Are We Remembering to be Human?

I wonder if, in all our bluster and saber-rattling and amid all our work to make ourselves safe, we’ve forgotten one of those most essential things: to be human, to honor this wonder of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we have made safe will be a world worth being safe in at all? I wonder if the ones we harm (or maybe worse: never even acknowledge) all the while fortifiying this mythical cocoon will ever haunt us when we are old and still breathing and still clinging to our shrinking life? There are far worse things than putting our home and life at risk. Didn’t our revolutionary patriots tell us as much? There are far worse things than laying our life down for another. Didn’t Jesus instruct us along these lines?

And I also have to ask if, in the ways we wield our incredulity or rage or our principled opposition, if we need to take particular care not to forget one of the most essential things: to be human, to honor the marvelously distressing fact of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we win, if we do so by dehumanizing another, will be a world worth having once we’ve won? Will it be a world we’re proud to hand our children, a world worthy of the hopes and ideals we vigorously defend?

On Election Eve

ambrogio_lorenzetti_-_effects_of_good_government_on_the_city_life_detail_-_wga13488

Well, here we are. Election Eve. Many of us will limp into the polls tomorrow, perhaps some of us will cast our vote by staying home. A number of us will cast our ballot with clarity and conviction; a number of us will pull the lever with mixed feelings and a case of indigestion. I’ve been reflecting on how to think about politics as a Christian, and two moments in Scripture seem helpful to me. There were no democracies in the Bible, but there were places where God’s people received instruction in how to engage tense political environments.

The first comes from the prophet Jeremiah when he tells Israel’s exiles, those taken captive by the Babylonian Empire, that they are to “seek the peace (the shalom, the well-being) of the city.” God’s people were to use their political power, insignificant as it was, by exerting their energy and their hope and their ingenuity and their industriousness toward the flourishing of the city…of Babylon (i.e. the enemy, the folks who didn’t share their view of the world or God or much of anything; they were even the oppressors). God did not direct Israel to conquer Babylon or overwhelm Babylon but rather to seek Babylon’s good, to participate in making Babylon a thriving place, brimming with joy and fruitfulness and all kinds of very human goodness, very ordinary goodness (i.e. specific instructions were to build good houses, raise their children well, plant gardens, tend to the land, pray for Babylon’s prosperity). The Biblical vision is that whenever the saints go marching in, it’s not merely a victory for some religious tribe but good for all the people, there’s joy and welcome for everybody. Does our political posture gain its steam by dividing us, or does it genuinely seek the well-being of all our neighbors, whether we agree with them or not? Do we see enemies everywhere, or do we see fellow image bearers of God, folks we hope and pray will flourish?

The second comes from the apostle Peter where, in an even more explicitly political context (instructing Christians on how we are to “submit for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king… [or] governors…”), Peter insists we must “honor all people.” We are to honor, to show respect for, all people. This means we refuse contempt. We refuse the temptation to degrade another person’s dignity. We remember that the core identity of each person, no matter how much we disagree with them or how destructive we believe their convictions to be, is this: beloved image bearer of God. We will resist evil where we see it. We will speak our convictions clearly and passionately. We will seek to encourage others toward the good we understand. But we will not ravage another person. We will listen and seek to understand and find ways to build bridges. Wherever bridges are, for the moment, impossible, we will bear this sadness and will let this sorrow and estrangement remind us of how broken we are, how we hope for so much more.

It strikes me how both of these postures (seeking good for everyone and honoring all people) are congruent with our call to be people of faith, hope and love. Let’s do that. On November 8th. And then every day that follows.

 

image: Ambrogio Lornzetti, “The Effects of Good Government on the City Life”

Gazing Toward the Hopeful Tune

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

Democrat or Republican?

democrats-republicans1I have no energy these days for defining myself as a republican or democrat (or libertarian or green). The kind of energy and ideological certainty required for that has been wrung out of me long ago. I have friends whose disposition or vocation lead them down the path of intense partisan engagement — it’s their way of making the world more just, and I bless them. I simply don’t get revved up for the party (pun alert).

