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

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

jesus-is-king-300x285It’s been an action-packed weekend for me. In the last 24 hours or so, Baylor (where I got my MDiv) got blasted off their own football field, Alabama (where I got my BA) stayed undefeated, and I preached my last sermon before the 2016 election. As we’ve gotten closer and closer, I’ve seen an increase in social media posts reminding us that no matter what happens, Jesus is still King. Amen!

But I feel like I’ve seen a pattern emerge over the last few elections, and it deeply troubles me. It’s no secret that many evangelicals found themselves at odds with Barack Obama. It’s also no secret that Donald Trump pulls a significant albeit noticeably decreased share of evangelical support, nor that most outlets have predicted an impending Trump loss. As recent election losses have piled up and more possibly loom just over the horizon, I’ve seen a growing trend of “Jesus is still King” posts implicitly (through outspoken candidate support) or even explicitly tied to consolation. “But at least…” It’s not dissimilar to how I’ve handled Baylor’s two-week losing skid. “But at least Bama…”

Using my alma mater as an emotional fallback, however, cheapens their accomplishments, diminishes the importance of my personal ties to UA, and undersells that I’m genuinely excited to see where this team goes. If it’s true of something as ultimately inconsequential as sports, how much more is it true of how we talk about the Kingdom! Is Christ a reassurance in troubled times? Of course! One of the most famous commands of Christ is tied to His promise to be with us always. But if that’s all He is to us, that’s a real problem. Even if that isn’t how you feel, before you speak or post consider how patterns might look to the world. You may know Jesus is more than a fallback, but a string of full-throated posts for a candidate suddenly slammed up against the sureness of Jesus’ eternal throne doesn’t communicate that well. That’s “opiate of the masses” stuff. Meanwhile, the percentage of white evangelicals who disconnect personal and public morality in elected officials has more than doubled in just five years. With these trends combined, can we really be mad if the world accuses Christians, white evangelicals in particular, of being more concerned with secular wins and losses?

Last week I wrote about how the Sermon on the Mount functions as Jesus’ party platform announcement to be the Messiah of an unending Kingdom.  If this is true, assurances of Jesus’ reign aren’t a consolation prize for the also-ran in a political scrum; instead this should be the source of our joy and a cause for unrestrained celebration! Every political cause in history has had its ups and downs. Let’s be a people who celebrate our King clearly during wins, losses, presidential cycles, midterms, and even those rare moments when political ads fade away. Only then do we have something to offer that the world can’t match.

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

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

Perseverance of the Saints

gleasonOn Monday, September 25, 2006, an error in a slide blocking scheme by the Atlanta
Falcons allowed Steve Gleason to pass through the line untouched. Gleason blocked the punt, and Curtis Deloatch recovered the ball for a Saints touchdown. For thirteen months, the city of New Orleans had toiled mentally and physically to stand back up from under the colossal weight of Hurricane Katrina. But in that moment, water stains, black mold, and endless debris evaporated in an explosion of black and gold fervor.

Maybe it seems silly to suggest that a game could alter the psychology of a city, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. This isn’t the kind of noise you make when your sports team does something you like; it’s the kind of noise you make when hope begins to crack through months of pain and agony, even if a sports team applied the final pressure. Quarterback Drew Brees has described how, months prior during his free agency visit to New Orleans, he saw upturned cars and a tugboat blocking their tour. He then knew he needed to come to New Orleans because this was bigger than football. After the decision to rebuild and retain the franchise, a legendary performance by U2 and Green Day along with several local jazz bands, a key divisional win, and one unforgettable play, New Orleans could look at the Superdome and even their city to at least briefly see something other than a torn roof, flooding, and the horrors experienced by those left behind. Doug Thornton, an executive for the facilities management company in charge of the Dome, said of the day, “Ironically I was on the field when U2 and Green Day took the stage. I realized I was standing in almost the exact location I stood when the roof was being blown away. I wanted to see the faces in Section 137, which was exactly where people were huddled when debris was falling. I realized for the first time in a year I was seeing happy faces this time.”

A decade and a day later, I had my TV set to the first presidential debate and my computer set to the Saints’ unfortunately failed attempt to capture Monday Night Football lightning in a bottle again. Even with the loss, the images could not be more discordant. As a Southern Baptist Alabamian, I grew up with not simply the impression but the explicitly-relayed knowledge that the GOP was God’s emissary for executing His will in America and, through America, the world. Red meant hope, Christ’s hope. But as the years have gone by, that falsehood has only managed to show its true colors. Promoting torture isn’t hope. Diminishing returns with people who don’t look like me, and at times outright racism, isn’t hope. Being anti-abortion while failing to be pro-life isn’t hope. Last night, the candidate symbolized by red lied repeatedly while being confronted with his failure to pay employees and routine disrespect for others based solely on their physical characteristics. That isn’t the hope of Christ. Leaders like David Jeremiah, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., tell us it is not simply acceptable but even our Christian duty to support the red candidate this year. Yet we are shocked when the world sneers at the church.

