A prayer for our enemies

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From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:

Lead them and us from prejudice to truth;

deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge;

and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(HT Jim Vining, image via Kurt Willems)

Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy

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The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.

—//—

After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

A former Mars Hill pastor’s resignation letter

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Via William Throckmorton:

Dustin Kensrue, the worship pastor at Mars Hill’s Bellevue campus, has resigned. That makes four out of nine Mars Hill pastors and elders who signed a letter calling for Mark Driscoll’s removal who have either resigned or been forced out.

If you want a picture of what’s going on at Mars Hill, read the letter he shared on Twitter this week.

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Some excerpts…

While the nine signers of the letter that was leaked last week have been met with gratefulness and an outpouring of prayer from the people of Mars Hill, internally we have been dismissed and defamed as “immature” among other epithets…

One pastor was already removed from eldership for his part in signing the letter…

As for the 5 the signers who were at Bellevue, it was made clear we weren’t going to be fired at this point (I am assuming for PR reasons) but it was also made equally clear to us where the door was, and that it would be just fine if we chose to walk through it.

What executive elder Dave Bruskas revealed about governance at Mars Hill in a meeting with Kensrue last week:

He went so far as to say that if 61 of 63 elders across Mars Hill all shared the same conviction that something needed to change, it simply wouldn’t matter.

On the consolidation of power in the hands of Mark Driscoll and a handful of his closest allies, which casts serious doubt on the ability of the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability to investigate with any integrity:

In the last 2 major revisions of the Mars Hill bylaws, the ability for the FCE [Full Council of Elders] to do anything has been all but completely taken away. The two things that the FCE can still do is to approve a change to the MH statement of faith, and to approve the slate of nominees for the board of BOAA [Board of Advisors and Accountability]. The problem with approving the slate is that it provides only the illusion of accountability since the FCE cannot nominate people for the slate, and if they did choose to vote a slate down, the current BOAA remains in power until the FCE approve a slate that the BOAA provides. At this point, continuing to even call the FCE a council is essentially a ruse and a farce.

Power is consolidated in such a way that the government of MH can only be described as an oligarchy which does not reflect the mutually submissive view of elder governance in provided in the Bible. And this theological shift points to the likelihood that this consolidation of authority through the revision of the bylaws is not, as it has been presented, an oversight or an unintentional byproduct of solving some other set of problems, but rather a deliberate and deft grab for power.

On the powerlessness of pastors and elders to lead Mars Hill out of this morass:

So, what’s the answer to the question “what can your elders do?” Simply put, sadly not much. This is why we’ve looked pained when you’ve have asked us what we are going to do about all of this…

Your pastors, who are on the ground with you, who know you, who care for you, who pray with you, and in whom you trust—these men have essentially no voice and no vote in what happens with your church as a whole, and the leadership is actively trying to limit the voice that they do have.

Read the rest here.

Image via Facebook

Matthew Paul Turner’s Great Big American God

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God has an image problem. The question is, which God are we talking about?

There have been many manifestations of God over the last four centuries of American religious history, according to Matthew Paul Turner’s newest book, Our Great Big American God. MPT’s sweeping historical overview doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. That’s because nothing is sacred in this book.

Then again, when you’re writing about how we’ve continuously made and remade God in our own image, maybe nothing should be sacred.

Unknown-1From the Pilgrims to Jonathan Edwards and the creepiest children’s sermon ever… from the emergence of modern-day evangelicalism to the corporatization of God… MPT dismantles the popular, sanitized version of our history—one that depicts America as a shining “city on a hill” planted by God himself. The effect can be jarring at times, even for those of us who’ve long since grown suspicious of the sanitized version.

Take, for example, how Our Great Big American God demolishes the notion that the Puritans came to America for the sake of religious freedom in any broad sense of the term. In truth, they came for their own religious freedom. Once on these shores, they ruthlessly denied such liberty to anyone who believed differently that they did. As MPT concludes, they effectively turned God into a “controlling, state-run deity, the same God that had made England so impossible for them to endure.” Just ask Roger Williams. Or Anne Hutchinson.

