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Archive for February, 2015

Hear O Israel

February 28th, 2015 No comments

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On the day I graduated from Bethel Seminary as I was walking across the platform to be hooded the former Dean of the seminary Dr. John Lillis gestured to me Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” ‪#‎LLAL‬ greeting, and I returned it. After the ceremony Dr. Lillis told me that the gesture came from Nimoy’s childhood when at Jewish services he saw the rabbis make the sign of the letter “shin” (שׁ) which symbolizes the Jewish prayer the Shema: “Hear oh Israel the LORD our God is one.”

Egypt’s Christians Respond to Martyrdom

February 23rd, 2015 No comments

Happy birthday President Washington. Don’t say we weren’t warned.

February 23rd, 2015 No comments

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“… One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection.” G. Washington Farewell Address 1797

What About Me?

February 21st, 2015 No comments

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Titus 3

We are sinners saved by grace. So we should be courteous to all. We should not judge wrongdoers because without God’s grace we are wrongdoers also. So we should devote ourselves to good works and “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” We should strive for unity and harmony and avoid division and have nothing to do with those who stir up division.

In this God is not speaking to you, but to me. This is not an admonition for you or for “them”, rather something for me to reflect upon.

Who’s Really Stealing Our Valor?

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Brian Williams lied about being shot down by enemy fire in Iraq. As a spokesperson for an organization that purports to provide factual representation of events, this indiscretion probably rightly cost him his job, at least for now. Of course, one must pay the price for lying, especially if caught, and with the social media environment being what it is, it is very difficult for a public figure not to get caught. But the problem here, I think, is bigger than a regrettable transgression. It tells us a lot about public culture in the United States.

The question that no one seems to be asking is why does Brian Williams want to be a war hero? Having attained such an elevated status in the eyes of millions of people, why is that not good enough? And why aspire to self-aggrandize by pretending military danger and prowess? At least part of the answer must be the mindless elevation of the military as heroes and protectors of our freedom.

I am a veteran. I am proud of my service. I was never in combat but I was in harm’s way: in the crosshairs of a Russian cruiser at the height of the Cold War. That last sentence really illustrates the issue. To be held in high regard one must have really been in the thick of the fighting. Being close to it or on the edge of it is good, but not quite. If I served during the time of the Vietnam War but I did not serve “in country,” I can’t identify myself as Vietnam vet. I have to be a “Vietnam-era vet.” That’s good, but not quite. There is something akin to a caste system that stratifies the honor you can receive from society based on your service. Why do you think there is such an issue with so-called “stolen valor,” pathetic attempts by insecure losers to claim unearned veteran status?

Veterans deserve to be proud of their service. Any person who puts on the uniform of the United States is literally placing their life at the service of the nation. Some may do it out of a sense of duty, some because they are lured with rewards, but in any case the risk is real. And so all of the benefits and deference they receive from the country are well-earned.

But what society at large is lifting up is not what these veterans are, nor what they actually risk, it is a media generated illusory image of American greatness. The public image of the veteran is more a reflection of ourselves than those who actually serve. It is no more accurate than the vilification of veterans during the Vietnam war. In this case it makes us feel confident in our international presence. If we can feel good about our soldiers then we can feel good about ourselves. If members of the military are unquestionably heroic then all they do must be too. And, by reflection, so are we.

In the big picture what this does is provide a framework for the misuse of American military power. If you criticize the mission you criticize those who carry it out. How dare you call into question the sacrifice of our brave heroes? Witness the recent public debate about the movie “American Sniper.” Public opinion rallied around the protagonist as heroic individual. Whether the United States had any business engaged in the mission he carried out was a question no one even considered.

Who can really blame Brian Williams for wanting to be a war hero? That is the American measure of greatness. But I don’t think it takes away from the valor and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform to ask whether those who command them and send them to the far flung regions of the earth to perform tasks that don’t really seem to protect us are rightly putting their lives at risk. If we truly want to honor them, we should insist that they be risked only to really protect us, not to be used instruments of endless, senseless, perhaps profit-driven war.

Book Review: Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, ©2005.

The authenticity of Christian community in postmodern North America is both of scholarly and personal (pastoral) interest to me. In preparing a chapter on how the church might express itself as the Body of Christ in an ever-secularizing social venue I happened upon this quite beautiful monograph. My main interest in reading it was to explore the extent to which social justice should motivate a Christian community. I found a lot to think about here, much more than I anticipated.

