No Pity

The nonsense over Zimbabwe’s Cecil the Lion — hunted and likely stuffed and mounted by American dentist and Teddy Roosevelt wannabe Walter Palmer — brings to mind one of Everything But The Girl’s sadder songs, 1985’s “Angel”:

Show me something worse
Than a child outside a church
Begging with a cardboard box
In a heartless town that hurts and mocks
And on a chair anywhere
I will sit down and cry
And close my eyes

Against the Christmas windows
Here in Christmas town
A young girl rests her tattered head
And the festive lights shine down

And if she were a kitten
Someone would take her home
But we’ve no pity for our own kind
Our hearts are stone
Our eyes are blind

Show me something more
Than the wolf at the door
All the begging in the cold
To keep the wolf from the fold

Show me something more
Than the an honest girl turned thief or wore
Under African sun or Dublin rain
Necessities remain the same

On the roof the old wood shed
The moon rested its pale head
Cost a woman on a screen
Who saw same things she’d never seen
And on a chair in a hospital
She sat down and cried
And close her eyes

Show me something more
Than the wolf at the door
All the begging in the cold
To keep the wolf from the fold

Show me something more
Than the an honest girl turned thief or wore
Under African sun or Dublin rain
Necessities remain the same

It’s that second half-verse, And if she were a kitten / Someone would take her home / But we’ve no pity for our own kind / Our hearts are stone / Our eyes are blind, those words really get me. It’s true. We’ve no pity for our own kind.

Long ago, in Dubai, I did a story or two on The Arabian Leopard Trust. The founder was a Danish physician who had made a career in Dubai, and saw protecting the peninsula’s wildlife — the cats were beautiful and very endangered — as her way of giving back. One particular afternoon involved “raising awareness” about the Arabian leopard among expatriate children (European and wealthier South Asian) by having an afternoon of crafts — drawing, painting, coloring, making things. There may have even been a show.

The founder spoke at length to me about the value of protecting wildlife, about the need to care for the creatures we share the earth with. To save them and keep them from extinction. At some point close to the tail end of the interview, one of her South Asian servants made some kind of mistake. Not dropping a plate of something kind of mistake, but forgetting to get something kind of mistake.

The physician tore into the servant, berating him and insulting him. There was no physical violence, but for a bit, I wasn’t even sure about that. All the while, children were playing in the next room, getting ready for the party.

Which went ahead, of course.

I find Western animal activism to be, in many ways, a tawdry ethic. I’m no fan of cruelty to animals (nor industrialized agriculture, which turns animals into things, into inputs, in much the same way industry and mass society turn people into things and inputs), but I once watched some folks at San Francisco State University terrorize a blind person for the depraved evil of having a seeing eye dog. And that has shaped how I think about this.

We’ve no pity for our own kind. I’m no different. I can dismiss a homeless man begging on a street corner in way I cannot dismiss the mewling of a cat or the dark eyes of a dog. Perhaps this indifference is actually a necessary part of our very humanity. It may be that if we considered the very humanness of every person we dealt with (as opposed to the abstractions that self-righteously get us riled up), it would completely overwhelm us. We need this callousness, at least in some measure, in order to survive a brutal and cruel world.

But it’s one more reason I don’t really take part in all the outrage and posturing of the culture war. Because with only a few exceptions, outrage and concern and compassion are so narrowly focused at best and, at worst, deliberately and ideologically designed to provoke or try and score points. In the end, for most public moralizers, there’s always some human being whose life and wellbeing is of no concern. There’s always some child whose suffering is of no consequence.

And of course the guilty — however they may be defined — deserve no pity at all. No mercy.

I go back to the song. And it’s sorrowful lament. Which hasn’t lost it’s power for me, even after 30 years. Show me something worse…

Heading’ Out to Indy, Yeah, Brother!

A short personal note here. I am scheduled to be interviewed on TBN’s Praise The Lord talk show on Friday. Two hours. To talk about my book, sit and look pretty on set, and maybe — oh, just maybe — play a song or two. (Maybe.) Regardless, I’m talking about the book and about ministry. Not sure what else will happen.  I’ll be on set for two hours, so I’ve been told, from 11:30 to 13:30, but I need to be there an hour before the program begins.

This is just another very strange event in a deeply strange life. I had thought once that maybe the strangeness would stop, and I would settle down. But no, that doesn’t appear to be happening. I’m not sure what to make of it.

