Theory Thursday: Creeds and Beliefs

 https://youtu.be/H-61MaWETiU

 I’m talking about my beliefs, my creed, so to speak. In the “re-boot” post, I talked about how my theological beliefs had settled down a bit since the last period of blog activity (2012-2013), but I didn’t go into much detail, and may have been a bit a bit vague or confusing.

First, let me get the question of orthodoxy out of the way. I affirm the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday in church, and I mean every word.

I believe that Jesus was so much more than just an example for us … but that we cannot ignore his example. And in many ways, I spent most of my life ignoring his example.

Jesus taught peace, yet I found a way to justify every single war the U.S. had ever gotten into. 

Jesus crossed social boundaries and embraced the poor, the outcasts of society, and those believed to be sinners, yet I found a way to stay safe in my own middle-class moral superiority. I let myself believe that we’d somehow all started from the same place.

Jesus always spoke up to the powerful for the sake of those who were weaker, poorer, considered sinners, or socially ‘underneath.’

Yet time and again, I’d side with the powerful, the privileged,  because I’m one of them … white,  male,  heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied Christian.

America wss quite literally made for my kind. 

And I know I won’t ever understand how it is to be black or gay or trans or  female … But at least I can be aware of that. At least I can listen. 

At least I can try to follow the Jesus of the Gospels.

“Deserve” Has Everything to Do With It

A while back I talked about how “deserve has nothing to do with it.” Now I want to talk about the opposite. Sometimes, deserve has everything to do with it.

For those of us who were born in relative privilege, we have to deserve the things that we get and that we go for.

We may be handed a lot, being born in a country that’s not war-torn, that has clean water, that has vaccinations. But there are things we have to earn.

I was reading an Onion article called, “find the thing you love most, and do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life.” I have to admit I found it pretty depressing. 

But when I look back at when I was younger and had more time and opportunity, I see that I never really took advantage of it.

I never really pursued being a writer when I was young and had the relative freedom to do that. I certainly never pushed myself, writing hard and really studying to improve my skills, when I was young and had so much more time than I do now.

In short, I didn’t deserve to succeed. I didn’t deserve to be a writer.

What that means now is that if I ever want to have even some sideline success with this, is that now I’m going to have to earn it when it’s harder.

I wasted my playthrough on the “easy setting” and now I’m going to slightly harder setting … still not anywhere near the hardest setting … but slightly harder than before. 

And so now I’m going to have to prove that I want this more and then I’m willing to be more disciplined than I was as a young man, and do this while still keeping up my work and family responsibilities, even though it’s harder now than it was before.

And I have to be more disciplined and more dedicated than I’ve ever been before. Which is a pretty low bar to leap.

Long Journey, Part 2: A Long Road That Has No Turn

​https://youtu.be/sGs9V7iDuZU

Yesterday, I talked about how the changes I want to make in my life all promise a lot of effort, even pain, with no guarantee of arrival. 

I’ve been thinking about that since I wrote it,  and it occurs to me just how  fortunate I am.  

The goals I have to struggle toward are self-actualization goals. The first four levels of Maslow’s needs hierarchy are pretty much taken care of. 

I have a good job (one I enjoy most of the time)  with benefits and truly good co-workers. 

There is plenty of food in our panty,  fridge,  and deep freeze,  and money to eat out of we don’t feel like cooking

Our house is safe, dry,  un-infested, and everything works. 

I live in  a safe neighborhood.

I only drive about 2 miles to work.

As a white (cis, het) man, the world is an infinitely safer place for me than it is for most other Americans. 

I have a loving wife and daughter. 

I have an extended family, and we love each other (even my in-laws, which I understand makes me really lucky).

Truthfully, my stakes are low. If I fail at these personal goals, I will be upset with myself, and my life will not improve. 

But my kid won’t starve, I won’t lose my house, I won’t be raped and then watch my rapist get 6 months in prison, and I won’t be gunned down while buying a bb gun at Wal-Mart.  

We all want to improve ourselves and our lives, but it’s easy to lose track and think that if we can, anyone can. For people like me, that kind of thinking is part of the problem. 

Race is a four-letter word (Part Two: A Tale of Two Wal-Marts)

The whole country’s been talking about race lately, and I think we all know why. I’m certainly not immune to this myself.

