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

When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza…

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His name is Bahaaldin. He’s 13, and he lives in Gaza.

My wife and I have been sponsoring Bahaaldin for almost 6 years now. Or, as time seems to be measured in Gaza, through three wars and counting.

Recently, the bombs began to fall on Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Where Bahaaldin lives. A ceasefire that was supposed to last three days didn’t even last 30 minutes. Both sides, of course, blame the other for breaking the truce. The bombardment added dozens more to the list of casualties. Some 1,500 dead and counting. An overwhelming number of them civilians.

I have no idea if Bahaaldin is OK.

Scratch that. I know he’s not OK. Even if he and his family made it through the bombing physically unscathed, he won’t be OK. Not by a long shot.

How could he be?

Would you?

World Vision has spent the last several years in Gaza trying to help kids cope with the inevitable trauma, mental and emotional, that comes from living in a perpetual war zone. They’ve been trying to halt the cycle of violence. Trying to show kids another way. Trying to show them they don’t have to fight. They don’t have to throw their lives away in a futile quest for retribution.

Saher, 5, a World Vision sponsored child killed in Gaza (photo credit: World Vision International)

Saher, 5, a World Vision child killed in Gaza (credit: World Vision).

Earlier this summer, several World Vision kids gathered on a beach in Gaza and sent kites into the air, carrying messages of peace. One of those kids was 5-year-old Saher. He was killed a month later when an Israeli warplane bombed his home.

For now, World Vision has been forced to suspend all but the most basic humanitarian operations in Gaza. It’s not easy rendering aid when even the shelters are being targeted. Another World Vision sponsored child was killed recently when the Israeli military bombed a UN school where families were taking shelter.

Altogether, five World Vision kids have been killed so far.

I have no idea how groups like World Vision go about picking up the pieces after this. What I do know is that every bomb dropped on Gaza—every mortar, every missile—undermines their peace-building efforts. Every bombed-out school or shelter is yet another setback as they try to show kids a way out of this never-ending cycle of violence. 

After all, you can only help kids learn to sleep again at night so many times. You can only ask them to endure so much trauma. You can only tell them it’ll be all right so many times before it starts to ring hollow.

This is the third war these kids have lived—and died—through in six years. You try telling them there’s another way out. Every Hamas rocket, every Israeli missile sends the same message: the only way out is to shoot your way out.

I’d like to tell you that there’s something you can do, that you can help by sponsoring a child in Gaza. But if you go to the World Vision US website and look for a Palestinian child to help, you won’t find one. I was only able to sponsor Bahaaldin was because I worked at World Vision at the time.

Because let’s talk reality. We both know what would happen if they were to offer child sponsorship opportunities in Gaza. They would get an earful (and then some) from those who put politics—or, in this case, a toxic combination of politics and eschatology—ahead of compassion for kids.

In the end, that’s what makes peace so difficult to achieve. We see kids being killed, and somehow our first impulse is to start a political or theological argument. If that’s not screwed up, I don’t know what is.

If we can watch kids in Gaza die and our first impulse is anything other than to say, “This has to stop NOW,” then we do not have the mind of Christ. We do not have the answer.

And unless we repent, we’re part of the reason kids like Bahaaldin will be so very far from being OK, even if he and his family survive.

You’ll always need another scapegoat

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May 15: Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers kill two Palestinian teenagers, following a tense standoff during which protesters hurl rocks and soldiers respond with volleys of tear gas. The boys pose no immediate threat to the heavily armed Israeli soldiers. They’re an easy target. Scapegoats.

June 12: Palestinian insurgents go looking for an opportunity to vent their own pent-up thirst for violence and revenge. They kidnap and murder three Israeli teenagers. The boys are an easy target. Scapegoats.

The Israeli government quickly blames Hamas. Quietly, officials admit the murders were the work of a “lone cell.” But that won’t do. As violence escalates, so does the need for a bigger scapegoat.

July 1: The Israeli teenagers are buried. Huge crowds turn out for the funeral. Several hundred rightwing Israelis coopt what was meant to be a day of mourning. They shout for revenge, chanting, “Death to Arabs.”

July 2: A Palestinian teenager is kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli settlers hell-bent on revenge. But the scapegoating won’t end there. The thirst for vengeance is not easily sated. An eye for an eye, a life for a life… but when will it stop?

