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David Platt’s impotent prayer…

Having kids means watching kids’ movies, and as a father, I’ve watched my share.  One of the films I never minded watching over and over was “Night at the Museum,” the Ben Stiller movie in which a ne’er-do-well single dad takes a job at the Smithsonian only to find that all of the displays come alive at night.  In one scene, Stiller’s character meets a miniature, ostentatious, and confrontational cowboy named Jedediah (Owen Wilson) who lives in a wild west diorama. Stiller picks up Jedediah, who reaches for his six-guns to shoot Stiller.  The guns, of course, are miniatures and don’t work. And this is when Jedediah laments with anguished disappointment in his classic western drawl and third-person perspective the line that always made me laugh out loud, “Jedediah’s impotent rage…his guns don’t fire, take me away!”  

I think the reason this line always struck me as funny is because it is so relatable.  It’s common to act with bluster and confidence only to realize at some point that one is small, insignificant, and even powerless in the face of larger problems.  Jedediah’s predicament is his humanity, miniscule as it may be…his reflection that he is not as strong as he would like to be.

As peaceful Christians, however, we live a bit of a paradox about this.  On the one hand, our acknowledgement of God as all-powerful means that we accept and confess our own finitude and powerlessness.  Similarly, our acknowledgement of Jesus as King means that we understand that powerlessness (the way of the cross) is actually the proper way to live, meaning that a rejection of violence and the pursuit of power is central (think, here, the kind of power which wins both national and cultural wars).  We understand that following Jesus means living a life of self-sacrifice and service motivated by love rather than the pursuit of power, wealth, and security at the cost of doing violence to the other. In other words, rather than the useless guns of Jedediah, we have set aside our guns entirely–for words.

The paradox, however, is one of many in the Gospel that the apostle Paul understood so carefully: the greatest in the Kingdom is the servant, the last will be first in the Kingdom, and the list of beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the oppressed.”  The aforementioned apostle knew this well in his own life when, in 2 Co 12:9, he mentions his mysterious suffering as something he must continue to bear because “Christ’s strength is perfected in weakness.”

The paradox is that it is in our weakness, insignificance, and powerlessness that we are actually strong and powerful.  It is our willingness to die for the Gospel which really makes us live. It is when we become irrelevant to the world’s way of thinking that we truly have anything meaningful to add to its conversations.

Paul’s opening monologue in 1 Co 1 reveals this paradox most completely:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
   the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Of course, what Paul must prove to the Corinthians is that he is wise enough to be their source of correct teaching not because he has great status and power, but because he does not.  He is competing with messengers who look more impressive than he does. So Paul falls back on the paradox of power and powerlessness in the Gospel of the Kingdom.

“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” why is it so?  The Jews simply could not imagine how getting crucified would be an effective way to change their political and cultural situation.  They needed a king with an army, not a dead guy with a handful of disappointed followers. And the Gentiles were incredulous about it.  “Power is to be able to crucify people, not be crucified.  That’s stupid!”  But, Paul says, this foolishness or stupidity is God’s real power, because this life of self-sacrifice is exactly the kind of thing that is needed to truly change a world that has always been enamored with strength and power wielded with violence.

In other words, we Jesus followers, we few,  are a people who are strong because we have accepted the weakness of Christ into ourselves.  And we recognize that this Kingdom life is the only one with the power to really make a change in this world.

It is this power in peacefulness that is often most misunderstood, especially by those whose imaginations are held by violence.  People have a tendency to believe that a “pacifist” Christian must be, at all times, passive.  They tend to think that Christians must be nice, non-confrontational, and always amicable…especially when approaching the powers that be, people in authority, etc.  “You’ll never win them by driving them away, etc.”

This thinking forgets the great tradition of the prophets who ravaged their listeners’ ears with fiery messages: from priests and kings to nations of people whose hearts were hardened.  It forgets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Amos. It forgets John the Baptist shouting at Herod outside of the temple. It forgets Jesus confronting the Pharisees in his last week and forgets that he was crucified for offending the sensibilities of the corrupt leaders.  It forgets the suffering of the apostles in Acts, their unwillingness to give in when power attempted to shut them up. It forgets their martyrdom and that of the readers of Revelation, many of whom were killed because they refused to say what Caesar wanted them to say.