Like most Americans (at least those of us in the “flyover states”), I simultaneously loathe and frequent Wal-Mart. I hate the ugly, run-down stores. I hate that the employees are underpaid and undertrained … and, as such, are generally very little help. I hate that the corporate ethics are more Machiavelli than Jesus.

But we have just sacrificed a large portion of our income so that the wifie can stay home with our little one, and that means we have to tighten our belts. I’m now in the same boat as the majority of Mississippians: I lack the economic privilege to get snippy about shopping at Wal-Mart.

I live within easy driving distance from two Wal-Marts, which I’ll refer to as “Highway 98” and “Highway 49.” For some reason, I usually prefer to go to Highway 98. I never gave much thought to “why.”

I was getting my list together to go to Wal-Mart the other day, and my first instinct was to go to Highway 98, even though it was farther away. Even though it didn’t carry some of the rarer items I like (KerryGold free-range cheese and butter, for example) that Highway 49 does.

And it occurred to me that maybe this was a matter of race. You see, the Wal-Mart on Highway 98 is a little newer than the one on Highway 49, but it isn’t really cleaner. It doesn’t have better selection. It’s not closer. But it is “whiter.”

Don’t get me wrong: in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, you’re not going to find any all-white or all-black establishments, other than a few barber shops (except for churches. But that’s a rant for another post).

But different parts of town and different stores have different apparent ratios, different unspoken “feels.” I think that’s the case with almost every town in America.

And I have to wonder if that’s part of the equation.

So what do I do? I don’t know if this is ideal, but I decided I wouldn’t darken the door of the Highway 98 Wal-Mart unless I was already out that way (it’s near Sam’s and Target and such) or I was after something Highway 49 didn’t have in stock.

Highway 49 is my Wal-Mart. Whatever reason I had for wanting to go to Highway 98, I won’t be acting on it.

I’ll always be white, and I’ll always have a white American’s viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of my race or ethnicity, but I will not insulate myself from people of other races or ethnicities.

It’s a small thing, really, the choice of which store to shop at. But maybe it’s a start.

“Race” is a Four-Letter Word (Part One: Suspicious Behavior)

This past week has been a big one for talking about race in America. I think we all know why. I’m not here to talk about that tragedy, that verdict, or whether it was right or wrong.

I wasn’t on the jury. I haven’ t seen the evidence and heard the eyewitness testimony. I don’t know if the verdict was right or wrong. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, a lot of young black men have died in similar ways. A lot. This slideshow shows just a few.  And a lot of times, their killers have either gone free or gotten away with a slap on the wrist.

If the Trayvon Martin case was an aberration, it would just be sad. But it’s part of a pattern. An ugly, unjust, institutionalized pattern. And I think that people of good conscience need to speak out on this pattern.

When I was young, I always tried to deal respectfully with police officers. But mostly they left me alone. I wasn’t doing anything criminal, and they didn’t assume or suspect me of doing anything criminal.

For a long time I assumed that was the default.

It is, for white guys…

…but not so much for African-American, Middle-Eastern, and Latino men.

I’m no celebrity. I’m no TV star. Celebrities get treated better, right? They get away with things mere mortals wouldn’t?

Maybe not. Levar Burton is beloved celebrity, a role model to a generation of kids who grew up watching “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” shows that glorified education, personal advancement, and (usually) nonviolence.  He is also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, a black man.

I don’t have a ritual for when I get pulled over by police (other than “try not to get pulled over by police.” Traffic tickets are expensive). I’d never think to pre-plan a set of actions to make sure the officer knew I was unarmed and not resisting. Why would that even occur to me?

Levar Burton does. 

Lest you think that Mr. Burton is alone, or paranoid, read this story, about a young honors student whose mother drilled the same practices into his head. He’s far more accomplished than I was at that age, but he has to prove himself every time.

I never would have believed or understood this just a few years ago, but I really think the most “suspicious behavior” a person can display being male and dark skinned.

 

The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

Does Welcoming Homosexuals Mean Accepting Homosexuality?

Shaking hands

As Christians, we like to think that we’re unpopular because we take a principled, Biblical stand against homosexual sexual relations.  But the things that stain our reputation most are not at all theological.  They’re not about the belief that same-sex sexual contact is sinful.  They’re about the way we so often treat homosexual people.

There are plenty of churches that actively seek to welcome lesbians and homosexuals into to their midst, while still holding to the theology that homosexual sexual relations are sinful in god’s eyes.

They believe that those who are completely homosexual (and not at all bisexual or attracted to the opposite sex at all) should be celibate, and those who are bisexual should focus their romantic and sexual attention on members of the opposite sex, effectively living as if heterosexual.

These churches are occasionally called intolerant or anti-homosexual, but they actually have homosexual people in their congregations.  They love and worship with and share communion with people who are sexually attracted to the same sex.  They do not hold themselves sinless or blameless or better than their homosexual neighbors.  And so they are able to witness and minister to people who are so often excluded from the Church.

People act like the alternatives are the Family Research Council (which spreads horrible, often false, ‘information’ about homosexuals and works against all their civil rights) or the Episcopal Church (which ordained its first homosexual priest in the seventies, and has created an official blessing for same-sex marriages).

That is a false dichotomy.  You do not need to change your theology to change the way you treat your least popular neighbors (Don’t get me wrong: I believe you can be a faithful, prayerful Christian and not believe homosexual sexual relations are sinful.  But those Christians aren’t the ones I’m writing this post to).

In other words, the evangelical churches of the United States do not have to start blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers.  But we do need to stop actively working to use the government to attack homosexuals.

In many states, homosexuals can be fired because of their sexual orientation for no reason.  In many states, they cannot adopt.  In many states, they are excluded from hospital visitation for their partners.  Until 2003, having homosexual relations was felony on par with forcible rape in many states.  That’s oppression: “if you’re gay, we treat you like a rapist.”

In other words, homosexual people are treated like second-class citizens, and it’s mostly because of political pressure from conservative Christians.

As Christians, we are called to love all sinners, not just sinners who sin like we do.  As Christians, we are not called to use the empire’s hammer to beat down people we don’t like.  That is antithetical to Christ’s behavior when He was on earth, and I believe antithetical to Christ’s message.

Jesus ate with the outcasts of Jewish society – Samaritans, tax collectors, and more – and He loved them.  He loves them still, just like he loves the outcasts of our American society.  If we love Him, we need to suck it up, step up, and start feeding His sheep.

The Great American Persecution

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883

Let me start by saying one thing:

Losing our privileged position as the default religion and arbiter of culture is not the same as enduring persecution.

Let me repeat that:  Losing our privileged position as the default religion and arbiter of culture is not the same as enduring persecution.

This sentiment bothers me, because it not only promotes an ugly, us-versus-them mentality among American Christians, but it cheapens the blood of actual martyrs worldwide.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as quoted in 2011 in Catholic World News each year approximately 105,000 Christians are martyred.

That means they were killed.

Some were hacked apart with machetes (common in sub-Saharan Africa).  Some were shot (common everywhere).  Some were tortured to death, even raped (unfortunately, that’s also common everywhere).  Some just “vanished” thanks to repressive governments and their secret police.  That is persecution.

Not being able to have mandatory school prayer, or even authority-figure-led school prayer at government-run, tax-funded schools is not persecution.  It’s the government actually taking the First Amendment seriously.  Students can still lead prayers, so long as other students’ presence is not mandatory.  Religious student associations can still meet and pray or study the Bible (Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example).

I grew up in a small southern town, surrounded by grandparents and great grandparents, an unincorporated community that time forgot.  So don’t get me wrong, I understand how much of an adjustment it can be to go from a safe, comfortable set of small differences (Baptist vs. Methodist jokes, all in good humor, and told over cold, tangy coleslaw and crispy-hot catfish breaded in cornmeal) to a wide world that defies such easy categorizations.

Interracial marriages?  Gay couples?  Immigrants with brown skin and “strange” religions?  Body alterations, online communities, people creating new categories to put themselves in, satire-religions like the Pastafarians, the Dischordians, and the Church of the Sub-Genius?  Is anything ‘normal’ anymore?