Actually, that’s not true. I know exactly what to make of it — I’m nervous and anxious. And my guts are doing what my innards do best when I get this way. They go all akimbo. No, I’m not giving any of you any more details. The next 48 hours are going to be weird — a long drive to Indianapolis (the program originates at WCLJ). And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

This is a little like getting ready to face an ELCA candidacy committee. Actually it’s worse — the audience is by far larger (millions!), and the consequences could be far greater (I hope some possibilities open up as a result of this) — and it’s much better, because unlike with the DC candidacy committee (all of this described in my book) I’m not facing people who hate me or fear me (or both). There are ways this interview could get awkward, and I’m going to try to make sure I’m present and cheerful and thoughtful and let the Spirit work over me. I’ve never done anything quite like this before. And hopefully, this will be a beginning.

Not long ago, I figured something out — the point and purpose of my life is to bear witness to the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ. I think that’s the point of all life — that’s who we are. But I can only control how I live, how I respond to this grace that has swept me up rather brutally, and really without my consent. Think Elijah draping his cloak over Elisha as the younger prophet-to-be works the field, or Samuel hearing the voice of God as he sleeps in the temple with Eli, or Jesus calling the disciples from their nets as the fished on the Sea of Galilee.

Or the words God speak to Jeremiah. I’m not much of a youth anymore, being a decrepit 47 now, and I’m not sure why God would call me, of all people, to this long, hard, miserable road of bearing witness. But these words are comfort and strength, and may even settle my gurgling guts:

7 But the Lord said to me
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow.
(Jeremiah 1:7-10 ESV)

I don’t feel like I’m set over kingdoms and nations. I’m just an unemployed ex-reporter with a useless, gold-plated education, and a seminary wash-out. (The last bit is not true; I have the MDiv. But I’m not going to be ordained any time soon.) I’m a failure, and who will listen to me?

And yet, as my friend David would no doubt lecture me right now — millions will listen. Many already have. More will. I have been called to speak. I am not shouting into an empty room.

Do not be afraid. There’s nothing God says more throughout scripture. Divine command. Do not be afraid. I am scared. Scared because I have no idea what is coming. Scared because the story I’ve told in this book makes me so very vulnerable.

All I have is the word of God, the promise of God.

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus ‘knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11 ESV)

A Management Problem

This … disgusts me:

What if you lived in a world where every kid got tested for potential depression when they were in elementary school? This video, from Binghamton University, describes new research on how we’d do it.

The researchers created a test that’s designed to determine whether children of depressive parents will also suffer from depression. So the researchers took children of depressed mothers and showed them pictures of people expressing different emotions. Based on previous research, Binghamton University psychology researcher Brandon Gibb and his colleagues believe that children whose pupils dilate when they see a sad face are more prone to depression. That’s because pupil dilation is an empathy response. [Emphasis mine — CHF]

Now, aside from utilitarian objection of asking already overloaded teachers, social workers, child protection people, police, and so forth, to do more — and to do work they simply are not trained or competent to do — I have one real simple problem with this idea.

It turns something which demonstrates compassion and care for others into a problem. A diagnosis.

And the machinery that will roar into action in order to deal with this “problem” — for this turns empathy into a problem to be solved — will be about as kind and compassionate as every other institutional response to the truly human. Which is to say, it will at best be callous. At worst, deeply  and brutally cruel.

Humanity already has enough problems valuing empathy and compassion. We like to claim we do, but we don’t, not really. (Yes, the Upland, California, I grew up in may have been a egregious example of a place and a people who really did not value these things.) We tend to abuse and brutalize those who feel anything, or feel anything more, than they are supposed to.

And don’t tell me that an empathy reaction as a sign of possible future depression isn’t going to problematized, and those who respond in this very human way won’t be somehow stigmatized. Because that’s what our institutions do best — they brutalize and marginalize and stigmatize the weakest and most vulnerable. Because they create the weakest and most vulnerable.

I know some good progressive-slash-liberal out there thinks this is a really swell idea. A compassionate idea designed to reduce or prevent future suffering. The problem is, progressivism-slash-liberalism, in nearly all its guises, has striven to reduce human caring to a scientifically regimented and guided profession, to be done only by trained professionals. Because actual human feeling gets in the way of properly managing human beings.

Or of being properly managed.

The progressive view is a handmaiden to neoliberalism, which reduces (or is trying mightily to reduce) all human relationships to commercial transactions. They empower each other, though progressivism gets the raw end of the deal, as neoliberalism doesn’t need the nonsense progressives peddle in order to turn everything into a commercial exchange, measurable and valued solely by the market. But this doesn’t stop progressives, who at heart all want a well-managed society. The care we have for each other cannot be measured or monetized or regulated unless its done solely (or mainly) by caring professionals — doctors, teachers, social workers, administrators (and in this ugly scheme of things, pastors). Which is why people should not be allowed to care for each other. That’s the purview of professionals, and only they can be trusted to actually care.