I am genetically incapable of seeing the world in such stark, all-or-nothing categories. Perhaps it’s a weakness. Truth is I have an inkling we need more poetry and less platform, more friendship and less name-calling, better stories and better neighbors – none of which are encouraged in the current political brouhahas.

I’m certainly not saying none of this matters. The gospel is inherently political (i.e. public, social), but the gospel is not equated with any one player in our political system. So, our civic convictions matter, but they probably matter less than we think. And my hunch is we’re losing sight of other truths that most certainly do matter while we’re giving so much blood, sweat and tears to all these things that likely matter less than our high blood pressure suggests. How’s that for a convoluted sentence? See what talking politics will do to a fella.

While I don’t care about being an elephant or a donkey, I do care about being a Christian. And the apostle James has instructions for how I’m to live in this world if my first allegiance is to a Kingdom come. James’ words seem timely for the hour:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

We who call ourselves Christian are ones who, because of our loyalty to the way of Jesus, have a commitment to truly listen, to hear the other (their hopes and fears, their history and convictions). We are the ones charged with getting another’s story right (in contrast to looking for ammo to use against those we’ve named as enemies). If our words formed slowly but our love flowed free and if our rhetoric lost its angry venom, vitriol and combative suspiciousness, then I imagine the American political machine (for a moment at least) would grind to a halt, if for no reason other than gawking, jaw dropped, at the ones they’ve labeled as haters living like lovers. I don’t actually know if our obedience to James’ words would make much difference in November, but it would mean that as God’s people we would be asserting our belief that God’s Kingdom is above every other kingdom.

I’ll be pulling the lever in November, as I attempt to make wise judgements about the important issues at hand. However, I’m unclear what exactly God thinks about various economic theories or if he has in mind an appropriate tax rate or a straight answer on the best way to make health care accessible to those shut out of (or unable to keep pace with) the current system. Given that, I’ll not attach God’s name to imperfect solutions, but I will try to use my noggin and give it the best go I’m able. I’ll grapple with a Christian vision for a state’s use of violent force. I’ll ponder over the best ways to cherish and honor life when both sides have their blind spots. I’ll wrangle with how (and where) individual responsibility, justice and compassion intermingle. I don’t have final answers to all these questions. I do know, however, that I’m to listen much, speak little and refuse anger.

Anger usually comes when we feel we’re being thwarted or threatened, when we’re defending things like our version of the American Dream. I love America, but America isn’t my dream. My hope rests in a God whose dream for the world is far bigger than that.

Bonhoeffer: Against Abstraction

[Jesus Christ’s] word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

I’m taking a course at the University of Virginia on “Peace and Resistance: Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.” So, of course, I’ve been reading a good bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately.

As you know, Dietrich was a German pastor and theologian instrumental in the German Resistance during World War II. Dietrich was imprisoned for subversive activity, and (though complicated by the fact that he was a principled pacifist) later charges were added for his association with the infamous July 20 Plot to assassinate the Führer (the oft popularized story of the plot was the center-piece of Tom Cruise’s 2008 film Valkyrie).

As the SS grew more suspicious of Bonhoeffer’s entrenchment in the Resistance, they passed Bonhoeffer from prison to prison until he finally landed at Flossenburg concentration camp. This was his final stop. He was hung (asphyxiated actually) by a thin steel wire on April 9th, 1945 – only 14 days before the camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer was 39.

Bonhoeffer opposed not only the Nazi regime but the religious movement that swept through Germany, the “German Christian” movement. Attempting to re-frame Christian witness so it could harmonize with the Third Reich, the “German Christian” movement ultimately viewed their first allegiance to the State and their second allegiance to God. One bishop fielded a question: “What is one first — a Christian or a national socialist?” The bishop replied, “A National Socialist.” In public worship, they would go so far as to sing hymns to Hitler.

Against this moment, Bonhoeffer wrote his most challenging and enduring work, The Cost of Discpleship. His plain assertion was this: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to say that God rules over everything. As such, you can not be a disciple of Jesus if you are unwilling to obey Jesus above every other person, claim or passion. You can imagine how that landed in 1944 Germany.