The great paradox of the power of the Gospel includes this: that while we may beat our swords into ploughshares, we still hold fast to the tradition of the prophets and follow the King whose image in Revelation is a warrior with a sword coming from his mouth, not in his hand.  The paradox is that we are not powerful by the world’s standards of power, but we have a greater power, that of our ability to speak the truth boldly…confrontationally…in some cases condemningly to the powers that be–and this is possible only because we have put down the sword to pick up the cross.  Our unwillingness to kill means that our deaths mean more and we speak all the more prophetically understanding this.

This weekend, mega-church minister and self-styled, semi-progressive Southern Baptist minister David Platt had just such an opportunity.  In response to Franklin Graham’s Twitter challenge of May 26 to pray for Donald Trump (in response to the constant “attacks” he is under), the President, seemingly at random, chose Platt’s church for a surprise visit, sending his people on ahead to say “The President wants you to pray for him.”  When Trump himself arrived at Platt’s church, Platt (who claims he was surprised by the event) not only agreed to let the President disrupt their communion service, barge in, and receive his prayer but he stood up and, putting his hands on Trump’s shoulder, prayed that Trump would know how much he is loved, that he would have wisdom, and included a vague reference to Trump making decisions that would be “good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path.”  Words which were guaranteed to bounce off of their target.

Platt, who has been occasionally critical of Trump, had a unique opportunity to speak in a way that was unmistakable about the evils Trump has done.  If he was going to mention “justice” he might have mentioned God’s love for migrant children or shithole countries. If he was going to mention “equity” he might have mentioned the humanity of women and their status as being more than just walking “pussies” to “grab.”  If he was going to mention “peaceful lives” he might have mentioned the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. He prayed for “blessings” but left out convictions. He prayed for “justice” but was purposefully ambiguous about what that meant. There wasn’t anything in that prayer that challenged Trump in a way Trump would understand. If he had, he’d certainly have tweeted about it the next day. Nothing. Failure.

David Platt had an opportunity that John the Baptist literally gave his head for.  And he blew it. One would expect this of a higher-up in the SBC, desperately afraid of saying something that isn’t politic in a religion rife with hypocrisy on such issues.  One would assume that he has members of the “social justice” crowd who donate to his buildings as well as Trump supporters. So, of course, he needed to maintain a sense of social justice for the “SJ” crowd without bothering the “MAGA” folks.  In the end, he said nothing at all.

And nothing is a great thing to say, if you’re sure you don’t want to get crucified, stoned, or beaten up–or lose members.  It’s perfect if you’re hoping to impress everyone with your eloquence and grace under pressure. It’s the right way to make sure you say exactly what everyone wants to hear without actually saying anything at all.   If only John the Baptist had stood outside Herod’s temple and passively shouted, “Kings must do what is right!” It’s true and Herod, I’m sure, would have no problem with it, because isn’t Herod always doing what’s right?  If only Peter had said, “We must obey God…” and not included “and not men.” For, isn’t everyone basically interested in obeying God? They’d all probably have escaped the sword and club and cross. But, then again, they’d have denied the real power that the Gospel has: its truthfulness.

David Platt had a chance to speak the truth.  He had a chance to stand with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs and speak.  But he flaked out like a good mega-church preacher. And the saddest thing is, I think he knows his words were about as useless as Jedediah’s guns.

I picture him saying to himself, “David Platt’s impotent prayer…his words don’t fire.  Take me away.”

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Being a peaceful Christian means letting go of “protecting life”

The irony of people referring to themselves as “Pro-life” on the issue of abortion but being clearly “pro-death” on issues like war and capital punishment has been frequently observed.  Many whose consciences are shredded by the thought of “the most vulnerable of us” (an unhelpful fuzz-phrase that a friend put to me in a recent conversation) being “torn from the womb of their mother and murdered” are simply unphased that born children are being torn from the arms of their mothers and caged at the border.  

Not all who are anti-abortion display such hypocrisy.  I know many people who, like me, have come to understand that being a Christian means recognizing Jesus’ call to peacemaking and have renounced violence in all its forms, the aforementioned friend being one of these.  These people understand that abortion is not the only violent act, but so is war and poverty, so they attempt to be anti-abortion and anti-other forms of violence.

