America’s god of fairness

“That’s not fair!”
IMG_5291If you’ve been around a child, you’ve probably heard this. If you’ve been a child, you’ve probably said this. I know I issued the universal childhood grievance rallying cry more times than I care to remember. Our reliance on this claim does not end at puberty. Americans (say we) love fairness. We tell our children to treat each other fairly and expect their schools to do the same. We strive to create a legal system in which everyone gets a fair shake. One of our most venerable board games was designed as a protest of unfair business practices. Listen closely and you’ll hear it everywhere throughout your day.

There are some positive things to be said about this tendency in our culture, but I am increasingly troubled by how I hear fairness rhetoric in how we talk about societal problems in and around the disturbingly blurred arenas of conservative faith and conservative politics. Why is this seemingly helpful concept so troubling? Because there’s nothing fair about our faith. Society was designed by God to be based on love and working together (it is important to note the word used of Eve and often translated “helper” is used of God elsewhere). While we were still enemies of God through our abdication of our proper role in Creation, God moved to welcome us home and restore us when we didn’t deserve it. As John Mark MacMillan sings, we’ve been born again “on someone else’s dime.” Jesus dedicates a parable to this issue. In his story a servant is forgiven an enormous debt to his king, only to immediately throw a man into debtors’ prison for failure to pay a much smaller amount. The unforgiving forgiven man soon finds himself tortured and in chains when the king finds out. Unlike this hardhearted servant, we are to unfairly love even those who we don’t think deserve it.

Meanwhile socio-political conservatism, far too easily dovetailed with theological conservatism, has erected a false god of fairness to reign over us. No life is too precious or too vulnerable to be bled on the altar (the unborn being the glaringly sole exception). Compassion and dreams for a better world are routinely mocked. Cruelty is fetishized as proof of one’s standing in the cult. Conservatives have lashed out at Jimmy Kimmel’s tearful discussion of his son’s medical issues, calling it, “cheap.” HUD Secretary Ben Carson warned not to make housing assistance too nice, nodding approvingly as a homeless shelter described how they stacked beds. “America first” sells well because it sounds fair, but as described by the Secretary of State it means not caring about foreign human rights abuses when deciding with whom to do business. The president himself boasted during a debate that, “I can look in [refugee children’s] faces and say ‘You can’t come’. I’ll look them in the face.” As I write this, the House of Representative is trying to pass a healthcare bill enjoying newly-found GOP support due to removing preexisting conditions protections. As written, this means survivors of sexual assault could face higher premiums simply for seeking treatment and reporting their assault.. The false god of fairness demands that only the strong survive; any attempt to help the weak is a weakness itself.

It’s one thing to disagree on how to handle societal ills; it’s another thing entirely to confuse the true God with a false god of arbitrary human notions of fairness. When the church attaches faith in the Slaughtered Lamb to faith in the (false) myth of the American self-made man, nothing short of idolatry occurs. If we concede that God has (thankfully) acted unfairly in the spiritual realm but argue that such unfairness doesn’t extend or apply to us in the physical realm, we make a bifurcation and concession of territory that the Lord is not willing to make. If we try to cling to the things we feel we deserve or have earned, we forget that we are not our own. We were bought at a price.

 

Unfairness will go against every one of our naturally selfish instincts. Following Christ’s unfairness will isolate us from the kinds of political allies the church has used in recent decades to insulate its sphere of influence. We will lose things. Unfairness is hard. Unfairness isn’t safe. Just ask the Samaritan stopped on a road haunted by robbers. Just ask Jesus dying on the cross. But folks, the path of unfairness is good. God being unfair to us is good news beyond our wildest dreams. We live in a world desperately in need of good news. Let’s declare the good news; let’s be unfair.

America’s god of fairness

What must be done

The news is rarely pleasant as we live in a fallen world and media coverage is greatly influenced by our inability to look away from train wrecks, but it feels like the last few days have been especially rough on our collective empathy. A backlog of thousands of rape kits has prompted Texas lawmakers to look at asking driver’s license renewers for donations to offset the cost of analyzing this critical evidence. Even when governments attempt to pursue justice, new moral issues arise. Arkansas has rushed to schedule the execution of eight men in eleven days, two per day on four days, this blistering pace caused solely by the impending expiration of one of the drugs involved. This is occurring while there are more questions than answers about lethal injection and states attempt to block our ability to ask those questions. For added darkness, the executions are set to begin in a heavily Christian state the day after Easter, a holiday commemorating Jesus’ resurrection after execution by the state. But of course, headlines have been rightly dominated by the Assad regime’s use of banned sarin gas on Syrian civilians, with the resulting images of gasping, dying children burned into our souls forever. It is all utterly overwhelming, the constricting weight of sorrow isolating and paralyzing us. What can we do?

3B42B699-26B3-49E4-A1C2-B120F7A05D06I’ve written and preached before on my firm belief that Batman is a wonderful metaphor for how the church, especially the Western church with its affluence, should operate. Vigilantes like Batman capture our imagination over and over again in literature and pop culture, and I think it’s largely because we desperately want the assurance they provide. We want to know not if but when evil occurs and the system fails to save us (or even aids the villains) that someone will still fight for us. That, after everything falls apart, someone still believes some things are simply the right thing to do, even if that stance runs afoul of human law or endangers their very lives. The good news, the very best news, is that One has come who that perfectly describes. The Kingdom message of Christ Jesus concerns itself only with what is right, not what is convenient, self-interested, legal, or even safe. Jesus, practicing what he literally preached, lived out this message and died a rebel’s death as a direct result. I use Batman to talk about Christianity because I see the Son of God who emptied himself for our world reflected in the mission and sacrifice of Gotham’s Dark Knight. And I see it in the defiant works of the church in Acts and throughout the church’s greatest historical moments. This path is for us, too. The nail-torn hands of Jesus are on the move when His church acts like Him, taking action because of what is right in sheer defiance of the broken status quo.

I hope you’ve started trying to connect that idea to my opening comments about recent evils; if you have, you’ve probably started thinking that these are ridiculously hard problems to solve. And you know what, you’re right. Evil is complex, entrenched, and ever hungry. There’s a lot of suffering I have no clue how to fix. But I am sure that God has blessed us with incredible gifts. Teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, accountants, doctors, nurses, scientists, social science experts, artists, lawyers, mechanics, and countless other skills and professions have found a home at the foot of the cross. Consider also the enormous educational and financial advantages many of us have compared to the rest of the world. What could happen if we more fully leveraged all of that for the Kingdom? What could happen if we devoted ourselves to building stronger Christian alliances rather than stronger political alliances, each of us learning from each other and across the divides of geography, affluence, and culture? Why stick to offering up “thoughts and prayers” while waiting on insulated, unfeeling governments to act despite already holding in our own hands amazing abilities from God?

It is a great tragedy that the American church has so greatly atrophied her capacity to dream and dream big. I’m furious that thousands of rape kits go untested solely due to funding, but I’m positive that’s something that’s within our reach. More complex evils can be conquered as well through coordination and use of our myriad talents. I can’t fathom the quagmire America’s death penalty has become on my own, but there are doctors, lawyers, and ethicists in our midst who can help us start by asking the tough questions they’re trained to ask, even on behalf of those who don’t deserve mercy just like we don’t deserve God’s mercy. Natural and manmade disasters can push us to our absolute limits and beyond, so we must count the cost now and prepare now as not to be caught flatfooted later. We can’t cure every evil, but we every inch claimed for God when we leverage the entirety of ourselves and our community proclaims in a way no sermon every could Christ’s resurrection and anticipated return to finish what He started. You may say it’s naive to think the church can take on complex sociopolitical tragedies, but I say it’s naive to think the status quo can ever be motivated to act against itself.

There are a few other things of which I am sure. I am sure that such devotion to God’s mercy and justice will inevitably cost us dearly. It may mean suffering. It may mean losing possessions. It may mean breaking the law. It may mean dying. Christ said we are to take up our cross daily and follow, and that’s what crosses mean. For the Christian it is not only what can we do but also what must we do. That same Jesus who calls for so much, though, has gone before us on the path, all authority has been given to Him, and He has promised to be with us always. It’s time to act like it. Some trust in chariots and some in horses and some in tanks and some in elephants and some in donkeys, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

What must be done

Jesus announces His candidacy

I believe it is critical as a preacher to find a way to connect the ancient context of Scripture with the modern reader. There is nothing in human history which is not a product of its time, so we miss out on amazing breadth and depth if we do not attempt to bridge that gap. I could spend several blogs on explaining the fascinating milieu of imperial power and messianic hope into which Jesus the itinerant teacher appeared…or I could just tell you to turn on the news.

candidacy-announcementA culture pressed and torn between the competing forces of past and future, tyranny and freedom. A religious hegemony in decline, desperate for a political machination which God can use to make their country great again while others clamor for a new and different future. A large crowd, fatigued and distraught, feeling increasingly left out by the elites and their power struggles, gathers in the hopes of hearing hope and promise in the words of one who would lead them.

Matthew tells us that in this eerily similar context Jesus delivered the set of teachings we remember as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whether you’ve never read it or see it frequently, I invite you to click the preceding link and read it unabridged. Between the theological content so central to Jesus’ mission and the way Matthew positions this distinctly at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, in a different time Matthew might have called this the announcement of Jesus’ candidacy and platform. That isn’t nearly as anachronistic as it sounds. Based on the surrounding culture, we can be sure that many gathered to hear Jesus saw him as a potential Messiah, the anointed hero of God who would restore Israel (and, as a natural consequence, remove the rule of pagan Rome). Their expectation of Messiah was decidedly political. Matthew’s telling has Jesus striding forward to declare candidacy for Messiah, but in a way the original audience likely never expected.

Jesus didn’t announce how to use the tools of empire to defeat empire. Jewish history was cluttered with the executed corpses of those who had proposed such a solution and found Rome waiting for them. His project was not limited to the restoration of a political kingdom; instead, Jesus was announcing the coming of a Kingdom built on humility and quiet service rather than pride. Its laws, familiar to the Jewish audience, were not heights of morality to which to aspire or a means to protect oneself but rather a minimum above which greater righteousness and selflessness could be achieved. Perfection, completeness, wholeness of the citizenry was to be the standard. The integrity of this Kingdom would be protected through counterintuitive sacrifice, not redemptive violence or revenge. Love would be its banner, and hope its song. And, as the disciples would eventually learn, this Kingdom lacked the borders of land or race, instead open to all who would come.

Jesus’ call runs just as counter-culturally today as in its original context. We prize wealth and power, looking up to those who possess them; Jesus warns against their entangling power lest we are possessed. We want to be able to fight back at those who hurt us; Jesus reminds us that greater goals await than our own personal vindication. We want to look out for ourselves and those like us. A prominent pastor even says he would run “as far as possible” from a candidate who echoed the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus tells us that perfection like God in Heaven is found in love for all, even our enemies, and taking up a cross on their behalf.

Exactly a week before what may go down as the ugliest election in US history, we find ourself at November 1st, All Saints’ Day, on which the church pauses to remember those heroes of the faith who have gone before us. I find this timing to be too perfect to be ignored. The ranks of the saints are comprised of those who, across countless human boundaries and eras, heeded the call to stake the core of their identity on citizenship in this Kingdom above any other ties or unities which we humans have created. The leader who captured their allegiance didn’t rely on decades of prominence, nor did He arrive to announce Himself on a golden escalator. They realized our means of Kingdom and His means of Kingdom are mutually exclusive, not just different or auxiliary. Just as Jesus promised, the storms of life came. Projects built on human strength fell away, while the Kingdom endured. This is still true, right now. I tell you with surety that glory fades, the purest gold grows dim, and the administration of whomever wins on November 8th will turn to ash. But the Kingdom of Jesus goes on.

Jesus announces His candidacy

Christians, make social network news great again

I have good news, and I have bad news: we only have 36 days until the election. Only 36 days, but 36 more days of an increase in what can only be described as “2016ness.” While I do look forward to the impending drastic change to the news cycle, we unfortunately will find ourselves on November 9th living with not just the results of the voting but also the results of how the broader election process played out. I have my opinions on what the church supporting certain candidates will do to our witness. But perhaps more importantly bibleswearand undeniably, the church will have to live with the fallout of how we supported any candidate or cause. I don’t think I have to make a case that the standard of Scripture
demands honesty and integrity
, but sometimes it feels like we forget that when it comes to elections or social media at large. Please don’t forget about November 9th. This isn’t football; wins and losses don’t reset after someone lifts the final trophy. With that in mind, I wanted to devote a post to a few helpful reminders not on whether we as the church should use our digital voice to be good and reliable neighbors (hint: we should) but how to be good and reliable neighbors. Here are a few I came up with based on what I often see. If anyone else has some, I’d love for you to leave them in the comments!

  • Check the dates. Unless posting a throwback article is specifically your point, accidentally posting about some allegedly impending crisis or problem that scared people five years ago, all while thinking it’s about the present, probably isn’t very helpful.
  • Reverse image search. There’s a reason why Catfish relies so heavily on this basic but underutilized technology; it works. If something purports to be an image of something scandalous or hide to acquire, take an extra second to think about it. Are you sure? If not, edit off any added word banners and let the power of the internet save you from spreading something you shouldn’t.
  • Check sources. Pay attention to the source of any links you click or post. This is why consuming across multiple sources is so important. Responsible consuming leads to, among other things, getting a feel for the styles, opinions, and reliability of various authors and outlets. When multiple sources report on the same thing, seeing how they each characterize it is fascinating and helpful for the future. When an outlet stands out from the field dramatically, that doesn’t necessarily disprove it but it should make you wonder why. When an outlet’s viewpoint is actually in their name, think about if or how that may have affected their reporting. And please, I’m begging you, don’t fall for spoof sites. Please.
  • Don’t bite the clickbait. The only good thing to come of the clickbait trend is people making fun of the clickbait trend. If you find something you feel need sharing within a clickbait article (“This thing has people shocked,” “______ is going viral,””This will destroy _______,” and the all time classic, “You’ll never guess what happens next!”) make every effort to find another source with an honest headline. If you ultimately conclude you just HAVE to post it, short-circuit the system; give away the important talking point in your post with the link.
  • Watch yourself for fallacies. This could almost be it’s own post. Showing Candidate A is corrupt/mean/evil/opposed to puppies matters, but it doesn’t mean that Candidate B isn’t those things. Take the time to understand positions you oppose and engage them honestly. “Yea, well such and such wholly unrelated thing!” doesn’t disprove what you just heard. “Well you aren’t a true Christian/atheist/American/human if you believe that” helps no one. Conversely, “You’re just a [insert reductionist title like conservative or liberal” doesn’t disprove someone’s point, but it does cook the image of God in another person down to an artificial label. There are a lot of helpful resources out there to help you understand these problems. Otherwise risk the wrath of Ed Hochuli.
  • If you mess up, own up. Presenting a good witness as a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be perfect and thus can’t afford to be honest about your mistakes. In fact, honesty in the midst of our current Category 5 political lying storm is a refreshing change of pace capable of encouraging others. Furthermore, my generation is infamous for its ability to sniff out shenanigans. We all bite on shady news at times; I know I have. And no, “well the overall narrative it represents is true” will never make a false story true. Own up, fix it, and always strive to be better.

Again, please remember we’ll all be here on November 9th. Live the next 36 days in a way which honors God, loves people, and puts us in position to be the Body of Christ no matter who wins.

Christians, make social network news great again

The sun came up: a reflection on the 2014 midterms

i-voted_sticker“The sun will come up tomorrow.” A simple truth used as a simple assurance when something, simple or not, goes wrong. When a football team loses, romantic interest goes unrequited, or our vote falls as a tally on the losing side of an election, “the sun will come up tomorrow” tries to carry us past today’s pain.

Last night, elections delivered disappointing news to millions of Americans.  But after all the crying, speeches, and confetti, sure enough, the sun came up this morning. It came up over Democrats leaving office in January and all their constituents who fear for the future of the country. Perhaps a few rolled over, wishing the day away a little longer. The sun came up on the GOP, too, whose supporters joyously embrace last night’s results. Perhaps a few were up before the sun as their celebration overflowed from one day to the next.

The sun, however, came up over more than just the parties of and those party to the 2014 midterm election. It came up over struggling families whose love serves as the only bond keeping reality together. It came up over successful families so devoid of love that the cold November sunrise brought the only warmth for which to be hoped. It came up over broken homes in which every sunrise is a cruel new reality.

The sun came up over the lonely and alienated, whether they slept alone or shared a bed a few inches from someone lightyears away.

The sun came up over those who knew the day only meant another round of struggling through decisions, purposelessness, and confusion before the gift of sleep comes again.

The sun came up those who didn’t know whether they would see it again after sleeping, the morning rays finding their way into hospitals and nursing homes where death lurked, and unsafe homes where abusers lurked.

The sun came up over the incarcerated, whether a long trajectory of mistakes, a moment of impassioned madness, the unfair assumptions of their fellow humans, or even feeding the homeless put the cuffs on their wrists.

The sun came up over those so hypnotized by the god of Americanism they genuinely believed the success or failure of the God of the universe’s plan to redeem Creation hinged in any way on what a few people wrote on a piece of paper last night. And if that delusion of grandeur doesn’t elicit at least a giggle, we’re probably a little dead inside.

The sun came up over the wet, cold, and broken whom the suits hurried past on their way to the election announcements. And if that doesn’t elicit a genuine sadness for what the sun sees when it rises, we’re definitely a little dead on the inside.

Two years ago, the Election Day sun went down on winners and losers, and came up over the brokenness and destruction. The winners and losers came and went, but the sun came up over our problems every day for two years.

God willing, the sun will keep coming up for the next two years. But God willing, the sun’s rays will illuminate for us the problems that linger on and on rather than the political winners and losers who fade so quickly. If we look closer, God’s sun will show us humans made in God’s image, obscured by the mud and mire of our problems. And if we give them even a fraction of the attention we give the winners and losers, then God willing, maybe the sun will come up on a better world two years from now when it comes up over a new bunch of winners and losers.

The sun came up: a reflection on the 2014 midterms