Dietrich believed that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord was always enfleshed in (and evidenced by) the lived realities of our life, the choices we make, the allegiances we declare, the principles and ideas that we obey (or disobey). Christianity is concrete, not abstract.

To be a Christian was not merely to affirm religious facts but to be gripped by the reality that Jesus Christ has come to resurrect us to an entirely new kind of life – a lived life. Equating Christian faith with any particular political movement is idolatry (and this is a lesson we best learn). However, being Christian will always have political (public, lived) implications. Obeying the way of Jesus means saying yes to some things and saying no to others.

The work of the Christian is not to redress faith so that it can be squeezed within another ideology but rather to live Christianly amid, within, over or against every other competing claim. If Jesus is Lord, then this assertion defines reality. Everything else must fix itself to that bare truth.

The Church, Politics and Fear

Many have lamented that, in the current climate, political and cultural rhetoric within Christian circles evidences a lot of fear. Recently, a journalist doing a piece on this question asked me to comment. Here is my response:

Fear, like anger, most often emerges when we sense the chaos of losing control. When we believe that our power, our authority, our place at the center of the table is threatened, then we launch into maintaining (at least our sense of) control. When those who have an opposing sexual ethic, political narrative or religious commitment seem to be gaining ground, our fangs come out — all the better if we can use words from the Bible to do it.

The Kingdom of God requires that we tell the truth, that we obey Jesus, and that we live as witness to the Resurrection of the one to whom one day every knee will bow. The Kingdom of God never asks us to remain cultural or political control. In fact, Jesus, Paul and the early church were all marked by their refusal to play political games. If we truly believe that the Kingdom of God rules, then we have little angst when any of our human kingdoms begin to crumble. Conversely, if we have angst over crumbling human kingdoms, we might ask ourselves if we truly believe in the kingdom of God.

Barth liked to say that the marks of God’s kingdom were “deprivation and hope.” It seems to me that we are committed to doing anything and everything to resist our deprivation. The gospel invites us to utter deprivation, to come and die. That’s enough to scare anyone — but Jesus invites us into death, all the while saying, “Fear not.”

And how are we as the Church to respond in order to counter all this fear in our world? We need only keep telling the gospel story. We have nothing to protect. The gospel is our only allegiance – and the gospel doesn’t need our protection. And our dishonest or anger-laced response to others actually makes the gospel within us impotent. If we believe Jesus is King, then no other king, no other religion, no other political or historical reality, has any power over us. We truly have nothing to fear. If we are living in fear, it means we do not truly believe God.

The question is not so much how to handle our fear but how to believe and obey God. As the prophet Isaiah told Israel while they trembled against their foes, “If you fear God, you need fear nothing else.” We live in an anxious world, and the only way I can see to speak against that anxiety is to declare that there is One who reigns over the world.

Two Futures: Nukes or No?

A couple years ago, I ran across Tyler Wigg-Stevenson in an article he wrote, “A Merciful White Flash.” Tyler recounted the amazing story of his post-grad years, living under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (hilariously, living under his desk) and working for an advocacy group committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Tyler was not religious by any means, far from it. But the evil he encountered – and the dire prospects for a world binging on nuclear weaponry – led Tyler to faith. As he said:

Before I became a Christian, I had the worst lunch breaks in the world. They went like this:
Every day I would take my bowl of rice and beans into the noonday sun and sit on the tailgate of my ’87 Ranger, which commanded a billion-dollar view. Armed with the painfully earnest idealism of a new college graduate, I had scored a job at a nonprofit organization located in a house-cum-office just off the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d sit there in the parking lot, humming Otis Redding, literally at the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. As I ate, I’d take in the bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz and the East Bay, and the stunning Mediterranean sweep of the San Francisco skyline.
And every day the scenery was swept clean, in my mind’s horrified eye, by the merciless white flash of a nuclear airburst.

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I like Tyler. I like his work. I’m thankful for his voice. We’ve traded books (you should check out his recent title on consumer Christianity, Brand Jesus). Now, Tyler leads Two Futures Project, which “dreams a noble dream of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons from our world.”

Today, he has an opinion piece in the Washington Post. I support Tyler and Two Futures and prayerfully hope for the day when nuclear arsenals will be no more.