The rest of us exist only to be beaten or medicated or propagandized into a passive and consumptive stupor.

If there is an emphatic reason I support something akin to The Benedict Option it is that we who are called by Jesus to follow are also called to create an “economy” in which money plays no role in determining value — of what is exchanged, or of ourselves, as human beings and children of God. In which we care for and support each other as human beings without regard to the market or the state. That our very human emotions, our weaknesses and our frailties and our brokenness, matter.

That we are more than things to be managed.

A Matter of Life and Breath

This is a day I wish I had my Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament handy.

Central to a lot of conservative arguments about human beings, particularly the purpose of human existence, is the creation account from Genesis 1, especially Genesis 1:26-31, and very specifically verses 26 and 27, in which human beings are created in the image — צלם — of God.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27 ESV)

Image of God talk — according to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (which is the best I can do while on the road), it comes from the Hebrew verb צלם tslm which means “to cut off” or amputate, implying that to be made in the image of God is to possess a portion of God, to be “something cut out” — focuses on purposes. As well it should, as the Genesis passage in question speaks something to human purposes: be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it. All that has been created in the previous few days in Genesis 1 has been given the human beings — אדם adam — as a trust.

But Genesis 1, as beautiful as it is, isn’t the creation account that speaks to me. Largely because I’m never entirely sure what “image of God” means.

Nor is anyone else.

I’m a Genesis 2 man. I like that creation account, and I especially love how the creation of the man is related:

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 ESV)

This is a tactile, physical, even carnal creation account. We still bear a bit of God, but here, it is the breath נשׁםת nashmat (from the verb נשׁם, which means to pant, with the implication of “deep and strong breathing of a woman in travail” according to BDB) that has given life to otherwise dead matter.

(This is not the ruh רוה of God, the very wind and breath that is God’s spirit hovering over the waters at the very beginning of Genesis.)

I even prefer the telos of humanity in Genesis 2 to that in Genesis 1. While procreation and dominion are central to the Genesis 1 story, in Genesis 2, God takes the man and puts him in the garden “to work it and keep it,” though it’s not clear if that’s the human purpose or merely an afterthought on God’s part. Man comes first, and then the garden is made for him. The woman is created later, as a companion for the man, and the man and the woman become “one flesh,” though it’s not explained quite what that means. (And I don’t assume.)

In both accounts, whether we bear the image of God or have been brought to life by the very breath of God, we carry a bit — a desperate bit, even — of the creator. It may sound noble to be made in the image of God, but that implication of the word צלם that we are cut off bit suggests violence (like the high priest’s servant who lost his ear in an altercation with one of Jesus’ disciples in Luke) or something unwanted, or even diseased (such as the golden images of the tumors God demands Israel makes in 1 Samuel 6).

And by the same token, it may sound noble and wonderful to be filled with the breath of God, but there’s that implication of panting, of exhaustion, of having trouble catching one’s breath. As if the man is unable to completely breathe. Alive, yes, but not quite complete. It’s a troubled, restless, painful, labored living.

Which makes this account in John’s Gospel all the more amazing:

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23 ESV)

And when he said this, he breathed on them (καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς…). The word here for breathing is ἐμφυσάω, emphysao, and it means to blow or to puff up. Something was flat, dead, and now it is full, alive. Complete.

Jesus is giving a new and different kind of life to these gathered disciples. Ours is no longer a struggle for breath, for life, and difficult and painful struggle to merely live. We can now breathe fully. We are now fully and completely alive.

I Can Do All Things…

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been gaining a steady trickle of Twitter followers — not many, I’ve not topped 200 yet — and a fair number of them are Christian. Mostly conservatives, but a few of the inspirational, power-of-positive thinking school. (Not that these are mutually exclusive.)

Such thinking tends to give me hives. I’m not much of a positive thinker, though I have learned over the last few years (including a very intensive two-week tenure on Instapray) that often times, the people “thinking positive thoughts” are frequently those going through very difficult times. Me? I see a value in suffering and lament, and tend to view God more as a companion — one who suffers with us — than as one who solves all suffering or provides comfort. God’s presence with me in my suffering is comfort enough for me.

But I don’t challenge the faithfulness of people who publicly express these kinds of sentiments anymore. Because I don’t know what they are going through. Because I don’t know what they need to hear God telling them.

For example. A couple of weeks ago, when I was feeling a little anxious, I was futzing around on the guitar, a melody came to me, and pretty quickly wrote a song from bits and pieces of the Gospel of Mark. The main message was, “do not be afraid,” something I clearly needed to hear. Not just in that moment, but always.