However, even among these, I find a blindness to the tension inherent to the abortion issue.  I believe it has to do with the language trap that has been created around it. You simply can’t have a conversation about abortion that doesn’t rely on competing platitudes.  “You’re just trying to control women’s bodies. It’s a child, not a choice. Pro-Life / Pro-Choice…”. All of the language we use about the issue is designed to generate an ultimately unhelpful emotional response.  Everytime someone uses those platitudes, they’re digging in further and refusing to hear the other perspective. Every conversation, every turn-of-phrase, every meme is a doubling-down on one’s position and a stubborn refusal to understand the other.  And I believe even some of my peace-loving brothers and sisters are enslaved to that language and unable to see the issue clearly.

Again, the aforementioned friend had shared a quote on Facebook from Peter Kreeft.  It was, “Abortion is the Antichrist’s demonic parody of the Eucharist. That’s why it uses the same holy words, ‘This is my body,’ with the blasphemously opposite meaning.”

Wow…tripled down.  Now, a person who has an abortion is the Antichrist.  Now a person who says, “This is my body” (I suppose, in any context?) is blaspheming Jesus Christ.   

But here’s the problem I see: it’s not hypothetical at all to talk about a friend of ours whose beloved wife was in mortal danger during her pregnancy and, when it was not clear the child could even survive, turned in desperation to the doctors and said “Whatever you do, if you have to, I’ll choose my wife over the child.”

And it is not hypothetical to talk about tubal pregnancies, stillbirths, or situations where a fetus in the womb is brain-dead or dying and who, if left, threatens the life of the mother and the stability of a family.  To remove that fetus from the womb is an abortion.  But, according to Kreeft and my friend, that’s the Antichrist; it’s a demonic blasphemy.

My friend rebutted at one point: “And there can be no doubt (or, at least there shouldn’t be) that the Christian life should then, if nothing else, require us to at the very least relinquish our power to sacrifice the other — whether in war or in the womb — and to instead entrust ourselves — our bodies and the bodies of others — to the faithfulness of God.”

This is a good point.  Christians are not to “sacrifice the other.” We are, instead, called to pick up our cross and follow, carrying it for those around us–to the point of our own deaths.  This is a central tenet of a peaceful understanding of Christian theology. But what my friend misses is that Christ calls us to this.  He does not force us to this.  

The attempt to “make abortion illegal” (which was a stated desire from him in the conversation) is an attempt to force someone else to bear their cross.  In order to save what you take to be children in the womb, you are willing to put many mothers on crosses. You are, in fact, willing to sacrifice their bodies.

This is simply not how the Gospel works out in the New Testament.

My friend used the analogy of slavery.  “Thank God slavery was made illegal in this country,” forgetting, I suppose, that the attempt to make slavery illegal resulted in a four-year civil war.  And it could have happened no other way: because to participate in the powers with which to accomplish peace one must reject the cross (peace by self-sacrifice) in order to pick up the sword (peace through sacrifice of the other).  

My friend Paul Axton, in a recent conversation, made this point exactly.  The apostle Paul, in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, attempted to undermine the entire concept of slavery not with armed conflict, but with the love and self-sacrifice of the cross.  He did not make slavery illegal, but attempted to make slavery and the law obsolete with the self-sacrificing love of the cross.

And this is the irony of being a “Pro-Life Christian.”  There is no way around it: your attempt to make this decision for someone means you are putting someone on a cross to save another.  You’re not trying to bear that cross for them.  You’re putting them on it.

For myself…I would that all children could live and thrive.  I would that there was no war and no slavery. I would that there was no such thing as wealth so that there would be no such thing as debt and poverty.  I would that there were no borders and no one was afraid of the other.

However, I believe that me bearing a cross means I can’t control any of this, but must try to live as peacefully as I can in the face of it. This means I must acknowledge that I should not be the one standing outside of a hospital room deciding who lives and who dies for someone else.  Because, believe it or not, what you may passionately believe is a “child” is, in fact, inside that woman’s body.  And that is her body that God gave to her, controlled by the mind that God gave to her to make choices–and that is not blasphemy, that is the created order.  God himself does not attempt to take that choice from her. He may call her to her cross, but he leaves it up to her to decide whether she will bear it. Why can’t you?

Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for president for the 2020 election, made a fascinating statement in a town-hall interview recently when asked about laxed abortion regulation.  He said,

I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on ‘where you draw the line’ that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of ‘who gets to draw the line.’  And I trust women to draw the line when it’s their health.

