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

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

“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

I’m Conservative…and I Hate It

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Most people would call me a conservative, and I can understand why. I believe in absolute truth, and I believe Jesus Christ is Truth. I believe and follow several beliefs and standards often associated with conservatism, particularly in American politics. If a survey or research project counts me amongst conservatives, I don’t bat an eye.

But I hate that word. When I hear it in the church, I involuntarily cringe. Why? Because words are powerful. Words don’t just describe; they have the power to create. The ancient Jews knew this. Look at Genesis 1, whose author tells us of God’s creative power through words. Or a Hebrew lexicon, which will reveal one particular Hebrew word can mean “word” or “thing.” Even today, just look at how Obamacare and the ACA, two names for the same law, affect perceptions of that law. The right or wrong word makes all the difference between healing and injury. And the word “conservative” has been hamstringing the church.

Let’s look at “conservative.” The first definition at dictionary.com tells us conservative entities are “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” Merriam-Webster offers an adjectival meaning of conservative as, “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”. And Wikipedia tells us, “Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to ‘the way things were'”. Based on personal observation, the preferred social order to be returned to is usually somewhere between 50 and 250 years ago. The highlights of this era, in the US alone, include slavery, racist laws, unChristlike treatment of women, and debtors’ prisons. Today’s social order isn’t much better, rife with the same old problems redressed behind shiny new veneers and viewed through iPads instead of pamphlets and newsreels. What exactly is it we’re so excited about bringing back or keeping?

Contrast those descriptions with what we see in Scripture. We see a Christ who threatens the existing unjust and impious social order, flipping tables and driving it out. This Christ tells us His Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a small thing capable of quickly overwhelming a garden (If Jesus was in the South today, would He compare His Kingdom to kudzu?). He tells us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Kingdom. Here’s the thing about gates: they are inherently defensive. They don’t move. They keep. They preserve. They conserve.

Sometime in the past, keeping the faith became confused with keeping the social order. Much to the delight of politicians and other “powers that be”, many Western Christians have become convinced that holding beliefs that look conservative also means conserving the social order, even if the preferred social order contains horrid injustice in the eyes of God. Like the Pharisees, we strive after the Law, but the poor starve, God’s beautiful Creation is scarred by our machinations, and the marginalized are told they should stay in their ghetto until they look like us. We forget that those hated by American conservatism are those with whom Christ lived and ate. I believe there are many commands from Christ that look conservative, but when the label overtakes the loving person of Christ, it becomes an idol. Our label becomes our god, and the god Conservatism demands we murder God’s hope, love, and transformation on its altar.

Being labeled, by ourselves or by the world, as conservative is not a free pass to neglect to love our gay, Muslim, atheist, homeless, black, white, racist, or any other kind of neighbor just because someone might think we’re liberal, nor does it free us from acting on that love. Being labeled conservative does not get us out of caring for the Creation that God made out of love for us just because “progressives do that hippie stuff.” Being labeled as conservative does not get us out of acting like Jesus of Nazareth, who refused to be held back or limited by the political labels thrown at Him.

Why do I hate being conservative by the world’s standards? Because there is more to Christ than an ideology, there is a person and there is love. There is hope and promise for a better world. And I’m terrified of losing Him in the fog of America’s culture war. 

I’m Conservative…and I Hate It