Hamas fires rockets; Israel reduces whole sections of Gaza to rubble. Well over a thousand Palestinians—the vast majority of them (75-80%) civilians—are killed in the first few weeks, along with 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians in Israel.

The Israeli government thinks nothing of bombing schools, hospitals, and UN buildings. Those seeking refuge inside become scapegoats as well. We’re told their deaths are necessary (or at least an unfortunate necessity) to stop Hamas from firing their ordinances nearby. Civilians are warned to flee—no easy task in a densely populated and utterly isolated strip of land five miles wide. Then the places to which they’ve managed to flee are bombed as well.

Of course, Hamas has blood on its hands, too. They may not be capable of targeting much of anything with their rudimentary ordinances. But their intent to wage war—to unleash hell, to vent their bloodlust on innocent scapegoats—is undeniable. Hamas may not have murdered those three Israeli teenagers, but their political chief congratulated those who did.

That’s because Hamas and the Israeli government both worship the same god of violence. They offer sacrifices on the same bloodstained altar. They engage in the same endless cycle of scapegoating—justifying their violence by pointing to the violence of their enemy.

When will it stop?

18281678When we recognize scapegoating for what it really is: demonic. When both sides give up the absurd notion that if they kill enough of their enemies, they’ll finally achieve peace.

In his book Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd sheds light on the demonic scapegoating of our enemies, which lies at the root of so much of the world’s violence—including the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza.

This extended quote from Zahnd is worth considering in light of the current situation:

A crowd under the influence of an angry, vengeful spirit is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is closely associated with the essence of what is satanic… the inclination to blame, accuse, and recriminate. (The words satan and devil both mean to accuse and blame.) When the satanic spirit of angry blame and accusation infects a crowd, a perilous phenomenon is born. The crowd abandons truth as it searches for a target upon which it can express the pent-up rage it feels… The groupthink phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility… The mob becomes capable of evil that would be unthinkable for most people as an individual.

The scapegoat is usually a marginalized person or a minority group that is easy to victimize. But the crowd does not admit that it has selected a weak victim as a scapegoat. The crowd must continue to practice the self-deception that the scapegoat is a real threat to “freedom” or “righteousness” or whatever the crowd is using to justify its fear-based insecurity and anger…

Sacrificing a scapegoat is highly effective in producing a sense of well-being and belonging within the crowd… It’s the blood-drenched altar of civilization. It’s the Cain model for preserving the polis. It’s collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity. The crowd vents its violence and vengeance upon a scapegoat to protect itself from itself. 

If you follow an angry crowd—even if it calls itself Christian—you are likely to be wrong… Massacres, slaughters, crusades, pogroms, genocides, and the Holocaust are what can happen when people follow an angry crowd in search of a scapegoat.

We’re called to be peacemakers, and peacemakers cannot be fearmongers. The biggest difference between a peacemaker and a fearmonger is whether or not they really believe in the unconditional love of God.

There is no easy way out of this relentless cycle of scapegoating, violence, and bloodshed. But we will never find another way if we remain imprisoned by fear, unable to imagine that God might love the very people we’ve been told to hate.

If you’re a Christian and you consider yourself pro-Israel, can you see that God loves the people of Palestine unconditionally? Does that change the moral calculus for you in any way? If not, do you really believe in the unconditional love of God—or are you merely paying lip service to the idea?

For those of us who sympathize with the Palestinians, can we see that God also loves the people of Israel unconditionally—no matter how strongly we may condemn the actions of their government? Does this influence the moral calculus for us in any way? If not, do we really believe in the unconditional love of God?

God’s love demands that we choose peace over fear. As Patriarch Bartholomew (quoted by Zahnd) once said:

Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism… Our peacemaking ultimately stems from and relates to love for all of God’s creation.

If you follow the crowd in pursuit of a scapegoat, the violence will never end. You’ll find that you will always need another scapegoat. And another. And another. Before long, you might become someone else’s scapegoat. It is folly.

The only way to end it is to give up our need for a scapegoat.

HT Zach Hoag

Photo by Basel Alyazouri on Flickr

On reading my book to my daughter for the first time…

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Last night I read The Story of King Jesus to my daughter for the first time. Well, I read printouts with not-quite final art that my publisher gave me last week. Still, it was a moment I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

It’s been two years since I shared the first draft of what became The Story of King Jesus. Then Scot McKnight picked it up and shared it on his blog. Many, MANY rewrites later, it was a book proposal…and finally (after more rewrites), an actual book with a publisher and a release date and everything (ahem, March 2015). But it’s always been—and always will be—something I wrote for my daughter. This is how I want to introduce her to our faith.