When pressed on late-term abortions, he went on,

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation.  If it’s that late in the pregnancy that means, by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry to term.  We’re talking about women who have chosen a name or purchased a crib. Families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice.  And the bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is, they may seek spiritual guidance or medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better medically or morally because the government [think: you, Christian] is dictating how that decision is going to be made.

Think what you will about Pete, I take that answer to be a very peaceful answer and closer to the cross’s solution than any other I’ve heard yet.  It’s time for peaceful Christians to stop trying to control people…to stop standing on our pedestals making absolutist claims about situations we know nothing about…to acknowledge our ignorance and trust that the cross is the correct way and not the sword.

It’s time to let women have their bodies and not call them demonic for saying it.

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I am a story

I am a walking story–
A collection of memories and
Reflections on experience
Stored loosely in neurons and
Running through neural pathways:
A worldview at once shaped,
Shaping, and being shaped.

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Finally figured out…

I finally figured something out that’s been bugging me for years…

A week ago I said something stupid to one of my closest friends. It was hurtful and thoughtless. We both thought about it for a couple of days and then sat down and worked it out. I owned my responsibility for what I said and asked for his forgiveness. And he gave it. I confessed what I had done, said I would be more careful in the future, and we moved on. We resolved the offense. There is peace between us again.

Identifying as a Christian and understanding that identification as a commitment to peacemaking means confronting the evils that we do to each other and working to resolve them. “Forgiveness” is not “pretending” that someone didn’t do something hurtful when they did. In fact, it requires acknowledging it in order to release them from the burden of repayment. The peace of Christ requires us to recognize the evils and seek restorative justice. Restorative justice isn’t justice at all unless there is an effort to recognize what is wrong and seek to make it right.

The hardest part about identifying as a Christian and trying to have relationships with others who do, as well, is that most people who also identify as Christian simply don’t understand this. In fact, I’d say most don’t realize that their Christianity isn’t supposed to look like the power structures of the world. This is the reason that it hurts so much to have Christian friends who show honor to people who have treated me or someone I love like complete crap.

They’re convinced that we’re “unforgiving” because we think that making peace means making real peace and not ignoring the fact that people do evil and claim to do it in God’s name. Ignoring it or pretending it’s not evil isn’t peace: it’s enabling abuse.

Several weeks ago a friend of mine made a FB comment about someone who had done just such crap-treatment to me. He said, “So-and-so is just a great guy, reasonable and good-hearted. I think highly of him.” (I’m paraphrasing some.) My experience with him had been very different. So, I commented, “I don’t.” My comment was instantly deleted by the owner of the convo, as he had every right to do. But he never asked me why I said it or felt that way. It was clear that the only reason I might say something like that is that I’m a jerk, or unforgiving. I’ve been called that a lot.

I can tell you, it is excruciatingly painful to watch people continue on in relationships with people who crucified you or someone you loved as if it never happened. Watching people who love us go on with the people who treated my wife like something they stepped in as if nothing ever happened hurts in a way I simply can’t express.

I think it’s also one reason we’ve had such a hard time imagining a church to go to.

I’ve been called “harsh” a lot. I’m “too confrontational.” I need to have fewer “expectations” that people will do what is right. I need to pretend they aren’t hurting people so that they can go on hurting people as comfortably as possible.

I’ve been told that I just can’t handle being “disagreed with” (a comment I’ve heard a thousand times and will adamantly deny it until I die). I’ve been told that I’m “looking for the perfect church” because I’m “judgmental.” I’m not. I’m looking for the church. I have only found snippets of it so far.

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Care

I, too, have wondered
Why I’ve spent so many words,
So much effort,
Describing the injustices
I’ve seen done
By people of power
In places called “Christian.”

Believe it or not,
It’s not bitterness,
Unforgiveness,
Or revenge.

I just keep thinking
Maybe someone will care.

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The blasphemies of the American civil religion

Soldiers have sacrificed for my religious “freedom,” therefore I am required by the masses to worship a flag regardless of my convictions.  To not do so is frequently called “sacrilege.”

The “American Dream” is a gift given to the most faithful.  Some black men (who, because of their status, have more to atone for than we white people) have achieved playing football, therefore expressing the injustices others experience means they are ungrateful to be allowed their high social status…it is to turn the nose up at the gift.

Police “lay their lives on the line” to protect us, therefore they ought to be able to kill us with impunity—and we must be grateful to them.  I sometimes wonder if I should be happy if a firefighter decided to burn my house down with my family in it.  He does, after all, make great sacrifices to protect me from fires.