At any rate, I do not know quite where they are.

But there is a bit of scripture I see quoted that still gives me hives. Someone I follow on Twitter, someone of the “think positive” school I suspect, recently posted the following:

Stop saying “I can’t.” #Philippians 4:13

And that’s okay, so far as it goes. But I keep seeing Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” — as a kind of incantation that says, “I can do anything so long as I have Jesus with me.” Leap tall buildings, get an A on that exam, close the deal, whatever.

This is where it’s important to read the whole passage. Because Paul isn’t quite saying that:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13 ESV)

There is more, and Paul acknowledges in the following verses that the church at Philippi has shared “my trouble” with Paul, and has provisioned him with “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

But the point leading up to the verse is about circumstances, not accomplishment. “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” This is worth learning — I haven’t learned it, as much of my whining on this blog attests to. Paul tells the Philippians that he has “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” He has learned how to deal with his circumstances regardless of what they are.

Because he has the strength of Christ to see the gift and blessing in everything he has. Whether he has plenty or little, he knows he has the power to praise God for whatever he receives. More importantly, he knows that God provides for him. Everything is from God. He is utterly dependent upon the grace of God, and that grace expressed through the goodwill of those he visits, teaches, preaches, and writes to. And he knows this.

I sense in Paul a kind of a grateful presumption as he writes this. He is grateful for everything he has received. He truly is. But he also expects — no, he knows that God will provide for him. Because God promised, and God’s promises never fail.

This isn’t quite positive thinking, a cure for “I can’t.” This is bigger than defeating “no.” It’s living into the promise of God in difficult circumstances, knowing that God will provide. It says “yes” when I want to say “no, I cannot go on.” But it doesn’t say “yes” when I say, “no, I cannot jump that tall building” or “no, I will not get that job” or “no, I won’t win an award for my book.” I know Paul says all things πάντα, but this isn’t about magical or heroic accomplishments — it’s about endurance. It’s about knowing that whether you have much, or have little, whether you are held in high regard, or no regard at all, everything is from God, and each is a thing to be endured. Which means that neither is a natural condition. Neither is to be expected.

And neither is to be feared.

I wish I had this kind of faith. I know how dependent upon the goodwill of others Jennifer and I have been for the last couple of years. I don’t like this dependence, I don’t like being a perpetual guest. I don’t like daily bread, knowing that just about every difficult situation I’ve found myself in has gotten barely resolved for the good at the very last moment.

And yet, I’m slowly learning to live into this with what I call this faithful presumptiveness, that the provision of God will be there exactly when Jennifer and I need it most. It still doesn’t feel right. I still don’t feel like I’m earning any of this. And I so want to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow, and have a home of my own, so I can at some point be a host. And not a guest.

But as Paul has said, I know how to be brought low. Oh God, but I have been brought low. But that is not all there has been either. I know how to abound. I know how to see abundance is simple and meagre gifts. In fact, a big possibility is looming on the horizon — I will be appearing on TBN’s Praise The Lord show next week — that could make all that possible. I hope. I pray.

Once, long before seminary loomed on the horizon, I told my best friend Vince: Jennifer and I have been through so much together, I’m not sure if anything could tear us apart. We’re a good team.

Vince looked at me thoughtfully and said: success and prosperity. You’ve not experienced that yet. And that does strange things to people.

I’m not sure at this point what success and prosperity would look like for me. Likely not a $10 million house or a $60 million private jet. Abundance feels to us right now like a small place of our own and a comfy couch to cuddle on and drink coffee. (And at some point, someone’s abandoned kids to take care of.) That’s all we really need.

Whatever comes, though, I know — I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

Apropos of a conversation of sorts taking place in the comments section (thank you Laurie and Doug), yes, we are all complicit in the societies in which we find ourselves. To some degree, which is why I don’t go anywhere near as far as some of the radical reformers (anabaptists) in saying society or community must be morally pure or else the believer’s salvation is at stake. It’s not, and nothing from a smart reading of scripture — especially the New Testament, and exilic documents like Daniel and Esther — suggests that if you understand that Christians/Jews were a minority living in a society whose terms they could not dictate.

Remember, in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats are distinguished by acts of kindness and love for the weak and the vulnerable, not support for policies, politicians, governments, or regimes. That sort of thing he’s been beyond control of most people anyway (even in allegedly democratic polities).

Rather, what the “Benedict Option” for me is a state of mind, a realization of who the people of God really are. Modern Christians, especially Americans, have a deep and troubling problem of not being able to distinguish the moral order of the created (or redeemed) cosmos with the actual order they find themselves in. Americans in particular have theologized the American founding, and turned it into a kind of natural theology that seeks to, or should, order and govern the world.

