a dam at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, allowing them to control the outflow of the Jordan River. I’m told the river flow volume is about 5% of what it once was. Standing on a platform by the side of the river, I did not doubt it. A plaque commemorating the 2013 water level was a good fifteen feet or more over my head.

That journey led us through the West Bank–the first of several times we’ll visit that area. I was moved by the obvious difference between that place and other parts of Israel–increased poverty, dilapidated buildings, an atmosphere of desperation. We passed a sign warning Israeli citizens that the road next to the sign led to a Palestinian settlement and that, therefore, that road was not safe for them. To be clear, Palestinians are also Israeli citizens, so the sign spoke volumes about the deep divides here.

I titled an earlier post “The Ancient and the Modern;” the clearest example of that juxtaposition to date was in the West Bank, where we watched young shepherds lead their flocks in the same manner as has been done for millennia–while playing on their cell phones.

Once to the Jordan, we held a short baptismal remembrance service–keep in mind that Methodists consider re-baptism anathema–followed by singing “Down to the River to Pray” before dipping our hands in the water and making the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There is a spiritual resonance at that place (assisted by the presence of white doves and a strong wind that picked up soon after we arrived), but, for me at least, it was overshadowed by the present-day realities. This spot on the Jordan is also the border between Israel and Jordan. As such, we had to pass through a road lined on either side with warnings of the mine fields laid nearby. The detritus of past warfare littered those fields, rusted remnants of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. At the river, a buoyed line provided the border between nations–we were warned not to approach the border lest the guards on either side go to high alert. Those soldiers–Jordanians on one side and two eighteen-year-old IDF soldiers on our side–eyed one another like gunfighters at high noon. What caught my eye–and my cynicism–most about this standoff was that all of the soldiers (on both sides) were armed with American weapons.

After passing through some of the Judean wilderness, we arrived back in Jerusalem to the Knight’s Palace Hotel at about 4:30. With 2 hours to kill until dinner, we spread out across the Old City. After investigating some nearby shops that had been recommended to us (I have little desire to bring home souvenirs), we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not fond of crowds, or waiting, so I resolved to return to the Church to see the things I wanted to see: Golgotha and the Tomb.

I cannot be certain, of course, that the spaces asserted by the Church are the actual locations of Christ’s execution and (attempt at) burial, but having done some research, there’s a very good case to be made here. As the Church opens at 4:00 a.m., I’ve resolved to make an early-morning trip in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

After the Church, we headed back to the Western Wall for a second look. It’s Friday, so shabbat is being observed today and the Wall was understandably crowded, and becoming moreso by the moment.

Tomorrow, we venture into the Judean wilderness itself, as well as the shephelah (the foothills). I’m convinced that yesterday’s experience at Mount Arbel will be the lens through which I see the rest of this journey–another seven days.

Pilgrimage, Day 5: The Modern and the Ancient

I’m trying to get a jump on posting for the day instead of, as I’ve done the past few days, waiting until the last moment. It’s about 4:00 p.m. local and, having finished our touring day (since the winter hours for Israeli national sites has them close at four), we are on the bus back to the Sea of Galilee.

As I mentioned yesterday, we spent today in the Golan Heights. We heard sporadic artillery fire, all of which came from an Israeli tank proving ground close to our first visited site. Burnt-out tank hulks left from the six-day war occasionally cropped up in the otherwise beautiful scenery. We spent about 10 minutes driving behind an IDF humvee with a remote-controlled turret boasting a 50-cal machinegun and a TOW missile launcher. Overhead were the vapor trails of fighter jets penetrating just into Syrian airspace just before hitting their afterburners back to sovereign skies. At least once, we passed a barbed wire fence warning of unexploded mines on the other side. Still, there was never a concern for safety, just an ever-present reminder of the frailty of human nature and the conflict that results from such weakness.

