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

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