Faith, Science…and Poets too

Though Chris Uhlman landed his essay a bit haywire (too wimpish, I suspect, no matter where one falls on these conversations), he offers some interesting wrestlings with the role of faith in the public square. 

Here’s a teaser:

The older I get the less certain I become and the more bewildered I am by the unshakable convictions of both strident believers and atheists.

However, I am certain that I have little time for those who hold believers in contempt. And I have begun to suspect that, in the West, science is assuming the altar once carved out for God.

We have steadily replaced the absolute moral certainty of theocrats with technocratic absolutism…That is not a criticism of science because real science admits uncertainty. It is taking issue with those who suffer only one kind of knowing and deride all else as cant.

And you might know me well enough to know that I loved this line:

The place where technocrats fall silent is precisely the place where poets, artists and priests take up the story. 

What can we know? And how can we know it? And who gets to decide what the ground rules are for such things? 

If you want to go further, you may want to peek at Dallas Willard’s new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. Here, Dallas makes the case that knowledge grounded in faith (and defining this loosy, sometimes-sentimentalized word “faith” is crucial to his work) is a valid way of knowing.

The Government Shall Be Upon His Shoulders

This morning, I was in Washington DC, spending half a day with my good friend, Doug Mikkelsen, an Army chaplain (the Guard) who had been called to duty to provide support for the inauguration. It was stimulating to walk amid this epicenter of history and power. The city still buzzed with energy and excitement (yes, hope). Streets were still closed, bleachers still out along the parade route. In front of the Capitol, thousands and thousands of chairs still sat. Litter and porta potties everywhere. Vendors hawking Obama/Biden wares.

I welcome hope, whenever and however it comes. I wish President Obama well. More than that, I pray for it. And I believe that President Obama has a unique opportunity – if he will take it – to move our country toward a third way, past some of the polarization that has gripped our political psyche for the past two decades.

However, I must be quick to say that I don’t believe – not for one moment – that the deep healing our world needs can ever be found in a man or a government of men. We can do much good in this world (and we ought – by God, we ought). However, we can never do enough. History stands littered with the cycles of human peace and violence. For every shining moment, a shameful page offers a dark balance. Hear our human story: hear a recurring saga of promise and disappointment, achievement and disaster, peace and savagery.

Some will say that this is the invetible path forward, that we will keep trying and will (hopefully) one day get it right. I wish it were so, but I don’t believe it. I believe we keep self-destructing because something is wildly amiss, something we simply can not fix. Something has gone tragically awry within us – and we need One to heal us, One to return us to our intended design. Might our unflagging hopes hint to us that something is deeply good and true about us? And might our persistent failures to grasp and maintain this hope hint to us that we are simply lost and will never – on our own – find our way?

I pray that President Obama will be an agent of justice in this world, but I also resist the notion that any woman or man (or nation or league of nations) will ever be able to bear the burden of making us right again. Only God can do that.

Bishop Wright put it about as well as I’ve heard it during his Christmas message:

We have of course just witnessed a kind of secular version of Isaiah 9. The election of Barack Obama has been hailed with wild delight around the world. …The whole world was hungry for hope, and now Obama, who is indeed brilliant, charming, shrewd and very capable, is being told that the government of the world is upon his shoulders, and we expect him to solve its problems. Poor man: no ordinary mortal can bear that burden. Nor should we ask it of him. The irrational joy and hope at his election only shows the extent to which other hopes have failed, making us snatch too eagerly at sudden fresh signs. And that can only be because we have forgotten the Christmas message, or have neutered it, have rendered it toothless, as though the shoulder of the child born this night was simply a shoulder for individuals to lean on rather than the shoulder to take the weight of the world’s government.

P.S. I know that about eight months ago I said I would tell a bit about my interview with N.T. Wright. And I will, I promise I will. But not today.

History

We have seen history today. I really have little to say. But I am thankful that we live in the generation that has taken this strong step against our evil racist history. The journey is not finished, but we have traveled many miles. No matter your vote in November, this is a beautiful thing.

Prayers for healing and restoration,
Winn