The closest we came to the actual border was on the (dormant) cinder cone of the volcano, Mt. Bental, where we surveyed the land while standing next to two U.N. observers tasked with keeping watch over the “no man’s land” that starts a scant few miles from the base of the mountain and its nearby twin. Just across the border, about due east, lay the ruins of Quneitra, destroyed in the Yom Kippur War. Just north of that, the town of New Quneitra, where the inhabits rebuilt after being unable to salvage the ruins. Damascus lay just outside of view, thirty-seven miles to the Northeast. It was a strange feeling to be so close to such tragedy and unable to do a damn thing about it.

Mount Bental was our second stop today. Our first was Gamla or Gamala (the “Camel”), a humpbacked hill set deep in a canyon to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee that had been heavily fortified by the Sicarii (sometimes called “Zealots”) who probably had many commonalities of thought with the Nazarenes. The whole thing quickly reminded me of the Rebel Alliances’s base on Hoth, a fortification from which to strike out at the (Roman) Empire during the 66 C.E. revolt. In 67, Agrippa II failed for seven months to take the fortress and kill its inhabitants. Vespasian then arrived with three legions and built ballistae to fire 1300 stone balls and 1600 arrows into the fortress. This caused a breach, but the Romans suffered heavy casualties in the close quarters combat that ensued, with the defenders going so far as to topple interior walls onto the invaders, forcing a general retreat. A second assault was successful, with tradition holding that the core survivors fled to the citadel at the top of the hill to cast off their wives and daughters before jumping off themselves. A northern Masada.

Josephus says that the Romans killed 10,000 at Gamla. I find that highly suspect, based on the size of the settlement (at least as is currently visible) and the poor likelihood that a defending force of that size (1) would have been able to withstand siege for seven months without running out of supplies and (2) would have chosen to turtle up in their fortress and allow the Romans to seize the initiative when they had superior numbers and knowledge of the terrain.

Our interest was in the first-century synagogue in Gamla, the lower architecture of which is relatively well-preserved. It is highly probable that Jesus taught their during his Galilean ministry. The trek down the ravine to the fortress (and back up!) was exhausting but worth it.

After Bental, we first visited Caesarea Philippi and then Dan. At Caesarea Philippi, the Romans built a temple to Pan inside an artificial cave in which sprang one part of the headwaters of the Jordan river–a cave that was often thought of as a gateway to hell. A temple to the genius of Augustus Ceasar was also erected. At Dan, the King of Israel Jeroboam had an altar built and a golden calf idol placed so that his people would not have to travel south to the Temple in Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah to worship (and be tempted to defect).

It was between these two places that Jesus brought the disciples when he asked them “Who is it that people say that I am?” Behind him, Mt. Hermon, the only “real” mountain in Israel and thus the likeliest spot meant by Matthew when he describes Satan taking Jesus to the mountain to show him the splendor of nations and to offer them to him. Mt. Herom overshadows the ancient international highway, where the caravans of goods from the various nations would have represented their splendor without any miraculous or “magical| move on Satan’s part. When (soon after answering that Jesus is the “the Anointed One, Son of the Living God”) Peter tells Jesus that he cannot go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus responds “Get behind me, Satan!” just as he had previously told (actual) Satan.

Additionally, Caesarea Philippi represented the waywardness of Roman paganism while Dan represented the errancy of the Kingdom of Israel in falling away from worship of Yahweh (and the Canaanite paganism with its idols as well). It was a perfect–if unexpected–placed to pose the question of identity and capability to the disciples. Satan, death, Hell, the Empire, paganism–all were present to view the declaration.

The ideas above came either from our wonderful guide, Jack Beck (I suggest reading his books and watching his documentaries) , or from some of the Methodist pastors with whom I’m traveling.

To conclude, I’ll give you an idea of my own. You have likely heard the comparison and juxtaposition of the Caesars as divine figures with Jesus as the Son of God. Let’s nuance that a little more: the Romans didn’t actually worship the Emperor; they worshipped the genius of the Emperor. This is a little hard to explain, and a scholar of Imperial Rome would do it far better than I, but let’s give it a shot, shall we?