The cult of “freedom” is the American version of the Emperor cult of the Caesars of ancient Rome.  Its salvation (freedom) requires me to revere its totems (flags), genuflect for its songs (anthems), tithe to its temples (establishments), worship its messiahs (providers of freedom), venerate its martyrs, fund its priests (politicians), honor its patriarchs (forefathers), and exegete its scriptures (constitution).  It has all the ceremonies, rites, rituals, traditions, orthodoxies, and heresies of any religion—and like many theocracies, it wars with others to maintain its position.  Every war is somehow, inexplicably, a battle for my freedom.  Any foreigner (non-citizen) is a faithless pagan and somehow, less.  To become a proselyte, one must pay an awful price.  And just like in the Emperor cult of Rome, you can have any other “religion” you want, as long as you make sure it plays second fiddle to the Empire—because don’t forget that the Empire makes your religion possible.  Your god must always honor the Empire cult.

And for the blind, following masses, to question the civil religion, to refuse to worship its flag by pointing out injustice is to question this salvation, to blaspheme its messiahs, its totems, and its anthems.

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A letter to a hypocrite

Dear sir,

I hear, again, you’ve been talking about “peace,” that the word closes your letters and that you say it warmly with an exhortative knowing smile whenever your conversations or gatherings conclude. I hear you’ve been taking about “social justice,” and that you wince and lead prayers whenever some new great injustice has been committed in the world, committed by the powerful against some poor, helpless group.  I hear you’re still preaching to your listeners that the proper Christian life is one which promotes “peace” instead of “war” and “social justice” instead of the abuse of power.

I suppose all of these are good.  I can’t argue with them.

But, I have begun to think that peace and justice are, for you, all about presidents and congressmen, nations and civilizations, policies and laws.  I think the only wrongs you see are those done by the great big powerful people and systems—and this is why you encourage us to sign official petitions, write to our congressmen, and march in protests.  You see peace and justice only in terms of power.  Peace must be infused with power if it’s really going to “work.”  We’ve got to be strong if we’re going to defeat the powers in the name of justice.

Nevermind that this is the same rationale the powers use to wage their wars and commit their atrocities.

Yet, with all this talk of peace and justice, you do not talk to the people around you well.  You talk over them.  You interrupt them.  I’ve seen you use them and manipulate them.  You have no patience for them.  They are not sheep in your eyes, but obstinate mules testing your patience by resisting your efforts to build and support the powerful solutions which you think will bring peace and justice to the world.  So, you rail against them and get angry.  You push them out of the way.  I have seen you shout at them, lie to them, and hate them—justifying it as “peace.”

Oh, and others.  I have seen others who occupy positions of authority in “institutions,” who post articles about justice and peace and mercy, who teach lessons and read books about these things.  But, ultimately, their boss decides what is just and unjust, and they go right along.  And I have watched the ones deemed “champions of peace and justice” quietly fade into the background while the boss climbs over people and hurts people and uses them up to seek his ends.  The champions will not speak up; they will not share that cross.  They tell themselves, “See, if I get fired, I won’t be here any longer to do justice.”  So, they sit quietly and approvingly while violence is done to their neighbor.  They put up with and, by defending it, commit injustice—in order to do justice.  They do evil for the sake of good.  “Better that one person should die for everyone than that we all should die.”

It is because, sir, like you, their love for “peace” and “social justice” is about issues, not people.  It is about power and control, not truth.  They, like you, do not understand the words of Micah: that what is required of God’s people is not big acts of power but “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”  This, of course, takes one inevitably to the cross: the ultimate injustice.  And you…you have decided you won’t end up there.  No, you put your neighbors on it.  You put your friends on it, your brothers and sisters, church members, coworkers…your children.

All because you still do not believe that Jesus’ peace is one which bears a cross.  You still agree with the powers.  You still don’t know the story.  You don’t know what peace is because you agree with the crucifiers and not the crucified.  You believe in the powers and not the cross.  You have convinced yourself that God’s way of doing peace is not good enough.  If only he had asked you.  You are opposed to God, against him.  And, because of that, you are lost.  I feel sorry for you.

You may still be standing now.  You may rack up your accomplishments and even “succeed.”  But you will never, ever do peace.

God forgive you.

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