A few chapters later, Our Great Big American God turns its attention to D.L. Moody, the father of mass evangelism and a forerunner of sorts to Billy Graham (though the oft-repeated story of a chain of religious conversions connecting the two men is largely untrue). Our Great Big American God doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Moody’s legacy: his uncomfortably close ties with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and how he openly preached against the labor rights movement—at a time when child labor was commonplace and the average worker toiled 10-hour days, six days a week in dangerous and often downright horrific conditions.

Our Great Big American God also traces the development of dispensational theology in the 1800s by men like J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield, including the invention of the rapture. It directly connects dispensationalism to the American church’s failure at times to practice the kind of radical compassion embodied by Jesus and his first followers:

Darby’s ideas not only changed how America’s Christians thought about God and the Bible but also how they thought about the world. According to Scofield, Christians shouldn’t worry about “the reformation of society.” He said, “What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.” Which is why so many of America’s Christians do little to improve American society, because why bother when Jesus is coming back?

If you find yourself cheering while MPT takes on someone else’s golden calf, just wait. He’ll probably tackle something that hits a bit closer to home before long. Like I said, nothing is sacred in this book. Reading Our Great Big American God was at times an unsettling experience for me. But the conclusion it points to should be unsettling for all of us:

That’s because all of us have fashioned God after our own image, to one degree or another.

God has become, in effect, “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked. Which is exactly what Americans have been doing with God all along.”

We think it’s God’s story we’re telling when, all too often, what we’re really doing is using God’s name to baptize or legitimize our own agenda. Which is why God so often ends up (conveniently enough) being angry about the same things we’re angry about and hating all the same people we hate.

The irony, of course, is that this leads to a smaller view of God, even when we think we’re proclaiming a big, all-powerful deity. Whether it’s the Puritans in the 17th century or John Piper in 21st, this is what happens “when God is left in the hands of angry people of faith.”

The big sovereign God that Christians usually boast about becomes a small and narrow-minded deity incapable of handling unorthodox ideas, at least not without humans helping him to carry the burden… As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.

Our Great Big American God should prompt plenty of discussion and debate, to echo what Chaplain Mike said in his review for Internet Monk. But it should also prompt a fresh dose of humility—for all of us—in how we go about telling God’s story. Being confronted with the less savory bits of our religious history should remind us that maybe we don’t have God entirely figured out, after all.

To quote something Matthew Paul Turner shared in a recent interview with Bedlam Magazine:

If we really care about God’s story we would be more careful how we express it. We would approach it with gentleness and questions and humility as opposed to such confidence and arrogance that we are just absolutely convinced that we know what God thinks about this issue. I hope it gets people talking about our Christian history and how there are so many bits and pieces of our history that play out in the here and now. As we tell the story it would behoove us to consider the words we use.

Our Great Big American God is worth reading, even if it makes you squirm at times. Which it should.

Good and bad reasons to criticize Mark Driscoll

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The collapse of Mark Driscoll’s empire should give us plenty to reflect on. The dubious wisdom of megachurches functioning as mini-empires. The unhealthy influence wielded by celebrity pastors in our culture (and our willingness to let them wield it). The connection that seems to exist between certain theological perspectives and authoritarian (and sometimes abusive) forms of church governance.

But we should also consider what it took to finally hold Mark Driscoll accountable. There was a time not that long ago when criticizing his behavior would get you labeled a “hater” in many circles. In the end, even some of Driscoll’s allies wound up speaking out, but not always for the right reasons.

There are good and bad reasons to speak out against authoritarian leaders like Mark Driscoll.

Bad reason: self-preservation

The tipping point probably came when the Acts 29 church network revoked Mars Hill’s membership and called on Driscoll to step down. Suddenly, dismissing all of his critics as “haters” didn’t work anymore. Mark Driscoll was one of the founders of Acts 29. The leadership of Acts 29 were among his closest allies. When even your friends start telling you to “seek help,” the game is pretty much over.

Still, Acts 29 made no secret of their motivation for speaking out: self-preservation. From their letter to Driscoll:

Over the past three years, our board and network have been the recipients of countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you and what we consider ungodly and disqualifying behavior. We have both publicly and internally tried to support and give you the benefit of the doubt, even when multiple pastors in our network confirmed this behavior.

