The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 3 — We Are So Very, Very, Very Sorry, and Let Us Show You How Sorry We Are

Last time my exploration of the last three chapters of the Bible’s book of Judges — which I’m convinced is the most horrific story in all scripture — ended with the massacre of nearly every Israelite in Benjamin. In the process, Israel put most of the “province” — the land allocated to Benjamin when the conquest of Canaan began — to the sword and burnt most of its cities and villages down. Continue reading “The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 3 — We Are So Very, Very, Very Sorry, and Let Us Show You How Sorry We Are”

The Family That Prays Together…

This morning, the batteries on my iPod Shuffle ran out (in the middle of an episode of Tales of the Texas Rangers I think, though I can’t be sure, since I drifted in and out of sleep as I listened) and so I was forced to listen to AM 1710 Antioch on my iPhone (BBC World Service runs Sports World on Saturday mornings; while it’s the BBC, sports are still sports, even on the BBC), a little radio and Internet station in Antioch, Illinois that plays Old Time Radio shows around the clock.

This morning it was Family Theater, an anthology program that ran ten years on the Mutual Radio network from 1947 to 1957. This is the high water mark of American Christendom, and the program reflects its grounding in the Family Rosary Crusade and the desire to encourage family prayer. “The family that prays together, stays together,” is the program’s motto. In case you’ve heard it but had no idea where it came from. Continue reading “The Family That Prays Together…”

The Church and Modernity

Peter Berger makes an interesting point over at The National Interest:

The term “Islamophobia”, as used in current Muslim usage, refers to the negative attitudes of non-Muslims toward Muslims. This is generally a problem for Muslims living in the diaspora, who are afraid of what the non-Muslims do or might do to them. In Muslim-majority countries the fear is generally the reverse—the others are afraid of the Muslims. One can understand why Muslims are worried about anti-Muslim feelings and actions. But going on and on about Islamophobia may also be a convenient way of avoiding the central problem for Islam in the contemporary world: What has been and what should be the relation between Islam and modernity? [Emphasis in original.]

Islam is not the only creed that is dealing with this. But it is the creed where this debate over the kind of modernity (and note, it is not a dispute for or against modernity, but what role religion will play in organizing and shaping modernity) has become the most violent. Continue reading “The Church and Modernity”

The Lectionary This Week: The Love That Surrenders

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 4, 01 February 2014 (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20
  • Psalm 111
  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
  • Mark 1:21-28

Let’s start this week with Jesus teaching in the synagogue — a Good Greek word which means “assembly” — at Capernaum. It’s Friday evening, most likely, and he is busy teaching. I find it interesting that Mark constantly tells us Jesus teaches “with authority, and not as the scribes” but we don’t actually have the teaching here.

Mark is a short Gospel, and Jesus teaches mainly in parables and acts of healing. This is not like Matthew’s or John’s gospel, in which Jesus talks and talks and talks. He’s on the move here, constantly, and he says comparatively little. It’s as if here, in Mark, for the community Mark is relating this story to, the words of Jesus actually get in the way of meeting Jesus.

Or perhaps more importantly, for Mark, the actual words of Jesus aren’t so important. What’s important is who Jesus is, and in getting Jesus, in being with Jesus, in watching him work, we’ve met God.

The only words of Jesus actually quoted in this passage are his response to the man with the unclean spirit, who cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.”

“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus says.

The unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. And confesses it publicly, before the gathered crowd of worshippers at the synagogue. And Jesus silences that spirit, and the man it inhabits, by casting the spirit out.

So, we know who Jesus is largely by what he does but at the same time Jesus is constantly telling those he heals and cleans and forgives, and those (largely forces of evil) who confess his real identity to be silent. It’s an odd juxtaposition. This is a gospel of silence, and all we can do is marvel at the authority with which he preaches, an authority seen even before he cast out a demon.

“And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” As much as he wants us to keep our mouths shut about all this, we tell the world about Jesus. “Can you believe what we’ve seen?”

This probably anticipates what some biblical scholars see as the original ending of Mark, where the two Marys find the tomb empty and see an unnamed “young man” telling them that Jesus of Nazareth “has risen.” And that he is heading back to Galilee, where all the action started.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

(A few verses were likely later added giving us a great commission, an ascension, and the disciples finally going out an telling the world. Interestingly enough, Jesus has to rebuke those who don’t believe, but send them out to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” anyway.)

And yet, even afraid of all the signs and wonder, even in our silence, somehow we’ve told the world.

Because we’ve seen signs and wonders. Real authority. And it has been given to us. Real authority. And the ability to work signs and wonders.

* * *

In the reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is concerned about the way our love expresses itself for each other. Especially as we live together as followers of Jesus.