Or, to put it another way, Western Christians have never entirely been able to tell the church and the state apart. Not as institutions, but as spacial entities. I am both a citizen of the United States and a baptized follower of Jesus Christ. Americans, especially (but are not alone in this), have confounded and confused the two, mistaking American values for Gospel values and a certain reading of scripture as supportive of the American endeavor in ways God does not seem to support God’s people in scripture. (Remember, Israel is “chosen” but also bears the worst of God’s judgment.)

Yes, Jeremiah passes God’s instructions on to exiled Israel:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 ESV)

Do good, love your neighbors, and seek the good of the place you live, and the people amongst who you live, but never forget — you are an exile, a subject, and this is not your land. It can entail participation in politics (though I think that’s a distraction), but it must always remember — we are a subject people, and that is not ours to change. To quote Ezra and Nehemiah’s prayers, “we are slaves this day.” And this describes Israel’s relationship to Persia, the nation that ended its exile, whose king, Cyrus, was God’s “anointed.”

This is also the essence of Paul’s instructions to the church in Romans 13, especially when he reminds that church that *love of neighbor* and not love or loyalty to the state is what is at stake when he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”(Romans 13:8 ESV)

So, for me, the Benedict Option is a reminder that, as Christians, we cannot and should not expect that the moral order of the universe will or should reflect itself in the physical ordering of the world. And that exile, not dominion, may be the natural state of the church on this side of the eschaton. Israel wept for its exile, but lived in exile nonetheless, and ever after, Israel’s sovereignty was constrained.

It means remembering that America is just another contingent part of the natural order, an accident of history which has come and will, at some point, go. Because all things pass away. It is the church — and America is most definitely NOT the church — that will remain. To the extent that too many American Christians have deeply confused the two, struggling more for an American order rather than to follow Christ as Christ called us to follow, well, this is why we need something like the Benedict Option.

It is to remember what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. That was are, in the end, citizens not of any earthly polity, but of a heavenly one.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)

Considering the Benedict Option

This is a wonderful piece on the Benedict Option, and states clearly why we who are church — the assembly of people called to follow Jesus — should detach ourselves from the world, and what’s at stake:

Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity.

Absolutely. It is the promises of progress, technology, mastery over nature, of plenty, of wealth, and even of of equality, freedom, and democracy that we as church should question. As both means and ends. (This is me speaking now, and not the author, who may have other ideas.) I suspect, though, the author might be at least sympathetic to my list, given this:

The American Way of Life is—in every real sense of the word—a religion all its own. We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization. A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments. The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.” If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned. In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.

While the author is not convinced American Evangelicals are far too invested in the holiness of America to take this up — “When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice.” — the historic churches themselves, particularly catholic and orthodox, don’t get a pass, as they have been very wrapped up in accepting the meaning of America as a vision for what it means to be church.

As to what the Benedict Option would look like, the author essentially says it is more of a very than a noun — webs of relationships, rootedness, thinking generationally, even the possibility of arranged marriages (with cousins?!?!). All of this to create “places of genuine, welcoming hospitality” where the church could be the church (and not worry about power or influence), “little more than traditional Christians acting and living as if they really believed it.”

Again, I’m all for this.I’ve said this for some time, and this has been my vision for years now, an alternative community and polity where we preach and live the gospel together and cultivate grace, mercy, and hospitality. I believe in this and want to do it for two reasons. First, the world won’t do it, even when it claims to. And the world is fantastic about claiming to be at least hospitable. It’s a false hospitality, one that is ideologically guided, and dependent on identity (of the guest and of the host).

But second, the church, having grown accustomed to power, privilege, and position, doesn’t know anymore how to do these things either. The church, like the rest of our modernity, wants systems and institutions of change, and care, and that may have been an appropriate (but still unfaithful) response to the times. But it is not a proper response now. It was never really enough for the church to want to create a world in which the poor, the orphan, and the widow, were caed for but in which no Christians actually had to do the caring (and writings going back all the way to the late medieval period show that some Christian thinkers longed for this kind of Christian commonwealth).

The kinds of mercy and compassion, the kinds of welcome and hospitality, Jesus demands of us requires a heart, hands, and a head. A human being, acting out of love, and not a social worker or a bureaucrat.

Who Is My Mother? Who Are My Brothers?

Several people have been pestering me to write something about last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges where the court found a constitutional right to marriage regardless of the gender of those getting married, effectively allowing same-sex marriage across the country.

