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

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

Ishmael, Immigrants, and I: Modeling the God who hears our cries

Photo of children in Arizona customs center, photo by Ross D. Franklin. Click for original post.
Photo of children in Arizona customs center, photo by Ross D. Franklin. Click for original post.

One of my favorite experiences as a preacher is when God moves a sermon in a way I hadn’t intended. Like a sudden change of wind hitting a ship caught in the doldrums, I arrive somewhere far better and richer than I could have gotten on my own. As I struggled to prepare for this week’s sermon, a change in the weather was already developing, months before I realized it. I turned to the lectionary in the hope that it would provide at least a reminder of another text, if not the text itself. The designated texts for the day all revolved around God’s faithfulness to hear when we cry out to him, but Genesis 21 stood out, grabbing my heart.

In Genesis 21, we are told of Hagar and Ishmael’s ordeal in the wilderness. Ishmael, the son of Abram and the servant Hagar, is only conceived because Sarai waivers in her faith in God’s promises of progeny and offers her servant to her husband Abram as a surrogate mother. As soon as he is conceived, Ishmael becomes an object of jealousy and ire for Sarai, eventually leading Sarai to request that mother and son be sent out into the wilderness. With no home behind them and probable death in front of them, they set out as strangers in a strange land, hoping that somewhere out there lies a hope and a future. When their meager supplies run out, Hagar lays her son, her own flesh and blood who grew inside of her for nine months, under a bush out of sight because she can’t look on the slow death of her child. It seems the fruit of and living monument to Sarai’s selfishness and impatience will leave the earth before his life can offend anyone else.

Until God hears his cries.
Until God reaches out.

It would have been easy for God to take the same approach as Sarai, letting the results of sin simply disappear under the desert sun. But God refused to hold Ishmael’s origin against him, sending life-saving water to Ishmael and promising that he and his progeny will succeed.

We live in a world filled with people whose back stories are choked with pain, many through no fault of their own. Children of sexual violence. Children with broken families. Children caught in poverty. Children surrounded by violence and hatred from the moment they take their first breath. Children who, both as children and later as adults, we as a society disregard and dismiss. “That’s just how it is,” we say. They’ll always be poor. They’ll be just like their parents. They’ll get divorced, too. They’ll hurt you. They’ll take advantage of you. They’ll never be anything.

But when they cry out, God hears their cries, not our condemnation of their origins. Because he, like Hagar, cannot stomach the sight of His children dying. And He expects us, His church, to reach out, helping to build a hope and a future for those discounted by the world.

In the days before I preached this sermon, a developing news story delivered the culmination of a change in the wind. Over the last several months, a seemingly endless tide of unaccompanied children have attempted to cross the southern border of the United States. Children barely old enough to attend school. Children with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Children beset by the dangerous, broken humans who patrol the lonely places of this planet. Children convulsing with fever. Terrified. Alone. They set out as strangers in a strange land with nothing but violence, drugs, corruption, and poverty behind them and probable death in front of them, crossing through hundreds of miles of desert and danger in the search for a hope and a future in front of them. Though their parents know chances are slim, they can’t stand to look on the slow death of their children where they are. Many likely die on the way, as evidenced by the discovery of yet another mass grave, filled with stacks of human beings whose cries went unheard. Others may reach the US and are left to wander our streets. But many are caught, rounded up, and are being housed in makeshift camps, warehouses of humanity while politicians, talking heads, and armchair policy experts debate whether or not the blame rests on Barack Obama. Yes, there is a political conversation that needs to happen regarding the overall reality of immigration and what to do with the US border. But there is also church conversation that needs to happen about viewing these immigrants as human beings, regardless of where we stand on the political issue. And it is far, far more important.

Because we are and were strangers in a strange land, separated from God. Many of us are beset by the failures of our origins, and even more have been sent out into the wilderness by our own failures. We cry out for hope and a future. Instead of seeing us a mess to be disposed of or ignored, God sees as as human beings, as His children slowly dying as thirst clenches our throats. And God heard us. And God reached out.

As Hagar knew, our God hears and reaches out to those caught in the wilderness, whether or not their own decisions sent them there. Our God heard the cries of Ishmael, born of giving up on God. Our God even heard the cries of Paul, once committed to the destruction of the church before doing so much work to define its future. And today, he still hears cries. He hears the immigrant dying in the desert. He hears the selfish, broken and cut off by the weight of their riches. He hears the first dark realization when the violent and lawless find only pain in their actions. He hears the pain as our failures eventually catch up to us, sending us out with no home behind us and probable death in front of us. When a fellow human being of any race or stature or origin story, whether crossing the border on foot, or born of a broken family or even no family, or raised in poverty or violence, or raised imprisoned by their own wealth and privilege, or even caught in prisons of their own failures, cries out alone, may we the church be a people who hear their cries. May we be a people who reach out.

