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Archive for December, 2014

Jesus Did Not Come to Save Christians

December 25th, 2014 No comments

Jesus was born in a dirty smelly barn to show solidarity with the poor. Jesus healed and gave comfort to the likes of drunks, prostitutes, the sick, the lame, the homeless, the hungry, outsiders, outcasts: misfits. When the world seemed bleakest a light shone in the darkness. I want to wish a merry Christmas to all of my friends. Christians are called to demonstrate their discipleship by self-sacrificing love, as Jesus did. But especially to those who might feel far from comfort, and maybe far from God: God does not make too hard terms with those who seek him. C.S. Lewis wrote, and I believe, “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.” Do not give up. Do not despair. God is not dead, nor does he sleep.

Christmas is not for Christians

December 21st, 2014 No comments

As we enter into Christmas week there is a lot to be discouraged about. When we look at the news we see our nation divided still. We know in our hearts that we have overcome much, but the ongoing events remind us that we still have far to go. The world is scary and getting scarier: war, poverty, sickness, unspeakable evil. There doesn’t seem to be much good news anywhere. I’m not even sure what good news would look like.

Yet I find it oddly appropriate as we enter the week of Christmas that it all seems so bleak. If you’re not a church person or if you are not from a formally liturgical tradition you might not know that as we approach the celebration of Christmas in the church calendar we are coming to the end of another season called Advent. Advent is a season of waiting. In churches where readings are prescribed the scripture readings for this season point to a longing for redemption. Restoration and renewal from the ashes of a crushed nation, and a crushed dream.

And I think all the bad news we see reflects a longing we all feel. We long as those of Israel longed. Our longing is the longing of the Advent season. The labels we put on our longing are different. We long for peace, or prosperity, or justice, or love, or deliverance; health, safety, freedom, a chance to start over. The faces of our longing are almost as many as those of we who long. It is so sad that we look at those faces and see difference, when in fact it is the longing itself that unites us.

We are all one in longing. We are all one in our brokenness.

Now as we enter the week of Christmas we may consider that the images we associate with the holiday have little to do with the event. Jesus wasn’t a cute little character who showed up to warm our hearts and give us goodies. He wasn’t a friend to the nice church goers and religious folk, or those who show up at church twice a year pretending to be that. He wasn’t a nice but harmless moralist going around saying pithy but innocuous and easily ignorable things about how to be good.

Jesus was born in a dirty, smelly barn to working class parents. He worked as a laborer. He enjoyed the company of sinners and the lowest of the low. The only people he was consistently at odds with were the upstanding religious folks, who killed him for it. And Jesus said straight up, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 ESV). And at the bottom of it all is a self-sacrificing love literally unimaginable in human terms; a love for the unloved and sometimes unlovable. So if we can admit that we are the lost, the unloved and unlovable, we can begin to see what’s good about the good news.

It’s only good news for those of us who are broken. But it is good news for those of us who are broken. And since that’s all of us, it’s good news for all the people.

Christmas is not for Christians, nor is God’s love only for Christians. It is for all of us, the lost.

The Christmas Truce

December 19th, 2014 No comments

There’s a vid going around of a commercial that uses the Christmas Truce of 1914 as its backdrop. The History Channel did a documentary about this several years ago. History Channel documentaries to me are notoriously cheesy and often not very accurate. But the topic of this one is so compelling that this particular video is very powerful. I show this video to my World History Classes as part of the World War I segment and it’s not unusual to see emotional response from the students (which is what I am hoping for). It’s about 45 minutes long and well worth a watch IM(not so)HO. I find the question of the Belgian tour guide haunting, “Why could they not keep that truce after Christmas?”

Why “Happy Holidays” is OK

December 18th, 2014 No comments

In a number of other articles I have tried to make plain the notion that the United States is or ever was or was even intended to be a “Christian” nation is simply a historical fallacy. Without having to rehash the whole thing (I can refer you to other resources, just email me) and without resorting to cherry picking quotes from various founders, we have to look no further than the First Amendment to the Constitution to realize that the United States cannot favor one religion – or no religion – over another. And this has been well established legally.

Yet every year we hear stories about the so-called “war on Christmas” where supposedly the godless heathens are trying to do away with any public expression of Christianity, in this case by insisting that we wish each other “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And so we see the spectacle of a number of devout Christians expressing their joy in the season by being downright cranky toward their neighbors. And I suppose somehow that glorifies the name of Christ.