She’s picked up bits and pieces about Jesus over the years. She knows Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, though she wonders why she’s never seen him in person before. We’ve read some Easter books together, as well as excerpts from The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu. But this was her first time hearing the whole story of Jesus in one sitting—including the story of Israel, which he brings to fulfillment.

I think one of the reasons we reduce the gospel to a handful precepts or sound bites is because we’re not sure our kids are up for something bigger. Or because we don’t think of the gospel as being primarily a story. Or maybe we worry our kids won’t have the attention span for something more than a few quick bullet points about sin and salvation.

I want to prove these assumptions wrong—because, frankly, this kind of gospel doesn’t work. It doesn’t stick. Stories stay with us for life. Bullet points, not so much. Our kids need a better story.

Last night, my daughter stayed with The Story of King Jesus all the way through, even though it’s longer than most of her bedtime books. She even had me read it a second time. OK, that may have been a bedtime stalling tactic. And granted, she’s a focus group of one. But she’s also a bit younger than the target age group (4 to 8) for my book, so I was thrilled to see how she engaged with it.

She was absorbed in the story and the art (thank you, Nick Lee). When we got to the part about the crucifixion, she grabbed her owl nightlight and held it close to the page so she could look more closely. On our second time through, she started repeating some of the key lines—completely on her own.

I have no illusions that everything got through on the first or even the second read. But she was absorbing, processing, engaging with the story. After we finished, she said it was her favorite story she’s ever read. (Though earlier that evening, she said the meatless chicken nuggets we had for dinner were her favorite food she’s ever had. The night before, peanut butter sandwiches were her favorite.)

As for the “most clueless dad” moment of the night… afterward she asked me, “When will it be put together?” I assumed she was asking a deep spiritual question about the state of the world. After all, God fixing the world—putting it back together—is one of the recurring themes of The Story of King Jesus. So I proceeded to stumble my way through a response…until she cut me off and said, “No, dad. When’s the book going to be put together?”

But she also asked me when Jesus is coming back, which gave us a chance to talk about how we get to be part of making the world right and good until he returns. We talked about how God gave us a job to do: love each other with all we’ve got.

The bottom line is, last night, I got to talk to my daughter about bringing heaven to earth.

I know it can be terrifying to talk to your kids about faith. We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing and screw it up for them. But it can also be a wonderful, rewarding experience. It can be like bringing a little bit of heaven to earth right here and now—especially when we let go the pressure to extract a decision from our kids now and just tell them the story and watch it begin to click in their own imaginations.

I think—I hope and I pray—that’s what started happening for my daughter last night.

UPDATE: I just found out you can already pre-order The Story of King Jesus through Amazon…

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We need feminism because my daughter thinks most TV shows are for boys

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Most weekday mornings, I get my daughter up. It’s a frenzied ritual of brushing teeth, combing hair, trying to persuade her that wool sweaters aren’t the greatest choice for the middle of summer (even in Michigan), and finally—after a series of delicate and sometimes tense negotiations—helping her get dressed in her chosen outfit. Then I make my way to my basement office and start my day.

Weekends are a different story. The two of us head downstairs together—usually before her mom and baby brother get up. We eat cereal and she picks something for us to watch on TV. Some mornings it’s Pingu. Sometimes she asks for “something on Hulu.” (I think she mostly just likes saying the word Hulu.) Sometimes it’s Phineas and Ferb. (Which, I’ll be honest… I have mixed feelings about, mostly because of how the older sister is portrayed, reinforcing the popular caricature of sisters as bossy, controlling, and otherwise inept. Not the picture of sisterhood that I want to paint for Elizabeth, who, as a new big sister, already has the makings of being a wonderful teacher and mentor to her younger brother.)

A few weekends ago, we were well into our Saturday ritual. She was about to choose something to watch when a look of apprehension came over her not-quite-four-year-old face.

“Daddy,” she asked, “is this show for boys?”

I was totally caught off guard. Where did my daughter get the idea that certain shows are “for boys”—and that she can’t watch them? It certainly wasn’t from us. My wife and I are intentional about teaching her that girls and boys are equal, that nothing is off limits to her because of her gender.