The Romans believed in numen, something akin to the Hawai’ian idea of “mana.” Spiritual power infused things to different degrees, from the small gods of the household and the spirits of ancestors to the greater gods of the state pantheon. The genius of the Emperor, then, was the numinous or divine power behind and within the Emperor. This may have become one in essence with the personality of the Emperor upon death, but during life the Emperor himself and the Emperor’s genius were related–closely–but distinct. The Roman Emperor has a divine force within him but is not divine in essence.

Contrast that with the orthodox Christian doctrine of the nature of Jesus Christ–both fully human and fully divine, with those aspects inseparable from one another, the perfect union of humanity and divinity in the same (consubstantial) essence. While I’m not sure that this comparison addresses anything not already spoken to by the volumes of theology already written, it does provide a sort of bridge into discussion of the nature of Christ by way of comparison. Clearly, I’m still very much focused on the sharp contrast between the Roman as a representation of the faulty ideas the culture of the world gives us and the spiritual truth that Jesus speaks, and does, and is.

Pilgrimage, Day 2: Arrival

This evening, at least by Israeli time, I write to you from the Gloria Hotel just inside the Old Jerusalem city walls near the Jaffa gate.

We arrived at about 4:20 p.m. local time after a mostly sleepless night on the plane. An hour-and-a-half or so to get through passport control and baggage claim, an hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by bus, a fifteen minute walk up to the Jaffa Gate and the hotel, fifteen minutes to get room keys and take baggage up to the hotel room, and finally dinner at 7:30. After dinner, an intrepid companion and I decided on an evening stroll through the Old City.

It was breathtaking in a number of ways. The beauty of the old stone (the city wall dates from the 16th Century and is a fascinating combination of medieval design approaches. The Old City itself is a tangled ball of streets, sidestreets, alleys, closes and stone stairs, the historical equivalent of the steel canyons of a modern downtown, with stone buildings overhanging on both sides of each street.

My intent was simply to wander and wonder, to soak in all they I could of the environment without being to focused about it, to let it wash over me. This the city did without holding back. We wandered into the Muslim Quarter, where shopkeeps and their children were closing up for the evening. From the instant we encountered the Damascus Gate (we had exited the Old City through the New Gate and followed the outer wall to the Damascus Gate to re-enter), it was clear that things were different there. Four IDF soldiers with M4s stood watch over the entrance, cordoned off by steel traffic barriers like they occupied a make-believe guard tower.

Further into the Quarter, we encountered a squad of eight IDF soldiers in full tactical gear patting down a single young Palestinian man in soccer shorts and a jersey. He cooperated (who wouldn’t with that many assault rifles around) and the whole thing seemed rather low-key, quotidian. Perhaps that’s what bothered me most about the seen, the faces on both sides that resignedly said, “This is just the way things are.”

In an instant, that experience shook me from the reverie of this trip. I came for history. I came for spiritual reflection and introspection. I came for friends and theology. And I forgot that there’s a very real and ongoing struggle here, one with victims and perpetrators and perpetuators on both sides–and dozens of those who have become used to this way of life for each one who wants to do something about it.

To be clear, I have no solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have too little real or meaningful experience from either perspective to do anything but naively say, “Why can’t we all just find a way to peacefully and respectfully co-exist?” I have sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians and a belief that both sides have fault to claim and both sides will have to learn to forgive for their to be any hope.

And while the particulars of Israeli-Palestinian relations trouble me (to the meager extent that I understand them), what I really took away from the scenes I witnessed in the Muslim culture is a reminder. We cannot separate the past from the present just as we cannot separate the present from the past; they are inextricably bound together for eternity. The study of this trip has little meaning if it does not relate the present needs of the world. And I, of course, firmly believe that the message and redemptive work of the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection are every bit as important now as they’ve ever been. As we start our serious work tomorrow, I’ll be going in with eyes open to the need to find something with modern applicability in every past location, person and event we discover.

Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ChristianPunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislating Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

(2) Criminalizing immorality does not create morality.

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