As a professor and historian of the United States I am well read in the origins and progress of the Civil Rights movement. The author of this book covers the same chronological ground as most. Where Marsh’s monograph differs is in that at the center of the discussion is the issue of how a Christian theological impulse toward justice and reconciliation drove the Civil Rights movement to the peak of its success, and how a secularization of the movement led to its dissipation and collapse.

As we in the United States experience the fury and tragedy of an unfinished project of reconciliation On the one hand we see the effects of intrinsic racism expressed in a criminal justice system that disproportionately penalizes poor blacks. On the other we are surrounded by a barely concealed knee-jerk Islamophobia that poisons our national discourse almost as hatefully as the unrestrained bigotry of Jim Crow. We wonder where the church fits. Postmodernism, more than anything else, informs us that we can’t solve these problems on our own.

This book convincingly demonstrates that when the Body of Christ acts to do the work of Christ in building the beloved community, real positive change can occur. And the change is not just the alleviation of material inequity, as important as that is, it is the deliberate enactment of the Kingdom of God on earth. That is indeed Christ’s mission, and the mission of his church. But it also shows that when the project became secularized it lost its way. Marsh writes, “When the movement lost its anchor in the church, it began to splinter into activist groups whose spiritual visions were no larger than concerns for their own flourishing, and this proved devastating, since people are not inclined toward social relocation, economic redistribution, or racial reconciliation unless they see their own life stories in a larger theological narrative.” (199)

I have long been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I have admired from afar those who were willing to sacrifice so much to make God’s justice real in the world. I have been stirred by King’s expressed theology as well as his courage to act. This book only adds to my admiration, and as well introduces a number of others who shared the struggle both alongside King and after. I am not sure whether the stimulation and encouragement I experienced while reading this volume stems from the subject matter or its presentation. Probably both. The subject matter aside, Marsh is both a careful scholar and a fine author given to poetic turn of phrase and insightful analysis.

The book is both historical and theological. It shows us how the Body of Christ has expressed itself in creative ways to create real change, and it calls us to go and do likewise. It provides solid empirical evidence that the Body of Christ can do what secular society cannot, and it thoughtfully answers a question it didn’t ask but I did: building the beloved community is the work the church is here to do.

The Word of God is True

February 14th, 2015 No comments

If [Martin Luther King, Jr.] is a prophet, it is not because he called America to its better self, but because he risked everything on the premise that the word of God is true when it names Jesus as the peace of the world. Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community, 128.

It’s Not Love

February 14th, 2015 No comments

I went to the local grocery store last week and of course they had gone all out with the Valentine’s Day display. What struck me was that along with flowers and candy, almost half of the presentation consisted of various kinds of alcoholic beverages. I thought then it was a bit odd but upon reflection not really, because it does fit with our cultural notion of “love.”

Now I’ve got nothing against romance or romantic love. Neither does the Bible. If you are looking for verification of that fact you ought to read the Song of Songs in a translation you can readily understand. You will be left with little doubt. But I think that the biblical vision of romantic love is as an (one, single) aspect of the greater love that binds people to each other and to God. In contemporary culture the totality of the representation of “love” is contained in the artifacts of this largely profit motivated “holiday.” And little can help that along better than adult beverages. “Liquor is quicker,” as they say.

What does love look like? Pink hearts and valentines. Flowers and candy. Wine and sexy underwear. And, in a culture obsessed with sex acts, physical expressions of almost every description. Mostly that. In reality, those things can be aspects of a love relationship, but the love between two people must be more than that. I think almost anyone who has ever really been in love knows this. Love is more than emotion. Love is more than sensation. Human love, when it is real, is inseparable from divine love. Because it involves what is given, not what is gained.

Jesus tells us we have the capacity to love as he loves when he says that our love for one another will be how his followers are identified. (John 13:34-35) He not only points out that we have his capacity to love our enemies perfectly but he commands us to do so. (Mt. 5:44, 48) The love he is calling us to in these two instances is far removed from acts of emotional or physical devotion or attachment. If we are to love as he loves, we must express it in total self-giving, self-forgetting sacrifice regardless of any quality of the beloved, as he did and does. Love doesn’t act in search of a reward; love is a total giving of self to the other. Romantic love and divine love are not two separate loves; the former is an expression of the latter. Or should be.