I haven’t written anything about this because, to be honest, I’m deeply ambivalent on the whole matter. Now, that said, many people I know and love will benefit tremendously from this decision. It recognizes their relationships, their adoptions, their families, and affirms those things no matter where in the United States they go. Since I’m not that concerned about the civil law reflecting “God’s law” (whatever that might be in this case, given that the teaching of scripture sits in clear and distinct tension with the story of scripture), I’m not bothered by this case. Or affected.

So, despite my ambivalence, I will celebrate with my friends.

But I am ambivalent. Because I am generally sympathetic to the conservative critique of the sexual revolution, and what is emerging as a general conservative critique of modernity (belated as it is, and limited as it is). I agree with Michael Hanby here when he writes at First Things:

For in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions. In redefining marriage and the family, the state not only embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its powers into realms heretofore considered prior to or outside its reach, and not only does it usurp functions and prerogatives once performed by intermediary associations within civil society, it also exercises these powers by tacitly redefining what the human being is and committing the nation to a decidedly post-Christian (and ultimately post-human) anthropology and philosophy of nature.

The conservative argument here, as I understand it, is that marriage — monogamous, heterosexual marriage — is an artifact of the natural order that pre-exists anything that human beings might arrange. Thus, the state has no business — or, more to the point, risks eventual disaster by “meddling with the primal forces of nature.”

I agree with Hanby. But I am troubled by the broad conservative argument, and that goes to my concern with natural law — that it is, effectively, an ideology, an ism, focused so intently on an idealized nature that it completely ignores actual nature. To quote scripture, “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 ESV), is to ignore all those human beings who are clearly created in-between. It is to attempt to impose purpose and uniformity on everyone regardless of who and what they were actually, physically created to be.

We cannot ignore the evidence of the creation in front of us, and cannot attempt to shoehorn it into a purpose for which it was not meant.

So much of what conservatives and traditionalists seem intent on doing, and have done so since the 1970s, is a vociferous defense of the “natural family.” Catholics have clearly been at this, as have conservative evangelicals. And as they continue in the post-Obergefell world, conservatives are doubling down on this defense of the natural, biological family.

Completely missing from all this valorization of marrying and begetting is a sense of the tragic in both marriage and family. For all the denigrating that some conservatives make of romantic and companionate marriage, they have clearly romanticized, idealized, and valorized a certain kind of marriage. And they have elevated family life to a status I’m not certain it deserves.

Conservatives have always acknowledged difficulties in marriage and family, they’ve rarely dealt well with the fact that many marriages cannot be fantastic, and family life can be downright miserable and awful.

A lot of this has to do with whatever your notions of “traditional marriage” are. For most human beings in most places for most of history, “traditional marriage” was your father talking to your uncle and arranging for you to marry your cousin. (I have stunningly beautiful cousins, but I suspect they would have rather clawed my eyes out and tossed me off a cliff than marry me.) Mostly, marriage came first, then love — if it came at all — came later. Under most circumstances, these marriages were considered permanent, but they were also supported by a dense culture that made sure there were uncles and aunts close at hand to provide for children what fathers and mothers could not (this is socially acceptable and even expected; a cool uncle was also likely someone else’s asshole father), and no one relied solely on their spouse for emotional and spiritual support and comfort.

As a Muslim, I had the fortune of actually seeing how this kind of thing worked, among the Saudis, Palestinians, and South Asians I knew and worshipped with. Many of the marriages I knew had been arranged. Marriage didn’t exist by itself — it existed in the context of extended family (two sisters marrying two male cousins, for example) in which one’s kin are just as important as who one has married. Some marriages were good, most were middling, many were bad, and a few were awful.

What made their permanence socially supportable (divorce is allowed in Islam but is culturally frowned upon) was the reality that husbands and wives could find friendship, support, counsel, and chaste companionship outside the marital relationship when needed (almost exclusively in same-gender groups). A wife was not expected to be everything to a husband, and husband was not expected to be everything for a wife. There was also a harsher reality — women who are divorced or abandoned (or simply widowed) tend to have little or no social support (even in America). And so, I suspect many women tolerated lonely, abusive, or violent marriages simply because the alternative — begging in front of mosques (and I saw a fair number such women in both Dubai and Jeddah) — was grim.

The marriages we have portrayed in scripture (and they aren’t many) are not particularly good marriages. Abraham and Sarah have an interesting relationship; she give her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham as a concubine in order to fulfill the promise of God for many children, and when Hagar has a child, Sarah becomes violently abusive, and Abraham does nothing to protect the mother of his first-born child. (Abraham is a stunningly bad father.) One rabbinical commentary on Genesis noted that Sarah’s death is related in the chapter following God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, suggesting that Sarah may have died of a broken heart in response.