We go to a church where women can serve equally alongside men. Our current priest happens to be a man, but women hold a number of visible leadership roles—on staff, on the vestry (think: elder board), and at almost every level of ministry.

When we watch sports (which isn’t that often), we try to watch a balance of men’s and women’s events. We’ve even talked about taking Elizabeth to Canada next year to see the Women’s World Cup, if we can swing it.

When it comes to TV shows, we look for ones with strong female characters. But we don’t push our daughter toward stereotypically “girly” shows. Nor do we discourage her from watching shows that are supposedly “for boys.”

So where did she get this notion? What gave my daughter the idea that she can’t watch some shows because they’re for boys only? Maybe she got it from TV itself.

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans shared 35 compelling reasons why we all need feminism. Many of them are sobering, like the fact that 1 in 4 American women experience some form of domestic violence. Or the fact that 80% of 10 year-old girls say they’ve gone on a diet.

Ten year-old girls, already being told their bodies are the only thing of value they have—and even then, only if they’re the “right” size.

Rachel shared another reason which, at first glance, may seem a bit more trivial by comparison. That is, until you consider the impact it has on a young girl’s perspective. In 2011, only 11% of the protagonists in films were female. This figure is only slightly better for children’s TV shows. Yes, there’s Dora and Kai-Lan. But there’s also Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger, Super Why, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and a host of other lead characters who are male.

One study found that only 30% of the characters in children’s shows are female. And female characters are far more likely to be sexualized and/or presented in a way that glamorizes a narrow and unhealthy notion of beauty—even in children’s shows. (Case in point: Sofia the First.) To quote the study, “Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers.”

Even in 2014, the overwhelming message of children’s entertainment is that girls like my daughter are little more than props in a man’s world.

(So much for feminism being a capitulation to the dominant culture.)

That Saturday, I told my daughter she didn’t have to worry about whether the show she wanted to watch was “for boys” or not. If she wanted to watch it (and as long as there wasn’t any legitimate reason not to—e.g. violence), then it was for her.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell her this.

Patriarchy is not natural. Our daughters are not born into this world thinking they’re inferior or subordinate to men. They get that idea because that’s what the dominant culture tells them.

It’s what we tell them in our movies and TV shows.

It’s what we tell them when we objectify their bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to sex.

It’s what we tell them when we tolerate a 23% wage gap for a woman doing the same job as man.

It’s what we tell them when we trivialize and dismiss the reality of sexual assault—something a quarter of all female college students face.

Patriarchy isn’t natural. It’s learned. And it’s time we start telling our daughters a better story.

Photo credit: Aaron Escobar

Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

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The other day, I raised a question for evangelicals who think standing with Israel means supporting them no matter what. How do you reconcile a “never criticize Israel” mentality with the overwhelming witness of the biblical prophets?

If you’ve been told that unconditional support for Israel is the only “biblical” position, that the modern-day state enjoys the same kind of “most favored nation” status with God as ancient Israel did, then here’s another question. If Israel today is entitled to the covenant blessings spoken by the Old Testament, what about their covenant obligations?

The Bible never spoke of Israel’s covenant blessings apart from their obligations. It’s no use trying to have one without the other. And at least one of these obligations poses a bit of a problem for the modern state of Israel, if it is indeed the same nation as the one in the Bible.

Ancient Israel was not supposed to have a standing army. They weren’t supposed to stockpile weapons. There were no taxes to fund a permanent military. Israel’s rulers were forbidden from amassing large numbers of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)—which was about as close as you could get to an arms race in the ancient Near East. Israel’s king was not supposed to make foreign military alliances. God stipulated that Israel should remain militarily weak so they would learn to trust him for protection.

Israel wasn’t allowed to conscript anyone into military service. If you didn’t want to fight, you didn’t have to fight. Note this remarkable command from Deuteronomy 20:

When you go to war against your enemies… the officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.”

There were times when God whittled down Israel’s fighting force to an impossibly small number—as a reminder that they were not supposed to rely on their own military strength.

Micah 5—the same passage which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—also said that in that day God would destroy Israel’s horses and demolish its chariots. Israel’s military implements are mentioned in the same breath as other signs of their apostasy: witchcraft, idols, sacred stones, Asherah poles. The prophets considered militarization a form of idolatry—a blatant violation of Israel’s covenant with God.

If modern Israel is the same covenant nation written about in the Old Testament, then they are under the same covenant obligations. And that covenant forbids militarization. It declares militarization a form of idolatry.