I thoroughly understand why conservative Christians can’t support Democratic tickets, but that doesn’t mean we are forced to pick red, especially when red is actively lined up against our one true hope. There is another way: let the hope we found be the hope we present to the world. Don’t replace it or veil it behind a color or flag. The God who began a good work in us will complete it; no additional powers or saviors are needed. If the early and persecuted church didn’t need political power to grow the Kingdom, why do we need to contradict our own morals in order to maintain our status? If something as inconsequential as a blocked punt can create deafening rejoicing only thirteen months removed from one of the worst disasters in American history, what can the Body of Christ accomplish? Last night, I saw more hope in a black and gold losing effort than I saw on a red and blue stage. Why do we need to put our time, money, energy, voice, and reputation on the red altar in exchange for scraps of power when the very one through home the world was made has placed Himself on the altar to welcome us as brothers and sisters? The Saints of New Orleans persevered through a storm to lift a city. The saints of Christ can persevere and are persevering to lift a world mired in selfish red and blue power struggles. We do not need them; we only need the hope we’ve found in the Cross.

Perseverance of the Saints

Seeing Jesus in the riot and the storm

Civil War Dead on Antietam BattlefieldOn September 22, 1862, United States President Abraham Lincoln convened his Cabinet. The Battle of Antietam just five days prior claimed its still-standing record as the deadliest single-day battle in American history. By battle’s end 22,717 were dead, wounded, or missing. Even as some of the dead still lingered in field hospitals, Lincoln told the room that he had made a covenant with God: if the Confederacy were driven from Maryland, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands more in blue and gray would pass from this Earth before American chattel slavery was killed, but the wound had been struck.

We greatly shortchange our ancestors on all sides if we fail to realize the enormity of the coming reality Lincoln had inaugurated. The end of slavery was not simply an angering thorn in the side of racists. American chattel slavery is drastically undersold when seen as just an immoral economic shortcut. Slavery, and the view of humanity which undergirded it, was the very fiber of reality. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, minister of New Orleans’ First Presbyterian Church, in the final years before war said of slavery, “This system is interwoven with our entire social fabric. It has fashioned our modes of life, and determined all our habits of thought and feeling, and moulded the very type of our civilization.” After the advent of rebellion, Confederate Vice President said that the “very cornerstone” of Confederate society was the opposite of the Declaration of Independence’s promises of universal equality. The end of such a foundation represented The End itself. Mary Fontaine, the daughter to one CSA general and husband to another, heard whites describing the joyous black crowds at the end of the war, “It was like their idea of the judgment day.” “Perhaps it may be,” she mused.

I believe Lincoln’s announcement means more for today, September 22, 2016, than just an anniversary on which to pause and remember. As someone who grew up in integrated Southern schools, I often think I have no idea what it must feel like to watch the most basic underpinnings of society snatched away like tent stakes in a storm. But then I turn on the news, and in my own way and my own time I sense moments of connection to my ancestors. Doesn’t it feel like all things are coming undone? The veneer peeling off American hegemony, or sometimes bursting into flames. American voter demographics shifting more quickly than nearly any other time without a constitutional amendment changing who may vote. Radical upheaval in morality. Unprecedented scrutiny of police. The mercurial shift of exotic threats from traditional armies to organized terror, and then to individualized terror.

Folks, it’s totally understandable to feel that fear. Mrs. Fontaine certainly did. But what if fear and upheaval aren’t the only things we share across 154 years? Many people, both black and white, suffered enormously as emancipation came and the transition was made. A journey so immense and so important is always painful. But what was gained was greater and truer and more Christlike than what was risked. With the end of chattel slavery, we grew that much closer to fulfilling the command of God: Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” There is so very much suffering in our time. And many changes we face are admittedly not for the best, leading only to more suffering. But who among us can honestly say that there aren’t still great gulfs of oppression to overcome? Racism and systemic injustice aren’t dead, though they mourn their cousin chattel slavery and welcome the enormity of modern slavery. Poverty and hunger gnaw at will. Human justice is still all too dependent on how and where you were born. What if the storm we feel is real, but rather than unwarranted disaster it is the tempest that comes from the world shaking its fist at the long march to justice? Through such storms, Jesus calls to us, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 