The best marriage we have in scripture is that of Isaac and Rebekeh (and they are cousins). “Then Isaac brought her her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:66) It took divine intervention to tell both Pharaoh and Abimelech that Abraham was lying when he told them Sarah was his sister. But when Isaac does the same thing to a (likely different) Abimelech, the king of the Philistines looks out a window “and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife.” This is, according to a footnote, a likely euphemism for something brothers and sisters ought not to do with each other (but remember, Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister).

Later in Genesis, however, we have Rebekah conspiring with her younger (and far less manly) son Jacob to cheat his older twin brother Esau out of his blessing and his birthright. This definitely goes against the rules of good parenting, and likely says little good about the state of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage by that point. (I can imagine the bitter, resentful, and defensive conversations they would frequently have afterward.)

That’s marriage in scripture. A reflection of the human reality, of deep and abiding “dysfunction,” though I put that in quotes because if dysfunction is the norm, how can we call it dysfunction? Scripture is staunch in its opposition to divorce, mostly because marriage is, I suspect, supposed to mirror the faithfulness God has for Israel — faithless, adulterous, idolatrous, Israel. It’s faithfulness in an awful marriage, not a good one. Much less a great one.

(I still believe this is the description of Christ’s marriage to the church — faithless, adulterous, and idolatrous. The Bridegroom has not abandoned his faithless bride. That says something very important about our God, our relationship to God, and to each other.)

And yet, when I consider no-fault divorce and the fact so many marriages now end that way, I wonder — is this new, or is it merely telling us something about the historic nature of marriage? That many were barely tolerable, and then only because a wider community provided alternatives? Not every marriage can be counseled into something resembling healthy, or even tolerable. Some people should simply never be married to each other — and absent the kind of social arrangement that supports people in these awful marriages — it’s just as well some marriages are ended. Few would expect anyone to stick out an abusive or adulterous marriage. So, if a marriage is ended these days, can we say God really made it in the first place?

(The Madness cover of “Shame and Scandal,” a bit a calypsonian doggerel from 1943 describing how some traditional families have always worked.)

So, unless you are prepared to, in some way, rebuild a social structure that supports people locked into even the worst marriages, the kind of deeply woven communal and social relationships that allow people to find meaning and comfort of some sort outside marriage (including adultery, which has always been accepted and tolerated so long as it is discrete and secret), then you have no business trying to impose “traditional marriage” on anyone. We live in a modern society which long ago shattered and destroyed the kinds of social relations that make this possible, and that kind of rebuilding is the deliberate work of generations. Work we’ve not even started.

Conservatives and traditionalists have also abandoned any sense of the tragic regarding the family. Families are all, somehow, supposed to be perfect and heroic endeavors, especially if they are big, Christian families. (This predates the Duggars.) There is an ideal, one that seems to ignore the reality of cruelty, abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Or even just ordinary, middling parenting and the clash of personalities — not all children and parents are fit for each other. Scripture gives us few examples of good families at work, and like marriage, the families we see at work in the Bible — Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Jonathan being more loyal to his friend David than his father Saul, Absalom’s response to the rape of his sister Tamar by his half-brother Amnon (and let’s even talk about Absalom’s very public defiling of his father’s concubines) — are not happy entities. They may be the inevitable places where children are begotten and raised, but they are also difficult and and frequently violent.

However, where the conservative valorization of the family goes off the rails for me is with the Gospels. Jesus has lots to say about familial relationships, and almost none of it is good. Stuff like this:

37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39 ESV)

48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50 ESV)

The old testament also has some examples of this kind of adoption. Samuel becomes Eli’s heir and successor when it becomes clear Eli’s own sons are worthless. And Samuel anoints two kings as successors to his own worthless sons. Ruth emphatically and passionately adopts Naomi as her kin, even though whatever formal relationship (and obligation) the two had ended when Ruth’s husband died. Jesus himself is an adopted son — very publicly claimed by the God who begot him, and by the earthly father who accepted his charge to care for his betrothed, pregnant with a child that was not his.

The church, this assembly of the followers of Jesus, is clearly a fictive family, people who become kin because we belong to Christ in baptism. It is Jesus looking upon his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross and saying, “Woman, behold your son! Behold your mother!” This is what propelled early Christians to rescue unwanted newborns abandoned to die atop city junk piles. To embrace each other as brother and sister, to care and nurture those brought into our midst regardless of whether or not we had begotten them the natural way.