The reality is that the United States is a secular society. It resembles in many ways the society into which Christ was born. There are now as there were then a number of different worldviews in the marketplace of ideas. It seems remarkable to me that a man of devout convictions, who indeed could not have been more Jewish, was able to remain true to his beliefs and still draw people from all backgrounds to himself without alienating those whose ideas were foreign to him. In fact the only group that Jesus consistently antagonized were the leaders of his own religion who were, ironically, alienating just about everybody else. And he did so for that reason.

As ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), it would seem to me more in keeping with his mission if we were to emulate what he did, rather than what his opponents did. And that is that we are called to recognize that not all of our neighbors are Christian, but that they deserve our love and respect anyway. In fact, that is our primary mission as Christians.

It does not endear us to our non-Christian neighbors when we insist that they acknowledge and accept Christian practices and beliefs. There are many places in the world where that type of behavior is met with fatal opposition. What we are called to do is to demonstrate our devotion to him by the way we live our lives and by the way we respond to our neighbors, all of our neighbors.

Henri Nouwen wrote about an approach to evangelism that he encapsulated in the term “hospitality.” Nouwen wrote that hospitality was “the creation of a free and friendly space where we can reach out to strangers and invite them to become our friends.”[1] And so that is what I would like us to consider in this season where our whole culture, Christian and non-Christian, celebrates.

To my Christian friends I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a meaningful remembrance of the joy the coming of our savior brings. And to my non-Christian friends I would like to wish you all the joy you can find in whatever way you can find it, and to let you know that I love you. Happy holidays.

 

 

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Image, 1986), 79.

 

Jesus Loves Muslims Too

December 16th, 2014 No comments

In this week there was a crisis in Australia where a self-styled Muslim cleric took a number of hostages. The result was the death of the gunman and two innocents. Then this morning I woke up to learn that there was a massacre of school children in Pakistan, apparently done in the name of Allah. And then of course all year we have been hearing about ISIS and the atrocities they are committing. And I am a man who doesn’t like to judge. I want to believe that the image of God in all people makes them desire peace. And yet I found myself wondering this morning if these acts were committed by those who claim to be the most devoted followers of Islam, if there wasn’t something about Islam that really does drive people to evil.

I profess to be a follower of Christ. But I believe that the profession means little if it is not made manifest by self-sacrificing love. That means that what I say about my profession means little compared to what I do. As an insider, I know that there is a lot of this self-sacrificing love demonstrated by Christians all over the world. But if the only thing I knew about Christianity came from news outlets and social media, I would never know this. Because those sources are not interested in giving voice, only to speaking. And so in the larger debate those who are not outrageous have no voice.

It is in fact this negative portrayal of Christianity that many of us who are Christians have to struggle with. It makes some of us embarrassed to be identified as Christians, and it makes others of us defensive, and in some cases offensive. I can say from personal experience that I once associated almost all but especially “evangelical” Christians with a narrow minded and judgmental bigotry. It made it difficult for me to cross the bridge from functional non-believer to discipleship.

The one thing I learned is that it is of little use to try to defend myself and the Church against this perception. Nobody cares if I proclaim, no matter how boldly and passionately, “that’s not true! That’s not how we are!” No one’s mind will be changed about Christianity by rational argument, no matter how rational. What changes people’s mind about Christianity is love. The truth is that we can rarely love on the grand scale; we have to love in small ways, on a personal level.

Here’s the thing. As an educator at a public institution I work with people from everywhere and from all backgrounds. One of the things I have come to appreciate about the United States as a nation is that we can all end up in the same classroom and we can all learn to get along. I attend a church that is ethnically mixed. I love that people from different backgrounds can come together and worship God without fear. And all of us have something unique and special to contribute to the greater good. I have come to believe that this is the American Dream, all people coming together as one in a beautiful mosaic. And I believe that is what God’s kingdom is intended to look like. So while I would not equate the United States with God’s kingdom (I don’t believe God’s love has borders), I can see in the best of the United States a shadow of the vision of God’s promise.

Many of my students are Muslim. Most of them are in the United States and in college so that they can enjoy the freedoms that the American Dream offers. Some of them are escaping religious persecution in their own countries of origin. They want what the rest of us want. And this leads me to wonder, what if the news outlets and social media reported all of the times that Muslims care for others? What if they published when they fed the homeless? What if they celebrated when Muslims and non-Muslims were able to come together and accomplish good? Don’t believe that just because we don’t hear about it it doesn’t happen. What would we think of Muslims then?

I love this quote by Mother Teresa:

How you live your life is proof that you are or not fully His. We cannot condemn or judge or pass words that will hurt people. We don’t know in what way God is appearing to that soul and what God is drawing that soul to; therefore, who are we to condemn anybody?