If the modern Israeli state is not bound to these covenant obligations, then they aren’t entitled to the covenant blessings, either. You cannot have one without the other. If the laws that governed Israel in the Old Testament do not apply to Israel today, then they are just another nation, and they should be held to the same standard as every other nation.

Would we stand for any other democratic nation on earth driving people off of land that’s been in their families for generations? Would we stand for any other nation building settlements on land that almost everyone agrees belongs to someone else? Would we stand for them restricting people’s freedom of movement, bulldozing their homes, and killing thousands of innocent civilians?

Of course we wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t stand for violence committed by Palestinian groups either. But evangelicals keep giving Israel a free pass. They do so because they believe it is God’s covenant nation. Yet when it comes to holding Israel to the stipulations of that covenant… silence.

So which is it? Is modern Israel bound to the covenant or not? Either way, you’ll have a hard time justifying its treatment of their Palestinian neighbors.

RELATED POSTS: 
If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible
When I think about my sponsored child in Gaza
The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Note: For a helpful summary of covenant stipulations forbidding militarization in ancient Israel, see chapter 3 of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Photo credit: Israeli Defense Force on Flickr

 

If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible

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Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American teenager from Tampa who was beaten by Israeli border police. Tariq was visiting for the funeral of his cousin, who was burned to death by Israeli extremists in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. Tariq’s beating was captured on video. (Photo source)

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that from a biblical perspective the modern state of Israel and the Old Testament nation are one and the same. Let’s say the old covenant is still in force, that the founding of modern-day Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s assertion that “all Israel will be saved” was a political statement rather than an expression of his belief that Jesus would rescue his own people from sin and death, along with Gentiles.

Many evangelicals take some or all of these assumptions to be indisputable fact (though evangelical support for Israel may not be as unanimous or unilateral as commonly thought). A plurality of evangelical leaders believe the founding of modern Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. White evangelicals overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians—by a margin that makes Germany’s thumping of Brazil in the World Cup look too close to call. Half of evangelicals reject any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine. Only 12% of white evangelicals believe the US should scale back its support for Israel.

The belief that the modern state of Israel is entitled to the blessings and benefits of what Christians regard as the “old covenant” gives way to yet another evangelical sentiment: namely, that it’s never OK to criticize the Israeli government. That “standing with Israel” means supporting them no matter what they do.

No matter how many Palestinian children are killed in the crossfire.

No matter how many homes and farms they bulldoze.

No matter how many walls they build.

No matter how many settlements they establish on Palestinian land, knowing full well that each one makes a viable Palestinian state more unlikely.

This sentiment was on full display in the aftermath of the reprehensible kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent retaliation by Israeli extremists. As Benjamin Corey wrote:

What bothers me most is that when news broke of the death of the Israeli teenagers, the internet lit up with your standard “stand with Israel” cheers, yet whenever Israel is the agent of aggression or retaliation, things go silent. The only voices who speak up are a few brave souls who are willing to be castigated by other Christians for having the courage to stand up against the violence and oppression of the nation state of Israel.

Why do we do this? Why does Israel get a free pass in doing whatever they want? They bulldoze communities so they can build illegal settlements, and we say and do nothing. They systematically use violence and oppression over their neighbors, and yet we say and do nothing. When things over heat, they retaliate—burning children alive, and we say and do nothing.

Why? Why would we be so foolish as to completely ignore behavior on the part of Israel that would in any other circumstance result in international sanctions or worse?

Let’s say modern Israel IS a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom (with the noticeable absence of a king). Let’s say the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus didn’t bring the old covenant to completion. Let’s say God didn’t expand the definition of Israel (in a spiritual sense—that is, his chosen people) to include Gentiles alongside Jews. Let’s say the dispensationalists are right.

Or, to put it as Benjamin Corey did, let’s say the “stand with Israel” folks are right.

How do we conclude from any of this that it’s not OK to criticize the Israeli state—especially when so much of the Hebrew Scriptures are themselves a prophetic critique of Israel? 

If “standing with Israel” means never saying anything negative about the Israeli government and berating anyone who does, then we should have nothing but contempt for the biblical prophets. We should cut them out of our Bibles. They should be condemned for treason against Israel.

In fact, they were. Amos was accused of conspiring against the government and was driven out of town. Jeremiah was thrown in prison by the king of Judah for predicting Jerusalem’s downfall.