Because you are the founder of Acts 29 and a member, we are naturally associated with you and feel that this association discredits the network…

In other words: You’re making us look bad.

Their letter acknowledged that Acts 29 had allowed Driscoll’s behavior to go unchecked—that they had essentially looked the other way—even after several of their own members confirmed the accusations to be true.

Acts 29 was right to urge Driscoll to step down, but it’s hard to read their statement as much more than throwing a former ally under the bus.

There was not one word about those who were spiritually abused.

Not one word about Mars Hill members who were subjected to coercive forms of “church discipline.”

Not one word about church leaders who were fired for questioning Driscoll’s power grab in 2007.

Not one word about those whom Driscoll berated, threatened, and verbally abused over the years.

If Acts 29 acted out of genuine concern for Mark Driscoll’s victims, why did they fail to even mention them their letter to Driscoll or in the public statement on their website?

Good reason: standing up for the abused

It wasn’t Acts 29 who brought Driscoll’s misdeeds to light. It was Stephanie Drury, whose online community offers safe haven for those who’ve endured spiritual abuse, including a number of Mars Hill refugees. It was Warren Throckmorton, whose relentless coverage kept more traditional media outlets playing catch-up. It was Matthew Paul Turner, who shared first-person accounts of spiritual abuse and bizarre exorcisms at Mars Hill. It was Dee Parsons at the Wartburg Watch. It was former Mars Hill leaders like Paul Petry and Bent Meyer who stood up to Driscoll when he consolidated his power in 2007—and were fired for doing so. It was Ron Wheeler.

There’s a big difference between Acts 29 and these individuals. One group acted out of self-preservation, the other on behalf of those who’ve been abused and marginalized by Mark Driscoll.

By their own admission, Acts 29 looked the other way for years while Driscoll consolidated power and perpetuated destructive patterns of behavior. Meanwhile, those who spoke out were labeled “cynics,” “vipers,” and worse by Driscoll’s defenders. Those who’d been abused were dismissed as little more than an angry mob. Driscoll’s critics were told they were simply using him to build their own platforms or sell more books.

To be sure, there are plenty of bad reasons to criticize someone like Mark Driscoll. And there’s a great chasm of difference between criticizing them and celebrating their downfall. But standing up for the abused means speaking out against their abusers. It means bringing their abusive ways into the light. 

That’s just what the so-called “cynics” and “haters” did with Mark Driscoll.

There are people out there who will not suffer spiritual abuse at the hands of Mark Driscoll anymore because of the work of Stephanie Drury, Matthew Paul Turner, and Warren Throckmorton, and others. Whether or not Driscoll continues as pastor of Mars Hill, he’ll never get the free pass he once had. People will go into his church with their eyes open (or at least with no excuse for not having them open).

That’s why I think we should be very, very careful about using the label “cynic” to silence public dissent.

Speaking out against abuse is more important than protecting the church’s reputation. It’s more important than preserving some artificial sense of “Christian unity.” It’s more important than self-preservation.

I hope we’ll remember that with the next Mark Driscoll.

Related posts: 
On using the label “cynic” to silence people
In defense of troublemakers

Image: Surrender Magazine

Under the Banyan Tree

So, you know how it goes. You make new friends at church… get to know them a bit… discover you have a lot in common… think to yourself, we should totally hang out more… and then they announce, “Oh hey, we’re moving to India!”

What the heck, guys?

Seriously… our friends Nathan and Abby are heading to the border of India and Nepal to spend a year serving, learning, and discerning. Abby grew up in the region. Her parents have spent almost three decades (and counting) providing education for children and rehabilitation and support for exploited women. Trafficking, illiteracy, and poverty are all serious challenges affecting the region.

Over the next year, Abby will offer counseling for at-risk women and students (she has a master’s degree in counseling psychology). Nathan will work with indigenous ministry leaders, focusing on leadership development, theological training, and what he likes to call “life-on-life discipleship.”