What do I take this to mean? God has not made it clear to me the state or destiny of your soul. But he has made it clear to me that he wants me to love you. Like Jesus loves.

Evil for Evil?

December 11th, 2014 No comments

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21 ESV)

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9 ESV)

What has America failed to hear?

December 6th, 2014 No comments

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. – MLK 3/14/68 (About 3 weeks before his assassination)

Stand Up For Justice

December 5th, 2014 No comments

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”[1]

In writing the Declaration of Independence its principle author Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from the writings of John Locke. Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1690 in response to an unstable political situation in Britain at the time: the issue of where the right to rule found its origin. The years of Locke’s lifetime had seen a Civil War, a Commonwealth, the restoration of absolute monarchy, and one king displaced by another by Parliament. The fundamental issue was whether the King could rule without Parliament, as he claimed, or whether at the will of Parliament. If the King was correct, he derived the right to rule from God, but if the Parliament was correct, the King derived the right to rule from the people. The coronation of William and Mary permanently established Parliament as the ruling party in England, thus making it what we call today a constitutional monarchy.

Locke’s argument, arising from the political situation he had lived through, was that all sovereignty and liberty originated in the individual person in the state of nature. Locke supposed a time when people lived in a condition where no one owned anything and all were able to equally enjoy perfect freedom and liberty. This is where the concept of natural rights comes from: the rights of the individual in the state of nature, which incorporates perfect freedom with the only restriction being that no one may violate the rights of another.

Locke asserted that all people were born equal, as we find in the Declaration, “all men are created equal.” But in Locke, and also for Jefferson and our revolutionary leaders, all men did not remain equal. What differentiated them was property. The differentiation arose because for all of the attraction of a world without constraints on individual liberty the flip side was that there was no one to protect your liberty. Locke specifically equated liberty with property, and theorizes that at some point those people who owned property formed a civil society in which each property owner gave up some of their liberty in order to protect all of their liberty. As time went by this evolved from being obligated to directly aid a fellow property owner under attack to the establishment of a legislative and executive to govern and protect the property of those who voluntarily created it. Thus the right to rule derives from the people, but not all of the people, rather only those who have a stake in the government, established by giving consent to taxation: the property owners.

Locke states forcefully and repeatedly that the purpose of civil government is to protect property. At the end of his treatise Locke notes the tendency of government to forget its purpose and, rather than defending liberty, denying it. The original argument of the revolutionaries was that Parliament was taking property in the form of taxes from Americans when they could not give consent because they were not represented in Parliament. Hence the slogan taxation without representation is tyranny!

As early as 1765 in response to Parliament’s Stamp Act there developed in America and in particular in Massachusetts a sense that Parliament’s action in taxing Americans when they were not represented in Parliament was a violation of their basic liberties. Oppositions groups sometimes calling themselves the Sons of Liberty created violent civil disturbances throughout the colonies. In Boston the home of Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson was ransacked and thousands of pounds worth of private property destroyed. Another opposition assembly harassed British troops assigned to protect the Customs House culminating in what would be described by Samuel Adams as the Boston Massacre.

One of the reasons the relationship between Britain and the Americans started an irreversible downward spiral was because the British soldiers who had fired on the civilians were either acquitted or had their sentences reduced because of a skillful defense by John Adams. The Americans, encouraged by the inflammatory rhetoric of Samuel Adams and others like him including Paul Revere, felt that justice had been denied. The crisis came to a head in 1775 with the enactment of the Tea Act that eventually resulted in what we call the Boston Tea Party and the burning of by then Governor Hutchinson in effigy. This would be the crisis that led to war and the Declaration of Independence.

Most of this is common knowledge. We all know the American side of the story; we’ve been indoctrinated in it since we were in elementary school. We may be a little fuzzy on the details but we are indoctrinated almost to a person in the idea that these revolutionaries were heroic. They are our heroes. But I am sure that we rarely if ever consider that the most liberal estimate of those who favored independence from Britain at almost any time during the Revolutionary War was 33% of the population. Approximately 40% remained loyal to the crown, with the rest trying to stay out of it. At the end of the revolution thousands of loyalists were forced to flee to Canada or Britain to avoid retaliation.

Consider what the revolution looked like to those who remained loyal to the Crown. For us they are now on the wrong side of history but at the time they were the upstanding citizens: those who supported the rule of law. Their responses show us that they viewed the actions of those in opposition to the Parliament as extreme: mob violence; rioting. The British saw the Americans as criminals. And, interestingly, because most of Europe drew their information about what was happening in America from the British press, so did most of Europe.[2] Americans were radicals, brigands, criminals.