The prophets routinely condemned Israel and its leaders for wishing destruction rather than mercy on their enemies (Jonah); for wrongly assuming that their military advances and territorial expansion were signs of God’s favor (Amos); for murder, theft, and adultery (Hosea); for coveting and seizing other people’s fields and houses (Micah); and for relying on military power instead of trusting God to protect them (Isaiah).

The prophets did not hold back. For them, “standing with Israel” meant speaking out whenever the nation fell into idolatry and injustice. Being God’s chosen people didn’t mean they got a free pass. If anything, they answered to an even higher expectation of integrity.

The prophets understood what Benjamin Corey states so well:

The best way to bless someone who is caught up in destructive behavior is not to condone or to support the behavior, but to lovingly confront the behavior and show them a better way.

Believing that the Israeli state is synonymous with the Old Testament kingdom shouldn’t change how we respond when it acts unjustly toward its Palestinian neighbors. Nor should our response be different when Palestinians perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own ways—though, as Benjamin Corey argues, those with greater power should be held to a higher standard.

It would be disingenuous to read the prophets as divinely inspired Scripture yet condemn others for doing and saying what they did. The best way to truly stand with Israel is to follow the prophets’ example, to lovingly but firmly confront evil and injustice, whoever the perpetrators might be.

3 things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July

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I’ve shared before about my ambivalence toward the commingling of Christianity and nationalism that takes place every Fourth of July. I have deep reservations with how we invoke God’s name to glorify our revolutionary past.

I can think of several reasons for ambivalence. For example, Kurt Willems has pointed out that the Revolutionary War did not meet the criteria for a “just war” as defined by Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas. Carson T. Clark has observed that the war we commemorate each Fourth of July  pitted Christians against other Christians. Instead of gathering around a common table to receive Christ’s sacrifice, Christians sacrificed one another—in clear violation of Jesus’ teaching. (You can’t very well love someone while you’re trying to kill them.)

I could write at length about the idolatry of nationalism. I could deconstruct the blind spots of churches that hold patriotic (and often overtly partisan) worship services. But the truth is, I have blind spots of my own. So this year for the Fourth of July, I thought I’d do something different. I want to share a few things about America for which I’m truly thankful. These don’t lessen my reluctance to celebrate our presumed national supremacy. But sometimes the best thing is to pause for a bit and appreciate what is good.

So here are three things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July…

1. That our government was built on a commitment to freely relinquish power.

I think this may be one of the greatest legacies of the Founding Fathers. After his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, George Washington did something, well, unusual. He resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Legend has it that he was offered the chance to become America’s king—a legend which may or may not be true. Either way, Washington walked away at the precise moment when he could have consolidated and exploited his own power.

Years later, Washington chose not to run for a third term as president. His reasons may have been more personal than political—he was tired and yearning for retirement. But once more he set the remarkable precedent of voluntarily walking away from power, rather than clutching it until the blood ran cold in his fingers.

It’s not quite as dramatic as Bilbo dropping the ring of power in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s pretty much the same idea. Power corrupts. The longer we hold on to it, the more it corrupts us. Washington showed another way to exercise power—with restraint.

2. That our ancestors envisioned a society where we can disagree without killing each other—most of the time.

The White House has changed hands between rival political parties 24 times since Washington left office. Only once did that change lead to revolt. The idea that someone can transfer power to their political rival without bloodshed was remarkable 230 years ago. And while it’s thankfully not as unusual today, it’s still something we shouldn’t take for granted.

The effect of polarization today is to draw us into increasingly hostile forms of conflict with each other. When you start viewing those you disagree with politically as threats to society, you are, in effect, giving up on the American political experiment.  

3. That God loves America as much as he loves every other nation.

God loves America. But we should never lose sight of the trajectory of the biblical drama. It moves from “one nation” to “all nations.” Even when it was still “one nation,” their job was to bless the other nations (Genesis 12).

There is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” in God’s eyes. America is not a new Israel. There is nothing in scripture to even remotely suggest that we are “special” in the way that Israel was in the biblical drama. To say  that we are is to move in the opposite direction that God is going.

God’s kingdom transcends and encompasses every nation. America doesn’t matter to God any more than Eritrea. But it also means that we don’t matter to him any less. God cares deeply for the people of this nation—and that’s something to be grateful for this Fourth of July.

Photo by Jeff Kubina on Flickr.