I mentioned in my post yesterday how Nathan and Abby had shared their vision with our church. We’re not just supporting them because they’re our friends. We’re supporting them because we believe in the vision they have for doing compassionate work in a cross-cultural setting.

They don’t see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” They don’t see the people they’re going to serve as “helpless.” They’re going to India and Nepal to discover—and amplify—the good that’s already there. In the people, their communities, and their culture.

In other words, their vision starts with Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good. The people of India and Nepal are good. Their culture is good. Nathan and Abby see that. They also understand the tremendous challenges facing extraordinary the people of this region. Abby and Nathan have spent the last several years equipping themselves to help others overcome these challenges. But the important thing is, they are starting where God starts. Like they said when they shared their vision with our church, “We’re not going to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.”

We need more people who will go out and serve from this vantage point. If you are looking for a good cause—people who are not only doing the right things, but doing them the right way—I encourage you to visit Nathan and Abby’s website, Under the Banyan Tree. Watch their video to hear more about their vision for serving the people of India and Nepal. They deserve your support.

You can also go here to make a gift to support their work. 

When Christian compassion goes wrong (and what to do about it)

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“It is impossible to change a dirty, ignorant savage in a few months or years into a cultivated Christian gentleman, but progress is being made.”

          — S. Hall Young, 1920

S. Hall Young was a missionary to Alaska in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He established the first Presbyterian church there. He explored the southeastern wilderness. There are mountains and islands named after him. President Woodrow Wilson nearly picked him to be governor of the Alaskan territory in 1897. Young spent a decade doing missionary work among the indigenous population—a population he evidently despised.

A few years before his death, Young wrote about his first trip to Alaska, during which he met an executive with the Hudson Bay Company.

As we were nearing the wharf, upon which squatted a score of blanketed natives, most of them with faces blackened and tousled hair, he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said:

“Let me give you a bit of advice. Don’t become an Indian.”

I was nettled and I have no doubt my face flushed. Waving my hands toward the natives, I replied:

“Do you think I am in danger of becoming like those creatures?”

Young wasn’t sharing this scene from his past to highlight the naivete or arrogance of his younger self. He fervently hoped other missionaries would follow his example. To find anything good in native culture—that was naïve, according to S. Hall Young. To accommodate indigenous people in any way was to yield to what he called a “backward pulling.” It was “the most dangerous thing” a missionary could do.

Time—along with a justifiable sense of guilt over our ancestors’ colonialist tendencies—have rendered Young’s words less palatable than they were a century ago. Yet before you dismiss him as a crackpot or an outlier, it should be noted that Young was no fundamentalist. In the same article, he wrote approvingly about the work of Catholic, Episcopal, and Congregationalist missionaries in Alaska. He was not atypical. His writings reflect the attitude of many in his day.

We may wince at his reference to the “dirty, ignorant savage.” We might want to congratulate ourselves for eschewing such terrible language today. But Young’s sentiment is still very much alive.

Whether it’s evangelism or humanitarian work or some combination of the two, Christians have a tendency to see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” In other words, we’re still shaped by the same worldview that Young took to Alaska.

We tend not to think of those we serve as having something to offer, something to contribute. We tend not to think of ourselves as having something to learn from them. In which case, we’re not that different from S. Hall Young.

We may not use his offensive words, but we perpetuate his legacy in other ways.

I saw it in the pastor I met when I was representing a humanitarian relief agency at a youth ministry conference. He marched up to our booth and announced he only wanted one thing: to find out how to get himself on a trip to Africa. He wasn’t interested in the lives of the poor. He was after a bit of poverty tourism. It was just another notch in his youth ministry belt.

I saw it in the youth group on the flight to Haiti last spring. The kids and their adult chaperones wore matching shirts that read, “Showing mercy to the people of Haiti.” I don’t think they even considered what this conveyed to our fellow passengers—the majority of whom were Haitian. What made this group think the people of Haiti needed our mercy—let alone that putting this on a shirt to be worn in Haiti was a good idea? In light of that country’s troubled history (and our part in it), maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’re the ones who need mercy for our misdeeds.