-Geoff Davidson

Ishmael, Immigrants, and I: Modeling the God who hears our cries

Peace, Prosperity, and Urban Gardening

Image

Yesterday, the first roots and seeds of this year’s garden found their way into soil and peat. The deep, rich smell of wet earth is simultaneously intimately personal yet ancient and transcendent. It recalls childhood springs gone by, and not-so-distant ancestors who joined the struggle as tenant farmers, and a God who planted a garden and invited us to get our hands dirty with Him. A God who, by telling us to take care of His garden and calling it good, teaches us that both the pleasure and the work found in seeds and clay and manure honor Him.

My garden is a little less traditional than that of my ancestors. I, like many other Millennials, live in an apartment. But thanks to the collection of practices known as urban gardening, I’m able to enjoy getting my hands dirty even on rental property. Urban gardening, however, is about much more than what it does for me. Every scoop of dirt and every picked pepper tell me that urban gardening can and should be an important part of Christianity’s future.

To look to the future of our calling, we need to look at our past. When Jewish survivors of the Babylonian conquest were led into exile in Babylon. When faced with the decision to assimilate or wall off their culture while in exile, Jeremiah gave them what had to have been an astounding message from God. In Jeremiah 29, the exiles are told to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Early in the chapter they are told to plant and eat of what they plant, a sign of permanency and involvement. This is a God who wants His people to make gardens and put down roots, like He did, even amongst the chaos of exile. This is a God who wants His people to make their cities better, whether or not our neighbors follow Him.  And if the church wants to be His people, we will work for the peace of New York, Tokyo, or whatever other Babylon in which we find ourselves placed by God to sojourn.

Our planet is becoming increasingly urban. Only 100 years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. As of 2010, 6 out of every 10 did. By 2050, it is projected 7 out of every 10 will. If this comes to pass, the impact will be extraordinary. Concrete and steel will choke out more green space. People will increasingly leave the land for apartments. As a result, the UN projects we will need to sustainably produce 70% more food by 2050. And one can imagine the impact of sprawl and pollution as urban centers continue to explode. Where can the church seek peace and prosperity in that? On porches, and balconies, and courtyards, and roofs overflowing with God’s beautiful plants.

Urban gardening provides churches serving in urban contexts with an amazing opportunity to fulfill Jeremiah 29 (and many other scriptures). Imagine if more urban churches, particularly those in more metropolitan areas, engaged in urban gardening. What would we, and the rest of the world, see?

We would see more people, Christians or not, reminded that they are made in the image of a creative God. You have to be truly creative to get certain crops to grow in the urban context. A quick Google of “urban gardening ideas” will show you a cornucopia of pallets turned into vertical herb gardens, tubs and pipes repurposed into self-watering planters, and dead spaces reimagined into thriving gardens. Reconnecting with God’s purposes for us to creatively work to better His creation would certainly lend more peace and prosperity to a city.

We would see more green and less grey. This is easier on the eyes, but also on the rest of the body. As any 4th grade science class will tell you, plants help our planet regulate heat and carbon.  What a beautiful way to fulfill our God-ordained roll as stewards of Creation, even among our inorganic metropolitan jungles. The benefits obviously wouldn’t end with those who belong to Christ. Anyone in the area would find more peace in a city made greener by Christ’s church.

We would see more fresh local food made available to those experiencing material poverty and malnutrition. The easy availability of junk food and the premium price affixed to far too many fresher options serve as dual impediments to urban nutrition. Those who can afford healthy nutrition could band together to bless those who can’t. And rather than simply handing it out, why not invite our neighbors into our efforts, getting to know them while we work together to decrease hunger? Decreasing malnutrition would go a long way in increasing peace and prosperity.

Does urban gardening take a lot of work and patience?

Yes…but so does following Christ

Could urban gardening get us out of our comfort zones?

Yes…but so does following Christ

Would urban gardening require lay people devoting to God skills like scientific reasoning, infrastructure planning, research, and others we often don’t associate with church ministry?

Yes…but so does following Christ.

Interested in urban gardening? Well get moving! Nearly every growing zone in the United States is either experiencing sowing season or will in the next few weeks. What are you waiting for? Use your God-given talents to research and plan. Get your friends involved and engage in the kind of community God designed us to crave. Dig. Enjoy God’s Creation and praise Him for it. Relish what it produces. And while you’re out there, maybe you’ll catch a vision for a little more peace and prosperity in your city.

Peace, Prosperity, and Urban Gardening