At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence the understanding of liberty and protection by government focused on property rights. But over the course of the Revolutionary War the definition of liberty changed to incorporate a broader meaning encompassing personal rights that eventually became codified in the Bill of Rights. You can see this shift in definition by comparing the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. In the American document “all men are created equal” (in the state of nature), but in the French document “all men are born and remain free and equal” [emphasis mine]. In other words, liberty came to be understood as embedded in the individual rather than in property.

And so we may say that as our definition of liberty changed so did our understanding of the purpose of government: from protecting property to protecting rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to life.

From the point of view of the British and loyal Americans, those resorting to mob violence and rioting and ultimately rebellion were not to be taken seriously. If they had grievances against the government there were ways to go about expressing them that didn’t harm innocent people and deprive them of their property. What were those who harassed and harmed tax collectors and destroyed private property but thugs? But from the point of view of those we now call patriots, the government had broken its contract with them by depriving them of their fundamental rights, and the only recourse left to them was to bring an end to that government and replace it with one that would fulfill the function of government: protecting liberty.

Today, there is a large and growing number of people who are convinced that the government is violating their rights. Most are protesting peacefully but some have lost all faith in government. They believe that the time for peaceful protest is over, and so they have resorted to violence: what Martin Luther King once called “the language of the unheard.”[3]

Don’t think that what is happening in our country today is the work of a small group of criminals and rabble rousers. What is happening is a response to historical injustice that will not go away until it is addressed. It will not go away as long as “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”[4]

If we are to survive as a nation, we must all listen to the still, small voice that says, “Stand up for justice.”

[1] King Martin Luther, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr (New York: IPM/Warner Books, 2001), under “Chapter 8: The Violence of Desperate Men,” accessed December 5, 2014, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/.

[2] Eliga Gould, “How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution? and What Lessons Does This History Hold for Today’s Upheavals?,” Foreign Policy (July 3, 2012): 1, accessed December 5, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/07/03/how-did-the-british-press-cover-the-american-revolution/.

[3] Martin King, “The Other America” (sermon, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, MI., MArch 14, 1968), accessed December 5, 2014,http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

Does Paul Revere Ride in Ferguson?

December 4th, 2014 No comments

I did an exercise in my US history classes. The exercise was to search for an article about a current event that the students were interested in and to link it to something we had learned about in our US history class (up to the Civil War). Finally they were to present their findings in a short presentation and respond to class input about the topic. The point of the exercise was to convey that considering things in a historical context helps us to make better, more informed decisions about what is happening in our community.

As expected a number of the students chose to talk about the events in Ferguson and they approached the topic from a number of different standpoints. I wanted to make sure that every point of view was articulated but I did not allow debate. The reason I didn’t allow debate was because I wanted the students to focus on understanding the issues from various points of view instead of formulating their responses.

A primary task of the historian is to try to put themselves in the shoes of the historical actors. This means doing our best to see the world from the vantage point of someone who may be incredibly different than we are. Of someone we might even intensely dislike. The purpose is not to debate, not to judge, but to understand. Much of the dysfunction in our current civil discourse arises from the fact that we look at the past to judge, rather than to understand.

Here’s an example. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. George Washington owned slaves. In today’s society we believe, rightly, that slavery is evil. Are we by that belief to judge Jefferson and Washington as evil? Or do we try to understand why people of otherwise high character (or so we suppose) were able to participate in an institution that we abhor? Much of modern discourse, historical and otherwise, arises from the first response. The value of the second is that if we can understand the historical thinking that accepted evil as normal we can recognize and prevent it now.

So if we look at history to judge, we perpetuate division. But if we look at history to understand, we can work toward justice. It was my hope to get the students to gain understanding from history.

Of course, the students were invested in the talking points arguments at first, but I tried to get them to go deeper. One of the students compared protestors in Ferguson to Confederates rebelling because they felt disrespected by an oppressive government that failed to acknowledge their rights. A few of them were able to see a link between rioting in Ferguson and the ransacking of Governor Hutchinson’s mansion in 1765, some compared the media reaction to the riots to the inflammatory writing of Samuel Adams after the Boston Massacre. And how many remember that the soldiers who fired during that event were acquitted, defended by none other than John Adams?

In the end my purpose wasn’t to settle any issues. I didn’t expect us to come away with a plan to solve the things that still divide us. Primarily it was to reinforce what I told them at the beginning of the course about the importance of understanding history for citizens of a democracy. There is no shortage of politicians seeking to take advantage of our ignorance of history. But just as important, I think, I challenged them to try to see the world through the eyes of those they disagreed with. Not so that they could come to agreement, but so that we could recognize each other’s humanity.

 

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