I understand the fear, for I have felt it. In addition to the simple act of being alive in such times, I’m a white straight male Baptist pastor. According to the world, it makes sense for me to support a candidate who points back to the good ol’ days for white straight male Baptist pastors. It makes sense for me to shake my head at police protests. It makes sense for me to write off entire populations every time a bomb goes off, to let fear control my response. But when I am calm, I hear the same voice the disciples heard. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” I remember that Judgment Day and judgment days come with a promise of restoration on the other side. And no matter the storm, I know that I should more fear what kills my brothers and sisters on this shore than what awaits me on the journey to God’s justice.

 

Seeing Jesus in the riot and the storm

A Veterans Day confession

-Associated Press http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2013/11/11/photos-veterans-day-parade/
-Associated Press
http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2013/11/11/photos-veterans-day-parade/

Before we get started, I need to confess something: every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I want to bury my head in the sand till the day evaporates into the past. I try to ignore the day as it approaches, and I urge the clock and calendar forward when it arrives.

Is it because I’m a veteran? No. Is it because I lost someone dear to me in military service? No. It’s simply because I have no idea what to do with these holidays. And despite the social media blitz, all day TV specials, and armies of flag-laden parades, I don’t think I’m alone.

I don’t know what to think, what to do, what to write, or what to preach around these holidays because I have more than a few questions about the use of violence by servants of the suffering Christ. But I have even more questions about pledging my allegiance to anything other than a broken Lamb, a banner which will inevitably conflict any and every flag ever raised by human hands.

Despite my reservations, or even the stalwart positions of many Christians who stand fully against the activities intrinsic to military service, Americans still sign up. A lot of Americans sign up. A lot of Christians sign up. And while many are blessed to truly come home, bone chilling numbers of them return home broken on the outside, inside, or both. Spiritless bodies return home, too, the hearts of some still beating in their chests. All the while, their families and friends share their wounds and burdens. And far too many who fear the consuming fires of nationalism or the infected wounds of redemptive violence have failed veterans and their loved ones completely because we don’t know how to balance our concerns with the stark uncomfortable truth that every soldier in every war on every side of every calamity is human, made in God’s image, and we should stand with those who need to heal no matter how they got their scars. We don’t realize that no matter what we may think about their causes, they have sacrificed far beyond what anyone should be asked to give. We fail to see the dark irony that in a theological and political quest to prevent broken lives, we’ve ignored broken lives all around us.

Unfortunately, the dark irony doesn’t end there. Twice a year, and maybe even on July 4th, we send a missive across the frothing ocean of social media about veterans’ sacrifice and our thankfulness. We stand along a street and wave a flag as those who still breathe ride by. We might even get a bit misty after a homecoming video goes viral or a commercial plucks a heartstring. Yellow ribbons adorn our homes and cars. But the poignant status updates, videos, and commercials get buried under the unstoppable deluge of cat videos and friends who wish it was Saturday, the flags hit the ground as we head back to our normal lives, and yellow fades with disturbing haste under a sun that cares little for our sentimentality. For far too many, “supporting the troops” is nothing more than a shibboleth pronounced by tweets and tears, a meaningless phrase that grants us membership in the kinds of friend groups and churches we like.

But hoping for peace isn’t enough, and cheering on Veterans Day isn’t enough. If we are to be the church, we have to let ourselves see the walking wounded around us and love them with the depth and ferocity of God Himself. As we drive to peace protests or Veterans Day parades, we must notice the 50,000 homeless veterans who surely can’t help but notice the American flags flapping mockingly over the city halls that force them to bleed yet again by working to ban their very existence on our streets. The enormous blindspot shadowing America’s veterans and their loved ones shared by the right, left, and indifferent is an affront to the God who sees even the sparrow fall. Rather than wait to passively notice a problem once it explodes, we must seek out the scars and chains that haunt our lands just as Christ sought us out. Both those who favor and oppose war run the risk of seeing soldiers as nothing more than a set of fatigues and a shiny black gun, whether that engenders fear or admiration, forgetting that God made them and loved them long before they put on the camo and fought for their flag. And they will matter to the God who leaves ninety-nine to find one long after they take off their uniforms. If we are to love as Christ, we must do likewise.

I still don’t know what to do with Veterans Day, but I know what I must do with veterans. I must love. Because our wholeness is bound up with theirs, and the banner of the Lamb beckons us all home.

A Veterans Day confession