Now, I realize, I do not have children of my own. So the kinds of worries parents have — about education, the general tone of society, and the things the influence their children’s faith — are not things I worry about. I’m worried about other things, about how those for whom the world already doesn’t work (especially young people in bad or very difficult family situations), about how those discarded and wounded by the world are going to find some place to belong, some people who will care about them. I appreciate families are important, and am truly impressed by parents who parent well. And families where there is indeed love, support, and care.

I just lived in a world where that wasn’t true. So I am sensitive to that reality. Fictive family is important to me. It’s how I have brothers and sisters. It’s how I will have children. It’s how I will care for and nurture others. And the church has always, on some level, been a place where this fictive kinship can be lived out, because it has understood who our Lord is, how he claims us, and how we relate to those around us he also claims. If you’re going to demand both celibacy and life-long indissoluble marriage (and I believe scripture does), than you have to be a place where other kinds of “kinship” can exist, where people can find love, support, and belonging. Where they can find family.

This task of caring for the wounded and abandoned is actually going to be a bigger job for the church as those used, abused, and discarded by the hedonism (both sexual and economic) of our world seek to find and live redeemed and renewed lives. Where they seek to find meaning as children of the Living God, rather than as things to be used. And where a social gospel response of some kind — we are called to change the world — simply will not work. Unless we accept we are family first and foremost because Christ (and not nature) has claimed us and makes us family, then we don’t truly confess a redeeming and resurrecting faith.

Two New Songs

I have two new songs — and I mean new, I wrote them during the last two weeks — over at SoundCloud. Please give them a listen…

“Fighting the Wind” is taken from bits and pieces of Matthew, but it was mostly about Jesus telling the disciples (as they faced a storm, and then as he walked upon the water) not to be afraid. And the disciples being afraid when they come upon the empty tomb, and are told Jesus is off to Galilee.

The second song, which I wrote at the end of last week, is based on the Ephesians reading for last Sunday — 2:11-22, and it was one of those deeply inspired pieces of music. I sat down with the guitar, my Bible, fixed the capo, stemmed that first Bbm/Fm progression, and had the melody and words immediately. I have no idea where it comes from. That happens a lot, and I both really like it and am deeply unnerved by it. Because I feel like I’m being used the τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος (the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Breath, which is actually a better rendering, simply because breath is what animates us, brings us to live, and it’s what Jesus gives us again.)

Anyway, I like both these songs. I hope you do too.

Raw Material

Michael Hanby has a long piece that is well worth reading on the future of American Christendom over at First Things. I am mostly in agreement with what Hanby writes here — I am one of the radicals he describes, as I think the problem resides less in the sexual revolution itself than in the entire intellectual and confessional nature of modernity, and it’s inability to deal with pluralism.

And Rod Dreher deals with this piece in greater detail. I have things to say about marriage, which I swear I will get to on Monday.

However, I have a concern with something Hanby writes early on in the piece:

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. [Emphasis mine – CHF] Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

I agree with the notion he puts forth that late modernity puts forth a vision of human beings “as raw material to be used as we see fit.” But this isn’t just a problem with the sexual revolution — it is a problem with all of industrial mass modernity, and it was inherent in the entire scientific endeavor in the first place (as Hanby notes). Conservatives can see this when it comes to sex, but are utterly oblivious to people as “raw material” when it comes to economics. Or anything else.

Because this is how mass modernity — the modernity of the industrial revolution, of imperial Europe, of mass society and democracy, of science and progress — views human beings. We are widgets made of meat to be used and discarded. We are economic or social inputs, and the only value we have is what comes out in the end. What someone can buy.

Hanby, and some other conservatives I think, are belatedly beginning to discover that you cannot have a genteel and morally restrained modernity. If people are “raw material” in one way — free to be exploited and used and consumed and discarded by capitalists and industrialists and governments who view them solely (or largely) as costs or inputs into an industrial production process — then why are those same people completely unfree to view themselves as commodities? If I am a mere thing that produces and consumes — and our entire civilization has been structured this way — then why should I be expected to be anything more than a mere thing to myself?

If I can be exploited — to the point of death — by my employer, by my government, by any myriad of commercial relationships, then why am I completely unfree to exploit myself?

One of the reasons I have long supported some version of The Benedict Option is simply because the truth claims the church makes about who human beings are — and these stem from our primary claims of “Jesus Christ is Lord” and “He rose from the dead” — are irreconcilable with the truth claims modernity makes. We need to live like people for whom this confession is true, is real, and matters more than anything a human being could confess. Handy gets this, I think. I fear too many other conservatives will not (and do not), and seek not a resurrected church preaching and confessing true faith, but merely a restored social order in which the church is still subsidiary to a state and a society where people are still looked upon as consumable and disposable “raw material” for everything other than family making.