I’ve seen traces of S. Hall Young in myself, too. The patronizing, condescending attitude toward those in need. The assumption—rarely stated in the light of day—that the end goal of compassionate work is to make others look and behave more like us.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if such endeavors are doomed from the start.

But then I see glimpses of another way. Reminders that we don’t have to perpetuate the legacy of S. Hall Young in order to serve.

I see it in Cindy Brandt’s article, “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye.” She points out that we’re often so busy “evangelizing” others that we don’t see our own need to be “evangelized”—to sit at their feet and learn:

What I came to discover is how much the world craves a listening ear. The biggest problem I have with evangelizing is that you enter into a relationship with a prescribed intention, and that stands in the way of listening well.

You can’t listen well when you are carrying an agenda.

You can’t listen well when you are looking for ways to fortify your own position.

You can’t listen well when you are searching for what is broken in your conversation partner, in order to introduce the solution.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to be evangelized, you learn to listen deeper, because you are trying to uncover truth. You search for the beauty in your neighbor to find points of connection — you are seeking to be saved by them. You become the student, longing to learn from, instead of preach at. You voluntarily place yourself in the inferior position of need and find that your own vulnerability compels others to shed their masks. Your courage to admit uncertainty disarms, until all that is left is raw honesty and frailty of our common human condition.

I see it in my friends Nathan and Abby, who are getting ready to move their whole family to the border between India and Nepal (where Abby grew up). They’re going to offer counseling for at-risk women and young people, as well as leadership development and theological training for indigenous ministry leaders. A few weeks ago, they shared their vision with our church. It was very different from the one that drove S. Hall Young. To paraphrase what Nathan and Abby shared:

We believe the people we’re going to serve are good. Their culture is not bad; it’s good. We’re not going halfway around the world to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.

No, this isn’t feel-good pop psychology masquerading as ministry. Abby and Nathan also observed that the region they’re moving to is affected by high rates of human trafficking, illiteracy, and violence against women. But they know this is only part of the story. There’s also a deep hunger for justice, a rich and vibrant culture to be honored instead of dismantled. They know the people there understands things about God and the world that we don’t. They have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

Abby and Nathan are committed to a very different story than the one S. Hall Young told. Or maybe they just have a different starting point. Young began his story at Genesis 3. At least, that’s where he started whenever he looked at the indigenous peoples of Alaska. “Savages,” as he called them.

People like Cindy and Abby and Nathan begin the story at Genesis 1, with creation. The world as God made it is good. Very good. And not just the part of the world that looks like us. ALL of it.

Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is brokenness. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not where the story began, and it’s not where we should start, either. To quote something Nathan wrote a few years back:

God’s first speech-act of creation is what sets the trajectory and establishes our foundation for viewing humanity and doing theology… it establishes that we are to view all of humanity primarily through the lens of their creational goodness.

When you start with S. Hall Young’s view of the world, otherwise compassionate endeavors end up looking more like a conquest. When you start with a view of the world that’s framed by God’s act of creation, you understand that all you’re doing is discovering—and perhaps amplifying—the good that already exists. It exists because God put it there.

In the end, I believe this is a much more life-giving model for Christian engagement with the world. To quote Cindy Brandt, it’s time we “listen to other people’s stories as if [our] salvation depended on it, because it might.”

 —//—

Note: If you’d like to learn more about Abby and Nathan’s work in India and Nepal, watch the video below and go to their website, Under the Banyan Tree. They could use your support.

White people don’t want to talk about Ferguson. Which is why we need to.

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Let’s be honest. Most of us who are white don’t want to face what’s happening in Ferguson.

We don’t want to be confronted by anything that might disrupt our carefully constructed narrative which says we already took care of racism in this country. I mean, hey, we have a black president, right?

Yet here we are in a country where blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate. Guess which group is 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for it? Blacks are significantly more likely to be pulled over, and they are sentenced to more time in jail for the same crimes.

And of course, black young men are more likely to be killed by police (or vigilantes), then tried in the court of public opinion. Kendrec McDade. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. John Crawford. And of course Michael Brown.

We’ve heard all these facts before. They’ve been on a recurring loop since the media began reporting the terrible events in Ferguson. Yet according to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 37 of whites say Michael Brown’s shooting raises racial issues, compared to 80 percent of blacks.