1 Now concerning food offered to idols:we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (ESV)

So, Paul asserts a right here — that he can, in fact, eat food sacrificed and devoted to idols, to false gods, because those gods are not real, and therefore the sacrifice made to them has no value. It cannot condemn the one who eats in and of itself.

But he goes on. Because this isn’t so much about rights as it is about… well, I’ll let Paul say it.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul here is not talking about compromise, he’s talking about surrender. Yes, he can claim a right — and I think he rather noisily does half the time he claims he isn’t — but here the principle is clear. Even if meat sacrificed to idols has no moral value, there will be believers out there whose faith still puts them in fear of those false gods. Or who believe that consorting with such puts the one who eats at risk.

Claiming the right is pointless when it wounds the faith of others, and when it divides the church. Paul is clear about this.

And this is a difficult teaching. Because surrendering rights — even surrendering the claim to be right — is difficult. Perhaps impossible at this point in time. It certainly is something no one wants to do.

I think of the issue that has divided the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and the wider US church) so much in the last few years — that of the place of homosexuals in the community of the faithful. Can they lead? Should they lead? Can they even belong? So many claims to righteousness here, so much justifying positions of the basis of scripture and reason. Claims of truth, of right, demanding adherence and compliance. Pronouncements of anathema to those who believe is practice differently. Nowhere has anyone sought to surrender their rights, or the claims to be right. For too many people, too much is riding on this.

For many, the very claim to be church rides on this.

I’m not sure what surrender of rights would look like here. For some, it means their continued abuse and exclusion from a community they feel called to belong to (or the abuse and exclusion of those near and dear to them). For others, it means accepting as righteous something that God clearly proclaims as sin. Maybe this is a matter bigger than mere meat sacrificed to idols. And certainly, no one in a fight like this is going to surrender first.

But this is also a hard teaching because it puts the weakest, and often times the shrillest, often times the most narrow minded in charge of what faith means, of how it can be expressed publicly. It suggests no one’s conscience can ever be offended. And it has the potential to put the most narrow minded and pietistic in charge.

It would help if this were truly a mutual process. And ideally, it should be.

However, that’s not what Paul writes here. Paul is talking about the kind of surrender Jesus made. A surrender based not on reciprocity (or even its possibility), but one made solely in faithfulness to God. It’s a risk we’re asked to take, and a very difficult one at that. He says nothing about the surrender of those with weak faiths or narrow minds (though one hopes at some point they toughen up and broaden their understanding a bit), and he does this with real concern about their well-being. I am my brother’s keeper, Paul tells me. The well-being of their souls matter to me. Because they matter to Jesus.

This injects a tension into the community. Because it’s important to walk into dark and difficult places to preach the gospel and meet those most in need of hearing the gospel. And yet, frequently, they will be in disreputable places, surrounded by disreputable people. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of, “If you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised when you get up with fleas.” Wisdom spoken by good, faithful people, as if it were the gospel.

Which it isn’t.

There is no way to solve this. It just needs to be lived into. Because this tension, between those whose faith and understanding allows for the eating of meat, and those who do not, will always be at odds with each other.

Such is our life together. Never solved and never perfect.

When No One Protects You

This piece from The Atlantic really speaks to me today.

Intimate partner battering and its effects (once commonly known as “Battered Women’s Syndrome”) are often described as a set of behaviors where women follow their abuser because they are afraid and traumatized. Its symptoms are most similar to PTSD, according to Rummel, and less similar to mental illness, a common misconception.

Arguments like the one Kelly’s prosecutor made are based on long-standing prejudices that such women who live with abusers are selfish and manipulative. In a report submitted in support of Kelly’s habeas petition, Dr. Geraldine Butts Stahly pointed out that women respond to severe and prolonged physical and sexual abuse through a series of survival mechanisms, such as learned helplessness (where victims are too afraid to defend themselves) and traumatic bonding (where victims form an emotional attachment towards their abuser).

The law permits survivors of abuse to present relevant testimony at their trial to show that they may be less culpable for their actions. But many women facing criminal charges never have this opportunity, either because the attorney fails to produce a suitable expert or because the jury misinterprets evidence of abuse. In addition, criminal laws are more male-centered. “When men experience violence,” said Rummel, “they react immediately. The laws are based on duress and provocation.”

Women, on the other hand, often experience ongoing violence, many times from the very people who are supposed to protect them. “They may not react immediately,” Rummel said. They go about their lives. They raise their kids. They move on. Then their rage explodes.”

I appreciate the focus here on women, and especially women in intimate relationships, but I think a lot of these features — learned helplessness, traumatic bonding, lack of immediate reaction — are a significant portion of any kind of abuse suffered by anyone at the hands of “people that are supposed to protect.” Maybe not always, but often.

Our understanding of agency here is agency under optimal conditions — that of a good, well-behaved and well-adjusted (white) bourgeois American. Someone with a modicum of economic and social support, someone who isn’t an abuser willing or able to help. So, an abused (or traumatized) person is seen as having the same kinds of moral agency as someone who has not been abused (or traumatized), and judged accordingly. The question, “why didn’t you leave?” assumes that leaving is seen as an option. Or even a possibility. But what if it’s not? And what if there’s no place to go, or no one to go to?

What if violence and abuse is all there is and all there has been? What if there is no one or no place that is not violent? What then?

What Success Looks Like

Some months ago, I was chatting with my daughter Michaela via FaceTime (she’s Slovak, lives in Slovakia, and attends university in the Czech Republic, where she’s studying Arabic and Islamic studies — this makes her “old man” very, very proud — and so all we have right now is Internet chatting; someday, I shall explain how she became my daughter, but it was an act of proclamation, the grace of God, and not biology) when she asks me, quite bluntly:

“What if your book fails? Because here in Slovakia, lots of people dream big, but it doesn’t work out. What’s your Plan B?”

Always practical, that one.

I hemmed and I hawed. Well, I said, success could look like many things: my book getting on Oprah’s book club, Hollywood wanting to make a movie (all possible; unlikely, but possible), and given the story I tell — American Muslim and one-time wanna be jihadi meets Jesus underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and goes to seminary to become a pastor — a silent thud in the American marketplace is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely.

So, I told her, I defined success very simply — one offer to be a pastor somewhere. I think that’s a potential outcome. I worry that with the things I reveal about myself, I will be completely unemployable (that too is a possibility in our society of no mistakes allowed), that no one anywhere will want me as their pastor. But I trust God, I told her.

And besides, I did up a nice Europass CV so she could give it to the language school where she teaches English. (A resume service recently rated my CV “poor,” giving it a 5 out of 10, because I only listed job duties, and failed to note how I “added value” to the companies I worked for. Really? That’s a thing now? Is it a sad admission to say I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I’d done that?) That’s my “Plan B,” I told her.

Honestly, though, I don’t even have a Plan A right now, much less a Plan B. Jennifer and I are winging it, making it up as we go along. We’ll see how that works out.

The truth is, however, I know exactly success looks like. It looks like this e-mail I got late Sunday, unsolicited, from Soren McMillan, who has apparently followed my writing career for at least 10 years (I have a follower?) and has just read my book. I’ve never met Soren, and am deeply touched by his response. I reprint this with his permission:

Charles, I wish I were in the position to invite you to my church, but I am “between churches”, looking for a new one.  I just want to say thank you for your book.  I read it over a couple of days, and now my parents are reading it as well.  I first encountered you years ago on the Lew Rockwell web site and appreciated your writing then.  Your book resonated with me as I am a seminary graduate who, in my view, has “lost my way” in many respects, wondering exactly I will do.  I am zealous of the Lord’s leading toward the next step.

From everything I read in your book, I believe that I would love to be a part of a church where you are a pastor.  I think one of the greatest virtues in a godly pastor is transparency, over against a pretense that always places a wedge between the shepherd and his sheep.  Thank you for your transparency.  I may end up buying several copies of your book for my friends – I think your message is that important.  I am far away in South Carolina, but would love one day to hear you preach in person, my friend.  God be with you as you seek his leading.

Soren McMillan

This. More of this. This is success.

* * *

Soren, you will hear me preach. Jennifer and I are going to hit the road, likely soon, traveling from town to town, church to church, bookstore to bookstore, and I speak wherever I can and to whomever wants to hear.

And I hope we can even go as far as Slovakia…

When Kinship Doesn’t Work

I am not one to quote from posts, especially ones on biology. (I visit the place mainly for Phil Giraldi.) The site is home to too many authors who see a genetic or biological determinism in human difference, and while they may not label some people as morally superior to others, a lot of what gets posted there on the subject seems to lean in that direction.

Whatever value that kind of thinking (and talk) may have (from a scientific perspective), it still tells us little about what public policy should look like in an ethnically diverse society. And it says absolutely nothing about obligations we have to each other.

But this piece, which is a complex look at the some differences between cultures that grow rice versus cultures that grow wheat (it’s not simple determinism, but expression, and it’s a fairly measured piece at that), has a fascinating beginning. In part, because I’be been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about kinship and how we express different ideas of kinship in modernity.

Kinship is the organizing principle of small human societies, such as bands of hunter-gatherers or small farming villages. This is seen in their notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable. Morality is enforced by social pressure from fellow kinfolk, which in extreme cases can lead to ostracism and banishment.

This kin-based morality breaks down as societies grow larger and as the circle of regular interaction spreads beyond close kin. Wrongdoers are less easily brought into line because they and their victims no longer share the same kinfolk. Wrongs have to be avenged through vendettas: my clan against yours. Since vendettas can go on indefinitely, causing much more harm than the initial wrongdoing, a society cannot be both large and orderly unless it can resolve disputes between unrelated individuals. Hence, the development of codified law and justice systems. Hence the prohibition of violence as a means to resolve personal disputes.

In much of the world, this is as far as cultural evolution has gone. The circle of trusting relationships extends no farther than one’s kinship ties; beyond, morality is enforced only by the force of law, and court justice is expensive, time-consuming, and not always impartial. So dealings with non-kin are kept to the minimum necessary. This low level of trust restricts trade, keeping it bottled up spatially and temporally in marketplaces and family businesses. A true market economy cannot self-generate.

Kinship ties. Particularly the morality that derives from understanding and expression of kinship, especially in what Frost describes as “notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable.”

There are, I think four different real expressions of “kinship.” (Think of this as an analog scale.) There’s real kinship, in which we really are related to each through some common ancestor (“gentile” comes from a latin term gent, which supposed shared relationship through some male progenitor); and a host of fictive or imagined kinships: confession, in which we are related to each other because we confess a common faith; citizenship, in which we are related because we belong to the same polity; and universal, in which we are related because we are human beings. That last is the most abstract and the most difficult to actually sustain, and the first — real kinship — is the most concrete and the hardest to overcome.

In-between, there are various different levels of imagined kinship. Who can be trusted, and why. Who is owed an obligation, and why. (Much of the problem of the world in which we live focuses on the collapse of trust, and of trustworthiness. Who can you trust? How can you trust them? Why should they be trusted?) For example, at root, the dilemma of race in America is really a dilemma of citizenship, and thus of a kind of kinship. For some white Americans, blacks represent an “other” who can never properly be kin. For many others, blacks can if they assimilate to white norms — that is, do the work of becoming kin. And for some, white Americans need to do the bulk of the work of accepting black kinship. People are owed because they are Americans, versus people aren’t owed anything unless they become Americans. Differing notions of what being an American means.

It doesn’t help that central to the construction of American identity — perhaps foundational — is the denial of black citizenship. (Law, culture, and custom were built on this, and so it’s difficult — perhaps impossible — to untangle or deconstruct and meaningfully remake it.) Society could make certain claims on black lives and liberty, especially in wartime (though only with great reluctance on the part of whites), but mostly blacks were not entitled to the same kind of citizenship as whites were (given that whiteness was not always a static thing either).

This wasn’t intended as a discussion of race so much as it was a consideration of Frost’s statement on right and wrong — things that can be done with impunity to non-kin that cannot be done to kin.

What happens to those for whom kinship does not work?

I’m thinking here of the fictive kinship of citizenship (though given my experience of the last few years, why not confession as well?). What happens when there are people who are abused and not protected, but citizenship is ascribed to them anyway? How is this morality — this notion of right and wrong based largely on the identity of who is doing and who is done to — supposed to work for those who find themselves labeled as kin BUT are without any effective protection from other members of the in-group? How are they supposed to understand this fact that things can be done to them with impunity and there is no one to avenge the wrongs done to them?

Because yes, this is about me. I think of what I wrote in my book, The Love That Matters, about Upland, the miserable place where I more or less grew up in:

What was worse, after all this, after eight years of brutality and abuse, this community could turn around and demand my love and loyalty. And act as if somehow they were the injured party when I was something other than fervently in love with them.

They got neither my love nor my loyalty. They hadn’t earned it.

I wish I had a better answer than this. I’m somewhat still in this place, though nowhere near as angry, not as perplexed, and not as alone either. And that may end up being the best I can ever expect. But otherwise, I do not have an answer. I think it’s an insoluble problem. Kinship does work that way sometimes — think of the story of Joseph in Genesis — though I suspect few overcome it as well as Joseph did. (And few tormentors are probably as subject to the mercy of the one they once tormented as Joseph’s brothers.)

I have long believed we are wrong when we tell ourselves that history is a story told by winners. History is a story told by survivors, and that is not the same thing. Often times, I suspect history is told by the losers, simply because those with power — those who win — don’t think they have to write anything down. (Here I am reminded of the words of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menacham Schneerson, I think, who said that the kings may have ruled, but who remembers what they said? It’s the words of the prophets that we kept, not the words of the kings.) Many of our stories are likely told by those abused and discarded in kinship relations (whether real of fictive), especially quests and adventures where someone leaves home or finds themselves among strangers or in a far-away land (or both).

Because really, who else is going to leave home and go on adventure looking for his (or her) fortune — or place in the world — in the first place?