If it isn’t, if it’s just another opportunity to sell products or have a good time, it’s not love.

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

February 12th, 2015 No comments

It’s rare that any US politician dares to talk about US history with anything remotely approaching objectivity for the reason demonstrated by the reaction to President Obama’s speech on February 5, 2015 at the National Prayer breakfast. By suggesting that Christians in general and American Christians in particular have been guilty in the past of atrocities the President stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. It is interesting that in the reaction one finds utter nonsense portrayed as historical fact, with a militant audience eager to shout their “Amen!”

Americans in general don’t think history is very important. Because, until the last several years, America’s destiny lay in the future. Mexican essayist Octavio Paz wrote in comparing US attitudes toward history with Mexicans: “Americans looks to the future with hope. Mexicans look to the past with regret.” The statement demonstrates a dysfunction in relation to history in both societies: one which cannot acknowledge the importance of history, and the other trapped by it. But it illustrates the point that for North Americans the objective study of history is perceived to be of little value.

It’s not that Americans don’t know history. It is that Americans want history to be clean and uncomplicated. In a nation that reduces the aspirations of 300 million people to two political positions, a complex and nuanced view of history is inconceivable. The extent of what most people know about history is at the level of Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, and that was a good thing because he found America, and if he didn’t find America there could not be a United States, and the United States is the best thing that has ever happened to the world.

For many, this is not just a civic proposition; for them the United States is in fact an instrument of God. In this telling Columbus was fulfilling God’s will when he accidentally bumped into what was to become America. Never mind that the progress of events that would eventually lead to the founding of the United States was an unmitigated disaster for millions of people over several centuries. At some deep level we know this, but it is easier just to not mention it. It doesn’t fit in our story line.

So it’s not surprising that both the American mainstream church and the collective memory of the people assume the roles respectively of cheerleader and interpretive justification for American exceptionalism. The only thing we want to know about history is how it portrays the inevitable advance of what Reagan called the “shining city on a hill.” Local school districts intervene in the presentation of history to children to ensure that no “liberal revisionists” commit the heresy of pointing out the fantasies we teach ignore great injustices. For Americans, when you talk about history you can say almost anything, but it always has to end with, “and they lived happily ever after” along with some acknowledgement of God and Old Glory.

In fact, history is messy. History is complex. For every great triumph and victory there is a caveat. For every heroic act there is a corresponding act of selfishness, greed, malevolence, or stupidity. As a Christian I have no problem locating this. It originates in Eden. Though the world still reflects the imago dei, the Image of God, the absolute goodness of creation, it is only a corrupted shadow. No matter how good, how inspiring, how heroic something may be, it is always marred by imperfection. Until it can be redeemed by God.

In contrast to the Enlightenment metanarrative that portrays history as a relentless march from darkness and superstition to liberation and enlightenment, history is a record of the tragic consequences of Eden playing out in the lives of flawed people. That’s why when someone speaks objectively about history one is compelled to notice that even in the midst of the most sublime human accomplishment there is an underlying tendency toward chaos and evil. While no evil may be permanent, neither is any man-made good.

Americans in general don’t want to acknowledge this. It’s uncomfortable. So when it comes to history we content ourselves with the recitation of fairy tales instead of an objective look at who we are and how we came to be. The resulting ocean of ignorance ensures that every current event is interpreted through the skewed lens of a false history. We cannot respond appropriately to the challenges facing us because we can’t understand them, so we stumble from tragedy to tragedy.

A realistic assessment of the past doesn’t make us worse than we are. It gives us the opportunity to become better. Let’s honestly acknowledge our collective sins to each other and to God. It is only in the painful truth of our brokenness that we may become open to redemption.

Civil Civil Rights or the Kingdom of God?

February 10th, 2015 No comments

The way we have mythologized the Civil Rights movement is embraced by Christians because it fits well with the secularized church in North America. It fosters the illusion that God’s justice and righteousness can be achieved through political action alone. But the cracks in the veneer of social harmony dominating the headlines (and I’m not just talking about black/white relations) ought to give us pause to reconsider whether the Civil Rights movement is the triumph secular society has proclaimed it to be, and further whether the kingdom of God can be implemented by an act of Congress.

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