When you see a police force that is 94% white fire tear gas and rubber bullets at a population that is 67% black, it raises racial issues. When the images out of Ferguson look like something out of the Deep South fifty years ago, it raises racial issues. To say otherwise is to live in a particularly toxic form of denial.

The Pew Research Center also asked about the police response to the protests. Only a third of whites think the police went too far in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.

Only a third think armored vehicles rolling down the streets of Ferguson is going too far.

Only a third think police dressed in camouflage (for some inexplicable reason) waving military-grade assault weapons at unarmed civilians is going too far.

Only a third think lobbing tear gas and stun grenades at civilians—the very citizens they’re supposed to protect—is going too far.

Only a third think threatening reporters and calling protestors “f*****g animals” is going too far.

Only a third think treating black civilians like enemy combatants is going too far.

We have a problem. And the problem is that we won’t even accept that there’s a problem.

There can be no justice, no resolution, no reconciliation until those of us who’ve been blinded by our privilege come out from our gated communities and our artificially constructed realities and listen—really listen—to the experience of being black in America.

We don’t want to talk about Ferguson. Which is precisely why we have to.

Image via Medium.com.

Depression, suicide, and why the rest of us should just shut up and listen

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I don’t know what it’s like to experience depression.

I don’t mean the “I’m having a bad day/week/year at work” funk. Or the vague sense of malaise that all of us feel now and then. I mean the relentless, merciless, year-on-year assault that is clinical, diagnosable depression.

I don’t have the credentials to treat or diagnose depression, either.

I don’t know what it’s like to seriously contemplate, much less attempt, suicide.

So what on earth would compel me to think I have the right to judge someone who has?

I can’t “stomach the thought of suicide” either (to use the words of a certain, notoriously offensive blogger). But that doesn’t give me the right to dismiss or diminish the experiences of those who can. Just the opposite. The fact that I can’t should be all the reminding I need that I have NO CLUE what it’s like to walk in their shoes.

So maybe I should just shut up and listen instead.

Take a few moments to read some of the tweets that people have shared this week using the #faithinthefog hashtag started by @lukeharms. Listen to their stories.

Read this post by Nish Weiseth in which she shares her own experience with depression and suicide. Or this one by Sarah Moon. Or this one by R.L. Stollar. If you are like me, then the fact that you can’t fully understand or relate to their stories is why you need to hear them.

Remember… depression is not “sin.” It is not a “spiritual issue.” The answer to depression or thoughts of suicide is not simply to “pray more” or “be more spiritual” or just “will yourself out of it.” To quote R.L. Stollar, “Mental health is as real and concrete as physical health and needs to be treated as such.”

Remember… those of us who don’t have direct experience with this kind of depression don’t have any framework for making sense of it. And the ones we construct are almost always misguided or wrong. To quote Nish Weiseth:

Depression is a clinically-diagnosed mental illness… It’s not selfish to struggle with depression. It’s not a lack of understanding about God and his creation. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Those who don’t struggle with depression, who don’t feel the ongoing darkness… they try to understand and make sense of it. Label it as selfish and the easy way out. Call the suicidal “cowards.” But that’s not the mind of a person in the grips of unrelenting darkness. When depression corners you like that, it makes you believe that suicide is joy. Suicide is relief. And in some instances, it makes you think that suicide is a blessing or a gift to others. It can feel like the brave and noble thing to do.

Depression is a terrible thing, like Nish said. But what’s even more terrible is to condemn or dismiss rather than support those who experience it. To chalk it up to a lack of faith on their part or a lack of dependence on God or whatever. To ignore the very real physical and chemical causes of (and treatments for) depression. To say it’s a “spiritual” issue, as if spirit and body are two separate things—as if one matters and the other doesn’t. (Hello, Gnosticism.)

Remember… if we haven’t walked in someone else’s shoes, then the best thing we can do is to follow Micah J. Murray’s advice and simply shut up and listen.

And if we say anything at all, may it be: You are good. You are loved. And we are here with you, no matter what.

Image by Craig Cloutier on Flickr

The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible