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.

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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

Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple and here for green.

To talk about the history of voodoo and santeria in New Orleans is to talk about Marie Laveau. Her name, taken up by at least one daughter after her death, has become synonymous with the practice of the spiritualist folkways in the Big Easy. To this day the curious and the hopeful leave votives at Marie Laveau’s tomb in the hopes that the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans will aid them from beyond the grave. During her life she offered spiritual aid to slave and free, rich and poor alike that they might achieve or receive some elusive desire.

Louisiana voodoo is a relatively young amalgamation of African and European influences but draws from ideas dating back to the dawn of civilization. Throughout history we have often sought any advantage we can find over an existence which refuses to follow our will, giving rise to the kinds of beliefs, rituals, and sympathetic magic still seen today in voodoo. Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote extensively on this drive for control whether or not it is connected to spiritual practices, calling it the “will to power.” According to Nietzsche all living things, including already strong organisms, will ultimately reach for more power even at risk to their own life, affording the will to power a place of influence over the will to survive. It isn’t hard to agree with Nietzsche as we survey a landscape filled with so many of us who are willing to risk livelihoods, relationships, morals and lives to grab power.

ad1a3dbc-3841-41b8-a636-1f242a2b1dfbToday my look at the traditional colors of Mardi Gras concludes with gold, representing power, on the same Sunday many denominations mark as Transfiguration Sunday, a day set aside for Jesus’ dramatic display of power and glory on a mountaintop.This passage showcases Jesus’ power, particularly in connection with Old Testament images of Yahweh, but does little to define Jesus’ notion of power for us. We’ll have to look elsewhere in Scripture for that.

On another mountaintop, Jesus faced the temptation to compromise righteousness in exchange for power.If he would but bow down, the world and a chance to enact justice would be his without walking the road of suffering pointed to the cross. Both of the other two temptations faced by Jesus in this story revolved around the will to power. In each case Jesus is reminded of things to which he has claim but responded by giving it up in order to stay on the path of redemption on our behalf. Jesus knew that the will to power left unchecked does indeed supplant even the will to survival and ultimately leads to self-destruction. Paul therefore says of Jesus that rather than cling to his own deserved glory and power, he gave himself up and emptied himself on our behalf. Power then according to Jesus is having the right to claim something but giving it up to benefit someone else.We see God already indicating this ideology in the Torah when the Israelites are commanded to not harvest to the edges of their fields, pass over a second time, or claim fallen fruit in order that those in need might come and eat. Would common human sensibilities of power and dominion say that the farmer had a right to every bit which could be harvested? Yes. Does this understanding of power line up with the crucified Jesus? Absolutely not. True power belongs to the one who gives it up for another.

What does this mean for us? For starters, we should be eternally thankful that Jesus broke away from the will to power for our enormous benefit. We should also be aware that Jesus’ actions free us as well from power’s siren song. Resisting the will to power is increasingly hard but increasingly vital for a church residing in a nation which constantly dangles Egypt’s gold before our eyes. We must therefore constantly ask ourselves, how are we giving up power to benefit someone else?

Marie Laveau, Nietzsche, and Jesus on the mountaintop

Faith of our foreigners

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple.

Stephen F. Austin. Darrell K. Royal. “Kinky” Friedman. George W. Bush. Troy Aikman.

What do these famous individuals all have in common? If you said they’re all famous for contributions to Texas history, you’d be right. Yet despite their fame in the Lone Star State, none of them were born in Texas. This story holds true for many other famous “Texans.” That’s how I knew I had a shot in Texas as an Alabamian; perhaps I was born with an advantage if some of the biggest contributors weren’t actually born here, either. Again and again “outsiders” have come to Texas and made a undeniable impact.

5db84bd5-6670-4fe1-8f13-e52cce582e6cThis week my sermon series on the colors of Mardi Gras brings me to green, representing faith. Matthew 8  tells us simultaneously one of the most encouraging and most unsettling stories of faith found in Scripture. As he enters Capernaum Jesus encounters a centurion who asks that his paralyzed servant be healed. When Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s home to heal the servant, the centurion answers with a stunning confession of faith: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

While possibly encouraging to some of his listeners, Jesus surely shook everyone within earshot to their core by answering, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Pay attention to the details here, folks. Some present may have been encouraged but all were shaken because this was the last thing anyone expected. Jesus, a Jewish teacher followed by Jews, places the crown of faith on a centurion. The supplicant here is an outsider as a Gentile, but much more of an outsider than a non-Texan who becomes a famous Texan. He’s a centurion, loyal to Rome and the face of that which oppresses the Jewish nation. Furthermore, some scholars have looked to the original Greek to posit that there was a pederastic (adult male to adolescent male) sexual relationship between them. While I can’t see enough evidence for such a definitive claim, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the crowd didn’t have such an offense to Jewish morals on their mind given its frequent occurrence among Roman authority figures. With all of this background, Jesus still says what he does about the man’s faith. But he doesn’t stop there, in essence declaring that many like this man will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven while many who are “from here” and “belong here” will be excluded.

This story is indicative of how God works on the whole. Faith in Jesus comes from unexpected places to tell us unexpected things. Simply put, if we’re going to follow the Jesus who recognized the centurion’s faith we’re going to have to be okay with being uncomfortable at times. In fact, if your faith never shakes you to your core, I’m positive you aren’t always following Jesus because our cores need shaking. Like the centurion, we are all born as outsiders to the Kingdom. It’s far too easy to let feelings of what might be called spiritual nativism take hold now that we’ve been welcomed in. This is exacerbated for those of us who grew up in Christian homes or a nation which some have declared to be “Christian” in origin. If we allow ourselves to fall into thinking faith can only be recognized in people “from here” and should only tell us things we already know, we may miss out on experiencing and learning from the kind of faith that catches Jesus’ attention.

Faith of our foreigners

Giving up injustice for Lent


I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. I’ll be posting blog versions here, so check back for parts two and three. 

e2729f76-0acd-4be3-a360-f2d18f07ed09Mardi Gras season, the time of Carnival coinciding with Epiphany, is permanently ingrained in the history of the Gulf Coast. French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville upon landing inside the mouth of the Mississippi River and consulting the calendar named his arrival point Point du Mardi Gras. Soon after nearby Mobile was founded in what would be Alabama and played host in 1703 to the first organized Mardi Gras in the future United States (deal with it, Louisiana!). The very first Mardi Gras parade occurred soon after in 1711, also in Mobile. I’m not sure there was enough Mobile to parade through just yet, but they did it nonetheless. According to tradition, the famous colors of Mardi Gras were selected in 1872 by the Krewe of Rex. After Rex’s 1892 festivities specified the symbolic meanings of purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power as the theme in 1892, the attributions just stuck. This week we’ll be looking at justice.

God has a strong opinion on matters of justice. Justice is at the core of God’s identity and plan for redeeming Creation, yet we neglect it so easily. All of human history, even God’s physical nation,  has struggled with maintaining justice. In Isaiah 58 God confronts a people ready to fast to get what they want but wholly unprepared to reach for what God desires:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

The ancient Greeks gave us the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. The play opens with the assembled priests coming to Oedipus, deeply troubled by the plagues ravaging Thebes. Based on their anxiety they had presumably been doing their jobs as priests to follow worship rituals on behalf of the people and yet were met with a curse. The plagues [spoiler alert!] we later learn were caused by Oedipus’ acts of murder and incest though he was blind to his guilt at the time.  It seems even the ancient Greeks, apart from Yahweh of the Jews, understood the dangers of devotion ruined by injustice, the same concept with which Israel is confronted in Isaiah 58. It is from the Greeks and their plays, after all, from which we receive the word hypocrite, the charge Jesus places on the Pharisees for tithing spices yet forgetting the justice and mercy at the center of the Law.

Mardi Gras and Lent are inextricably linked, as for centuries Christians have reveled in then fasted from pleasure and indulgence in preparation for Easter. Though the fasting in Isaiah 58 isn’t aimed at Easter specifically, similar themes of self-denial and preparation are always present in the spiritual disciplines. So how is that God can talk about denying ourselves injustice as a fast? Injustice is always tied to someone else’s benefit. Often this benefit is something that doesn’t sound so bad. Financial stability. Commodities. Ambition. Comfort. Safety. But when these things come at the cost of someone else, they become idols under which our fellow humans are crushed. The benefits reaped are extra indulgences to deny ourselves in order to follow God more deeply. We have enormous privileges as Westerners. Note that we’re sharing this blog together using a computer or smart device and we’re educated enough to read it. These privileges can be so large as to let us turn away from seeing injustice like avoiding eye contact with a homeless person, but that doesn’t change reality. We, blinded from our own guilt like Israel and Oedipus, can hide in our comforts and empty devotion while wondering why our world burns. Or we can give up injustice for Lent and for always, constantly preparing ourselves for Easter. Only then will our light will break forth like the dawn.

Giving up injustice for Lent

Our Immortal Ten moments

When two institution which mean so very much to me are embroiled in future-defining, crises, checking Twitter always comes with the nagging anxiety of, “Oh no, what now?” I’m grateful for the ability to learn critical information at a speed unimaginable to previous generations and react accordingly, but I also understand and identify with a certain Captain Picard meme far too well.

It’s no secret that this has been a troubling time to be an alumnus of Baylor University. My soul aches for anyone subjected to the kind of violence faced by God’s image bearers here at Baylor, even more so when they then face rampant and indefensible institutional failure. And for it to be Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning and whose Latin motto includes “For the church,” assures that this is a tragic abomination which threatens the very witness and thus future of Baylor. A long shadow by extension is also cast across the church itself.

Speaking of, I believe the church residing in America is in the midst of a crisis and sifting not seen in generations. The eyes of the world are on us to see how we will handle unprecedented upheaval in the marble halls of politics and the forsaken streets of human suffering. In an age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, we cannot hide from scrutiny. Our actions here and now will echo across the physical and spiritual realms for a long time to come.

It’s going to take a lot of work and discernment to choose the right actions for Baylor and for the church, but I know what kind of decision should guide our actions. Jack Castellaw, Sam Dillow, Merle Dudley, Ivey Foster, Robert Hannah, Robert Hailey, Willis Murray, James L. Walker, William Winchester, and Clyde “Abe” Kelley lost their lives on January 22, 1927 img_4128when a bus carrying the Baylor basketball team, yell leaders, and managers was hit by a train in Round Rock, Texas. Ninety years later, we at Baylor still take time to remember the Immortal Ten. I’ve long known about this tragedy, but I missed some of the details by not attending BU for undergraduate studies. In the final moments before the train struck, Abe Kelley saw the train through the storm and pushed his roommate, Weir Washman, out the window. Washman was saved, but Kelley lost his life.

I believe both Baylor and the church in America are each facing an Immortal Ten moment, a time in which we can choose self-preservation or self-sacrifice, idolatry of safety or Christlike giving. We will all face that decision in our lives, privately and corporately, over and over. There is nothing greater to be done than sacrifice for others. If we lose our lives, we’ll gain what our lives are meant to be. But if we cling desperately, we’ll lose everything. We aren’t all administrators or coaches for Baylor, but every employee, alumnus, student, and fan has a role to play through sacrificial love. We aren’t all professional ministers, but every single believer has a role to play as God’s people, a royal priesthood, portraying to the world a God who emptied Himself on behalf of us. Perhaps the hardest part of self-sacrifice is that the things we have to give up often are good things. Power, wealth, and renown are enticing and can be leveraged for others. Longevity is desirable. We all like to be comfortable, enjoying a happy life rather than working through painful topics and conversations. But the storm is here, and the train is coming. We can cling to such things, or follow after Christ and those who portray Him like Abe Kelley. Whatever we decide, the world is watching.

Our Immortal Ten moments

Truth in pro-life advertising

09192efe-8dfb-4f88-b161-4b17203de8bcMuch to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve always found humor in the biting satire and warped comedy of Rocko’s Modern Life, a long-defunct cartoon from the days before Nickelodeon tried to out-Disney Disney. One episode follows the titular wallaby and his friend Heffer as they set out on a business trip for Rocko’s employer. After an avalanche blocks the route, they decide to splurge by taking advantage of a $5 special at a nearby ski resort. After checking in and requesting skis, they soon find out they’ve been had; every thing is five dollars. Skis. Cutting the skis down to size. Lift rides (including subsequent attempts to catch a lift after missing the first one). Bathroom use. Even the “roaring fire” in the lodge has a meter to feed.

It’s a funny episode that hinges almost entirely on a cruel advertising trick which would drive us to rage in real life. When we buy a thing, we want it to be that thing. Whether its the contents of a food product, the efficacy of a medicine, or the performance of a car, we allow for some spin in subjective claims but past a point we demand truth in advertising. Why don’t we in the conservative church demand the same of ourselves?

Pointing to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion opponents annually fill this week with events such as Sanctity of Life Sunday a few days ago and the March for Life in DC on Friday. If you don’t reside in the conservative Christian community, you may not know about these events but have likely noticed an increase in chatter regarding abortion as a result of the emphasis.

I hesitate to call these events and most of their supporters “pro-life” because I believe in truth in advertising. If only abortion is being addressed, let’s be honest and call it anti-abortion (thankfully some voices stand out; the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commision under Russell Moore’s leadership comes to mind). How can the content of a pro-life material stop at the decision to give birth? Wouldn’t belief in the sanctity of life look to pregnancy and new parent care? And why only pregnancy? Wouldn’t a pro-life ethic have to include addressing poverty, vulnerable populations (like refugeeswidows, orphans, and those in prison as demanded by Scripture), and even the environment on which we all depend and over which God has placed us as stewards? Unfortunately, such topics rarely come up in events, talks, or literature labeled as pro-life; no wonder others mock this position as simply being pro-forced birth. It seems that it’s easier to make quips about Mary not having an abortion than it is to remember that her Son was a genocide survivor and refugee who was tortured and executed as an enemy of the state.

God, however, is wholly pro-life. This past Sunday I preached from Proverbs 24:10-12. This text contains a stern call to action: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” I told my congregation that this text should constantly make us ask ourselves, “What am I personally doing to refute the claims of Death?” The story of Scripture (and thus Christianity and even history) is at its core a story of Death making claims it doesn’t deserve and God working to reclaim Creation. We, through Christ, have both been made the subject of this work and invited to be co-laborers in the rejection of Death in all its forms.

A complete ethic of life is not only logically consistent and biblical imperative but also incredibly freeing. As the old aphorism goes, no one can do everything but everyone can do something. Consider the ongoing plight of Flint, Michigan, a city forced to live with abhorrent lead concentrations in its water since 2014. It will take years to fully see the deadly fallout as this toxin slowly destroys lives. Roughly a year ago, hundreds of union plumbers volunteered to install filters for the residents of Flint while the government continued to squabble ineffectually. This, friends, is a pro-life act. These plumbers, Christians or not I do not know, saw a place where Death was laying claim and moved to overcome it using the skills they possessed. Abortion is an incredibly complex issue, as evidenced by the fall of the abortion rate to the lowest level since Roe v. Wade despite the decision remaining in effect. Not everyone can affect abortion, let alone wider yet thoroughly interconnected pregnancy and parenthood issues. But each and every one of us is at the absolute most merely arm’s length away from something or someone being unjustly claimed by Death. Each and every one of us has been gifted to affect the world around us. Being pro-life means partnering with God through Christ to grab hold of Creation and place it under the claim of Life using our gifts. May our pro-life advertising be true. Let’s get to work.

Truth in pro-life advertising