No, and it never was.  Homogeneity can become an idol, and we end up worshiping the time when our cultural brand reigned supreme, unchallenged by tides of immigration, litigation, and information.  Losing that isn’t persecution.  Losing that stranglehold on culture isn’t persecution, but it might feel that way sometimes.

Losing our cultural supremacy may even be the beginning of authenticity, of being more like the Apostles:  a dozen good Jews who’d been raised in their Judean monoculture, but who carried the Gospel to Greeks and Asians and other foreigners who spoke with strange accents, ate strange foods, and followed strange customs.

It may even make us more like Jesus, who actively engaged with and loved people society placed as outsiders – racial and religious outsiders like the Samaritans, social outsiders like the tax collectors, and economic outsiders like the poor and disabled.

The Farmer’s Wife (Complementarianism, Again)

Farmer and Wife, Irving Rusinow, 1941

Farmer and Wife. Photo by Irving Rusinow, 1941

A farmer’s wife is a farmer, not a housewife.  I know that because my maternal grandparents were farmers.  There was a division of labor, of course, but it wasn’t some philosophical self-conscious complementarian structure, but a legitimate division of labor.  Pa Clarence didn’t know how to sew, and Nanny Jet couldn’t fix or maintain a tractor, for example.  But the men and the women all picked crops (as did the boys and the girls, once they were old enough).  Both cooked, at least some: Pa Clarence made the best biscuits I ever ate (and he took the recipe to his grave).  Nanny Jet was the cornbread champion, and their chicken and dressing was a kind of joint effort, using his biscuits and her cornbread, though she prepared the dressing itself (a recipe that has been passed down to her daughters, and, through Mom, to me … but Katherine makes it better than I do).

Yes, men and women were different.  Men and women are still different, though changing times have revealed some of those differences to be cultural constructions, rather than biological conditions.  Perhaps in the future, even more of the differences between men and women will be revealed as nothing more than socio-cultural artifacts.  The gospel will endure, even as it endured blue stockings, suffrage, and industrialization, as it survived the birth of pantsuits, career women, and birth control.

The difference between a farmer and his wife and a 21st century complementarian is this: the farmer and his wife did what they did because it worked.  They were raising crops and livestock and children, and their life was in the land.  Every year, they planted their livelihood in the ground in an earthy leap of faith that most of us have never had to take.  They didn’t have time to theorize from their wealthy, government safety-net supported, megachurch attending, paid by a seminary or church, privileged position.  This wass as true of first century farmers and shepherds as early twentieth century farmers.

The complementarian movement isn’t returning us to some pre-industrial idyll.  At best, it’s sanctifying the white-upper-class privileged gender roles of an idealized 1950’s.  At worst, it’s dragging us back to old Greco-Roman house codes.  Some complementarians, like Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant, have even ventured into slavery apologetics.

As bizarre as that seems in this day and time (paleo-confederate?  Really?), it really is the natural, logical conclusion of God-ordained male dominance.  After all, the passages that teach women to submit are always located near passages giving slaves the same instruction.  The Greco-Roman households Paul wrote to were ruled by men, with wives having more status, but no more freedom or authority, than slaves.  Paul’s admonitions to mutual submission upended the heart of this one-sided power-structure, but in the interest of civil peace, he urged Christians not to flout the laws and customs of his day.  Twenty centuries later, we can do better.

They quote Paul, but they recreate themselves in the image of Ward Cleaver and seek to forge women into the image of June Cleaver, using the Bible as a hammer and tradition as an anvil.  They claim tradition, but in truth, lack all authenticity.  Past social arrangements were based on physical and economic necessities.  Past social arrangements made survival possible.  They may not have been just, but they were necessary.  This?  This is the retrograde fantasy, a dangerous escape from modernity.

Sold! (Wrestling the Angel of Consumerism)

X-Box 260

This is my X-Box. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important.  He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches.  In my experience, he’s right.  Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members.  But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.

It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces.  It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.”  They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.

[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way.  Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake.  It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy:  that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]

The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives.  Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants.  Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.

Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased.  With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television.  And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.

The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around.  And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it.  We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.

Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God.  I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.

But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness.  My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out.  And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal.  I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.

It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation.  Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable.  I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants.  They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.

I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step.  Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new.  I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision.  It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.

Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it.  We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom.  But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.