Abusing Scripture: Romans 13:1-2

Forgive my hastily compiled thoughts, but I figured this was an appropriate topic to offer some reflections on after the recent claims made by some very high profile figures regarding a particularly misunderstood Bible passage.

First of all, the Gospel should never be compromised by partisanship or your political preferences. This applies to conservatives and liberals. And Christians of all persuasions (myself included) are guilty of putting ideology before their faith. But this is a failure to abide by the standards set forth by the New Testament. It should go without saying that the commandments of Jesus should never be trumped (pun intended) by the policies of the political party you support.

The appropriation and misuse of Romans 13:1-2 in recent days by figures within the government reveals the true priorities of those who have attempted to find support from the Bible for the inhumane treatment of immigrant children.

Because this part of the Epistle to the Romans is such a rich text, there are numerous avenues of interest that cannot be explored here. So these reflections are barely touching the surface on how and why some interpret Romans 13 so mistakenly. So even if we put aside important textual and exegetical aspects of interpreting Romans 13 faithfully, a few basic questions and problems arise concerning the unconditioned claim that Christians should obey governing authorities and the laws they put in place.

The first problem with this claim and those who have made it (Sessions, Pence and others) is that even they don’t follow it consistently. The other is that our ultimate obligation is to obey God rather than men when the two obligations are in conflict/disagreement (cf. Acts 5:29). For the true Christian, God’s law always takes precedence over human law. Submission to governing authorities is only applicable to the extent that a law is not contrary to God’s revealed will. We submit to authority when appropriate, but where the laws contradict God’s will, we disobey them (in a Christ-like manner) and then submit to the government’s penalty for doing so; as Jesus, Paul and the early church martyrs modeled, at the cost of their lives.

If Romans 13 means that Christians are to submit to authority in every detail, then what about the early Christians, who refused to worship Caesar and were martyred for it? Were they disobeying God by choosing not to worship Caesar? On another ironic note, most conservative American Christians who interpret Romans 13 as teaching that we are to render total submission to governments also happen to adore the founding fathers. But if they apply their reading of Romans 13 consistently, they would then ultimately have to conclude that the American Revolution was in direct contradiction to God’s ordinances since the American colonists were rebelling against their government. How then should we view Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany? Were they also mistaken in their resistance against the Nazi regime? Was Martin Luther King Jr. also in the wrong to refuse to submit to the legal orders forbidding his marches and demonstrations? If this reading of Romans 13 was true, then Christians shouldn’t have opposed slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation. If this reading of Romans 13 is applied in the same manner as it has been to the treatment of immigrant children, then why should we oppose abortion, since it was legalized 1973?

The truth is that people like Sessions and Pence don’t apply their own convictions consistently when it comes to Romans 13. They choose to read Romans 13 a certain way because it protects their assumptions and their agendas. Christian’s are simply not called to give unquestioning obedience to every particular law or policy of the State. That is a deeply mistaken reading of Romans 13. Obviously Christians were right not to submit to Caesar or to Hitler. Christians were and are right to oppose slavery, segregation, abortion and now the inhumane treatment of immigrants. When our allegiance to Christ appears to conflict with the call to submit to authority, our submission to Christ should always come first.

If we read Romans 13 contextually and in light of broader New Testament teachings, it is clear that believers are to challenge and resist unjust laws and policies (again in a Christ-like fashion). Furthermore, we are then expected to submit to the punishment that a government may impose as a result of our actions (See the rest of Romans 13 and many NT commentators on this idea).

Throughout history, this popular misinterpretation of Romans 13 has unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) become a highly convenient way to justify injustice biblically, especially for those who want to implement their political agenda. In fact, as many have noted, Romans 13 has been a favorite proof-text of many tyrants, including the Nazis and slave-owners.

If you have political preferences, that’s okay. And it’s okay for Christians to have disagreements in the realm of politics. But our faith should never be relegated to the second tier, particularly when we have clear guidance from Christ and from Scripture.

And when it comes to the treatment of immigrants, Jesus and the Bible place compassion above all else (See Lev 19:33-34, Deut 27:19, Eze 47:22, Zech 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2 for starters).

Romans 13:1-2 cannot be read in a vacuum. The surrounding texts qualify what submission should look like. Likewise, we must remember that Romans was written to a specific context during a specific time. We cannot just pluck Bible passages out as if they are all little nuggets of truth that exist on their own and are meant to read by us in the same manner as they were in the 1st century of the Roman Empire.

This post was also shared on the wondering eagle blog, which can be found here.

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Tragedy & Story

I have a deep appreciation for tragic stories, in literature and in film. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; there is a strange power in tragedy. I don’t mean to be masochistic or fatalistic in the slightest, but there is something deeply moving, something deeply human in suffering or at least the stories of suffering.

There are some who hold to a theology, a doctrine of suffering. In other words, an understanding that suffering is part of God’s will. They often refer to the book of Job to justify this. I think this is an egregious mistake. God does not delight in suffering, nor does God ordain or cause it. The universe is complex and incomprehensible, we cannot and will not grasp the inner workings or the deeper laws written behind the cosmos. But I can say with confidence that God does not delight in our suffering. God is not the architect of our sorrow. That is actually the antithesis of what the book of Job is intending to illustrate and teach.

Beauty can come despite, or out of suffering, but it does not come from suffering. That is an important differentiation that must be made.

But if suffering and tragedy are not a part of the Creator’s original intention, then why are we so often drawn to it, particularly in literature and in film? Of course, anything can be romanticized and idealized. I of all people am aware of this, since I tend to do it quite often. But even if we peel away the romanticizing of suffering, there is still something that draws us to a story that tells of someone who has endured the brutality of existence.

Perhaps we are compelled to sorrowful tales, not because they depict how things should be, but because they all too often depict how things are. Because suffering, by nature, is intrinsically and inherently human. Not human as the Creator intended us to be, but human as we are and as we will be until the new creation.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia. This word encapsulates a host of feelings that are impossible to adequately describe. Even the word nostalgia is inefficient for symbolizing or capturing the entirety of its meaning. Nostalgia isn’t merely memories of events or people or places, but the encapsulation of seasons of life. The aura, the mood, the tone and the ambience of those seasons of life.

Of course I don’t mean seasons in the literal sense of the word, although at times it might correlate to the actual seasons, which have such distinct visuals and sensations 

What I mean by seasons of life in relation to nostalgia, is a sense of being, a sense of existence associated with a time in your life. How you felt for a certain duration of your life. Not necessarily how happy or sad you were, but how you thought about things or what you thought about at that time in your life. How you viewed the world around you. Was your imagination alive with creative juice? Were your thoughts enraptured by a significant other?

Still, this nostalgia I speak of, is more than what I’ve said. It’s existential, something perhaps only God can truly understand and articulate. Perhaps that is the most frustrating aspect of it. Sometimes it can only be captured by a painting, a sound, a smell, but often it cannot be truly recreated at all, not even in your memory, where it once lived. Most unbearable is the fact that it cannot be conveyed to another. Maybe therein lies its beauty?

A Brief Word on the Notion of “Soul Mates”

I’m a hopeless romantic, so naturally I have always been attracted to the idea of a soul mate. Fortunately the wisdom of peers and much self-reflection has convinced me otherwise, although I say this with some qualifications. I don’t reject the concept of soul mates simply on an ideological basis, but primarily because of the assumptions that this idea is built on. Although I would like to believe that, at least to a certain extent, “fate” and “destiny” are real, particularly in the spiritual realm. God is a God of salvation and redemption after all. He has always been. More importantly He has always had a purpose and a plan for Creation.

While I utterly reject meticulous providence and most iterations of Reformed theology, I do believe that God orchestrates and guides and works with those who desire God’s will. But God does not work in a vacuum. God requires partnership, not because He lacks the power to accomplish anything, but because God’s nature is such that He longs for our willing participation in the stewardship of ourselves and of Creation. This entails that humans must act.

The issue that I have with the notion of soul mates is that it presupposes that we play little to no role in the relationship. It does not take into account the flawed and fallen character of humanity. If we assume that God has created one specific individual for each of us, then we are susceptible to become apathetic in our romantic relationships, either in the early stages or later once a covenantal commitment has been made. When the going gets rough, we fallaciously conclude that it was not meant to be. This is a tragic mistake. Relationships take work, patience and care, just like a garden.

In some sense, perhaps we may become one another’s soul mates over the course of time and commitment. I find this idea attractive.

I don’t want to trivialize romanticism. Anyone who knows me well, know that when I become enamored with someone, the feelings build rapidly. Part of this has to do with my personality type, since I tend to sentimentalize and idealize the future and the possibilities that I hope for.

Romantic feelings and romantic relationships are strange phenomenona. While I hardly have much experiential acumen on this matter, I think my intuitions may hold some truth. We’re all a little lonely. Even those of us who can testify to a deep and intimate relationship with our Creator (of which I hardly count myself among, although I’ve come a long way), must admit a certain degree of physical, tangible emptiness. This is of course not universal. There are many who do not need romantic relationships to feel fulfilled. But for many of us, loneliness plagues our thoughts. It’s not so much the lack of relationship as it is the lack of another who is immersed in the inner-workings of your soul, your mind and your heart. Our actions actualize us, but our thoughts define us. Our thoughts are not merely the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals. Our thoughts are living, existing, breathing organisms that come to life. If we can share our deepest thoughts with someone, we are literally sharing our lifeblood.

I would be remiss to deny that loneliness scares me. But it all honesty it’s not so much loneliness that scares me. I believe that I fear other things more. However I am not sure exactly what I fear more: rejection or the possibility of the unknown never coming to fruition.

These anxieties can plague anyone in the early stages of attraction or a relationship. One can quickly experience an attraction that is more than merely physical. While it’s fair to the characterize the initial feelings towards another as simply infatuation, this captivation cannot last indefinitely, at some point a choice is made, a commitment to pursue someone and once this commitment, even if made somewhat foolishly evolves into a bond. The infatuation becomes a small sliver of hope that grows into a deep longing that builds and builds until it crashes over the dam of logic and reason and cascades onwards.

So perhaps I remain somewhat agnostic concerning the existence of soul mates. I would very much like to believe that they are real. I cannot entirely explain attraction. Attraction to someone cannot always be explained by rational or instinct. It’s completely true that you can find someone singularly attractive. And this undoubtedly plays a part of the equation. But physical attraction cannot fully account for the appeal.

And this is an existential reality that most of us will probably never be able to illustrate or explain. This leads me to my last point.

Ultimately, it seems realistic to hold that we shouldn’t be so concerned with finding our soulmates as we should be with becoming the soul mate our lover desires. 

 

A Tri-fold, Trinitarian Approach to Marriage & Sex

This is an adapted excerpt from a paper I wrote for Professor Paul Eddy entitled “The Covenantal Framework for Marriage & Sex,” which can be found here.

In order to establish a hermeneutical lens through which to comprehend the purpose of marriage and sex, I will propose three foundational objectives for a Christian marriage, all of which are strengthened and protected by sexual union and bonding within marriage. This tri-fold, Trinitarian approach will form the framework of a missional and covenantal understanding of sex and marriage, that reverberates beyond the marriage itself.

The Trinitarian approach to marriage and sex can be summarized as follows. The Trinity can be seen as three unique beings joined into one through intimate bondedness and interaction. This union overflows as love for each other and for humanity. The unity and mutual love within the Trinity, though self-existent, does not endure for its own sake but is directed outward for the sake of others. Thus mutual intimacy, oneness and altruism has the higher purpose of overflowing in blessing and benefit to others. This is a beautiful model of what a Trinitarian or missional marriage might look like (as well as a missional community).

Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the Early Church Fathers, understood God’s creation of man and woman as a means of reflecting God’s image to each other, so that they both would know and experience God. The following quote from a commentator on Irenaeus illustrates how this Early Church Father saw the purpose between the relationality of man and woman;

“Their very existence is designed to be of benefit to the other. This is not simply true in terms of Eve’s relationship to Adam, but also of his relationship to her. They share the same flesh; they share the same bones. The role of Christians, the role of all humans to be the helpmeet of all others, is built in to our nature. To be a community, to be of assistance and support in growth and development to those around us, is not an option.”

This flows nicely into a “Tri-fold” approach to marriage in cohesion with the Trinitarian approach. The threefold purpose of marriage and sex is as follows; (1) To serve and reflect God’s image to each other in the marriage. This internal practice better prepares and teaches us (or should) to do so externally. (2) To serve and reflect God’s image, as a couple, to others in the Church family, which in turn, leads us beyond our Church community. (3) To serve and reflect God’s image, as a couple, to the outside world. In short, the Tri-fold aspect involves the marriage having three levels of “overflow” of love: spouse-to-spouse; couple-to-church community; and couple-to-outside world.

All of this implies that marriage, if we are called to it, functions as part of our missional calling to reflect God’s image in and to the world. Sex functions as a means of serving, unifying and reinforcing our commitment and bond to serve and love each other so that we may better serve and love those around us and in the world. Marriage in this way then becomes missional. In reflecting agapē love to a spouse, we form habits and patterns that should ripple out into the Church community and then into the world.

Sources:

Irenaeus of Lyon, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/ holyfathers/from_the_bone_of_adam_st._irenaeus_on_the_creation_of_eve1

The Cross and Violence

and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” – Hebrews 12:24 (NASB)

Violence cannot tolerate the presence of one who owes it nothing.” – René Girard

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This post ended up being longer than intended, but I suppose that’s par for the course.

Today of course is Good Friday and so, for those of us who identity as Christians, we remember Christ’s sacrifice.

For many, the Cross is a difficult concept to grasp and understandably so. I find myself constantly wrestling with this topic, especially as of late.

Throughout history various branches of the Church have given a myriad of answers to questions regarding the purpose of the crucifixion. And no matter how well we explain what the cross accomplishes, regardless of our theological differences, Christians can all agree that there will always be a mystical element to Christ’s death that transcends human understanding.

The Cross is many things and we can theologize about it for a lifetime and still fail to understand its magnitude and meaning. It is a revelation of God’s perfect and unchanging character. It is the subversion of human conceptions of forgiveness. It is the conquest of death and of the powers and principalities that enslave creation. It is an example for us to follow. And it is God’s endurance and shouldering of the consequences of sin. But in Protestantism and American Evangelicalism in particular, we often overlook how the cross exposes the violence of humanity. The perfect human being wasn’t killed by God, He was killed by us. By human institutions, both religious and secular; the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. And by all standards these two establishments were the most advanced of their time. Thus in a sense, Jesus was executed by the Church and the State and as such His unjust death is a condemnation of the broken systems of the world. In enduring death on a cross, Christ exposed the horrific evil humankind is capable of.

The Cross is seen as an event that was divinely orchestrated. All debates surrounding predestination aside, Christians can concur that, at some level, Christ’s death and resurrection were always a part of God’s eternal design for the redemption of the cosmos. But as a result, we often overlook or minimize humanity’s role in putting an innocent person to death. For some, the occurrence of Christ’s death is reduced to an equation where the absolution of sins is granted in exchange for punishment. Our “guilty” standing before God requires the death of a sinless human being in order for the scales of divine justice to be balanced. While we all can and should embrace that there is a saving nature to Christ’s death, it’s important to acknowledge the theological differences we will have in how we parse this out. That being said, Christ’s death is so much more than just the “imputation of righteousness,” where a moral status is somehow conferred upon us.

The death of Christ is the result of our flawed conceptions of justice and our tendency towards violence. And it reveals our need to be saved from ourselves and our destructive patterns of living. It wasn’t some abstract transfer of human sin that killed Jesus, but concrete human decisions and actions that endorsed and carried out His execution.

The author of Acts reiterates over and over again how “you crucified” Christ (See Acts 2:22-23, 3:13-18, 4:10, 5:30, 7:52 etc). These passages implicate not only the Jews, but the Gentiles and ruling authorities as well. And although some commentators argue that the context places a primary emphasis on the responsibility of the Jews in orchestrating Christ’s death, there is also a broader sense in which the world has conspired to bring about the downfall of the Son of Man.

In ancient Greece, the concept of the perfect man and his corresponding characteristics was a topic of prime philosophizing. More than three centuries before Jesus lived, Plato infamously remarked that a perfectly just and righteous man would inevitably endure horrendous torture, unjust and murder at the hands of humans.

The Cross itself is the direct physical result of sinful actions. Likewise the crucifixion simultaneously represents what the sin of the whole world looks like. It looks like a crucified God, an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, a physical portrait of our rejection of God’s design for humanity.

And yet the Cross exposes how humans, when confronted with God in the flesh and the inauguration of His Kingdom, chose instead to continue living in the ways of Babylon.

Babylon, Death and Violence all thought they put the Son of Man into the grave. The violent display of death on a cross was an attempt to adjudicate the powers and principalities in their case against the Man who sought to overturn their systems.

But Christ’s death and resurrection tore asunder the ordinances of our fallen world and freed it from bondage to the old manner of thinking and in doing so revealed the illegitimacy of their reign and the legitimacy of Christ’s.

References:

– S. G. Wilson, “The Jews and the Death of Jesus in Acts,” In Anti-Judaism in Early  Christianity, Vol. 1 Paul and the Gospels edited by Peter Richardson and David Granskou (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986), 155-164.

– Plato, The Republic, Book II, 360-61.

Thoughts on Privilege

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” – James 1:19 (NET)

They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.” – Titus 3:2 (NET)

Cycles of conflict are perpetuated on the interpersonal and social levels by the failure to listen well and to speak gently. These patterns of hurt and misunderstanding are further provoked by the filters through which every individual sees things through. We all have past experiences that when brought to the surface only aggravate a heated situation. In part, this contributes to the difficulty surrounding public and private conversations regarding contentious topics such as “privilege.”

Keeping this in mind, I’d like to make some observations on this particular subject and the problematic manner in which dialogue about privilege often transpires.

It is readily apparent to most of us that the contemporary social justice movement prioritizes discussions about various forms of “privilege,” white or otherwise. In my estimation, regardless of how we define privilege, the critique seems to boil down to power, who has it and who doesn’t.

In short, this ideological faction, particularly popular among millennials and in academia, identifies and categorizes people based on their perceived advantages over others, especially in contrast or relation to disenfranchised and marginalized groups.

There are of course a great many forms of privilege, according to those attempting to bring attention to it. For every possible anthropological division there is a corresponding class of privilege. For race, there is “White Privilege.” For gender, there is “Male Privilege.” For class, there is “Economic Privilege.” There are also some who claim that those deemed physically attractive by society are privileged.

There has been a great deal of push back towards those who embrace the politics of privilege. Typically this debate is split along party lines, with conservatives arguing vehemently against it, while liberals, especially millennials and college students, continue to vocally disseminate their views through social media, campus events and political campaigns.

To be clear, I’m hardly more than a novice on this issue and have much to learn. As with most issues, I find that both sides have legitimate concerns.

On the one hand I find it nearly impossible to deny that there are, in many regards, real disparities when it comes to race and privilege. In fact, my attention was first brought to this in my time at community college, when a sociology professor of mine had us read So Rich So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America by Peter Edelman.

In this book, statistics were outlined that convincingly showed how minorities were systemically robbed of equal opportunity on the economic and societal playing field, whether through federal/state policies or through insurance codes and gerrymandering. Conservative columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, has also acknowledged how neighborhood zoning restrictions reinforce socio-economic divisions within the country. (Of course Brooks was heavily criticized by the left for one of his so-called insensible examples of privilege referenced later on in his article. However this struck me as an example of the Left protesting too much).

Likewise, theologian and professor Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, well illustrates the racialized white mythology sown into the fabric of the American psyche. She traces this deeply rooted white supremacy from ancient Europe to the Puritans, to the Founders all the way through the Revivalists and into modern American society. As someone has said before, “Racism is as American as apple pie.”

In fact, what is most frustrating about the attempted rebuttals of privilege by many pseudo-intellectual conservatives is their outright denial and/or disregard for history and the factual evidence that clearly indicates the presence of undue bias against minorities in many of our institutional policies. There is either an inability or an unwillingness to examine the skeletons in the closet of American history.

To be fair, there are conservatives who raise legitimate concerns. There is a conversation to be had on the over-reliance on welfare and such. There is also a healthy reminder of the importance of personal responsibility. These are talking points that liberals and progressives should be willing to thoughtfully engage with (as some have). But unfortunately, the loudest voices in conservatism often are the ones attacking straw man representations of liberal thought.

There is also an archaic mindset among Republicans that dogmatically holds to the salvatory nature of personal responsibility. This is the “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” paradigm, which assumes that if one works hard enough, they can and will be successful.

I’m hardly one to deny the importance of personal responsibility or of hard work. I’ve worked my way through college and currently have no debt to my name. However, like most of my fellow students, I come from a relatively affluent middle-class family. I have safety nets that many others, especially poor rural white kids and lower income minorities, don’t have. These safety nets (living at home, having my parents help with community college tuition) have allowed me to succeed. Others don’t have that. That is a form of privilege. And it’s not something to be ashamed of, but something one should always be aware of.

Now if one can apply my logic to any other category, such as race or gender, we will probably discover that there is an element of privilege that exists within each.

The more important question is what do we do with that?

Deconstruction is a necessary and inevitable process. Conservatives by nature are fearful of it. Their identity is built upon conserving and maintaining certain values and traditions.

However, deconstruction without reconstruction never stands the test of time.

More importantly, the zealous vigor that defines the social justice movement’s attempts to deconstruct privilege often do more harm than good.

When we define everyone and everything by their level of privilege, we reduce them to an impersonal force, one that is no longer defined by their personhood, but by their culturally ascribed value or identity. We also forge a new hierarchy and hierarchies always divide rather than unite.

There is also a tendency for conversations surrounding privilege to become unsavory shouting matches. If you’re a conservative on the matter, you’ll be labeled a bigot, a racist or a misogynist. If you’re a liberal on the matter, you’ll be called a snowflake and a host of other names that I will not repeat here.

For example the aforementioned David Brooks, has on many occasions had his reputation maligned and dragged through the mud by various leftist outlets for his supposed elitism and white privilege, but more likely his failure to conform to the liberal worldview.

And in some cases, the mantra “white privilege” is typified by its usage as more of a disparaging remark. As Tal Fortgang has noted in Time, phrases like “Check your privilege” often function more as “a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” rather than “an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am.” And I’ve heard these exact sentiments from white friends of mine, one of which grew up poor and impoverished. In this instance the phrase “Check your privilege” becomes not a catalyst for dialogue, but an insult to the struggle and hard work that got him where he is today.

While it’s true that the core of calling out privilege is supposed to be directed towards the  collective and not the individual, all too often individuals are the ones who suffer.

When we level the charge of privilege at someone, we must realize that we are making a generalization about something that is far beyond their control. Particularly when it comes to race or gender. We define the person merely by their skin color or their genitalia and ascribe their success in life as a result of this. In my opinion this is blatantly simplistic and reductionist. It’s lazy sociology.

Take for example, my grandparents. Both are descendants of European immigrants and grew up in a small farm town in southern Minnesota. According to the social justice movement, they would be called privileged due to their white pigmentation. Now I think most sensible people, my grandparents included, would acknowledge that, especially during the time period they grew up in, a white person was afforded advantages, unconscious or concious, that minorities did not have. This isn’t difficult to admit, particularly if we are talking about white people as a collective. But when someone approaches people like my grandparents and says “your privileged” or “check your privilege” simply because of their skin color, I have to wonder how this is not a form of racism.

Now my liberal detractors will object that “reverse-racism” is a facetious creation. I’m not so sure. But that is a conversation for another time.

My point in these last few paragraphs is not to create unnecessary subterfuge. Rather my  concern is to remind us that an individual is more than their physical appearance. Is is certainly true that some are the unwitting recipients of benefits others do not get. But as Fortgang states, “Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.”

My grandparent’s have gone through more hardship and pain than most will ever endure in a lifetime. Branding them or anyone as the products of their privilege takes away from their personhood.

Now I’m certain many will object to the above tangent. So let me clarify again that I’m not claiming that those who decry the collateral damage of privilege are all downplaying the hardship that white American’s like my grandparents, my parents or even myself have experienced. Rather they are attempting to point out how the world is encountered uniquely and often negatively by person’s of another race or gender. The intent is (usually) not to shame an individual or lessen their background and history.

And this brings me to the heart of my quibble with the liberal-conservative discourse on privilege.

There is a tendency on both sides of the spectrum, for the Right and the Left to eat their own. Anyone who doesn’t uphold the tenets of group think is sacrificed on the altar of conformity. Moderates are crucified by both sides for rejecting the polarization of the binary illusion.

Those who express reservations about certain components of what “privilege” entails are  often not given the benefit of the doubt and their intentions, often well-meaning, are  questioned as their reputation is swiftly debased and thrown under the bus.

So in conclusion, I would offer a cliched reminder. When we engage in tough conversations about topics like privilege, let’s listen graciously, speak slowly and remain evermore curious. Don’t be defined or controlled by identity politics.

The Pearl of the Antilles

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” – Ephesians 4:29 (NET)

They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.” – Titus 3:2 (NET)

Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”               – Proverbs 21:23

 

Eight years ago today a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside. The earthquake took over a hundred thousand lives, destroyed countless homes and displaced millions.

Haiti holds a very special place in my heart and in the heart of my family. I’ve had the privilege of having many Haitians in my life, as friends and as family. I’ve also had the privilege of visiting the island-nation of Haiti a number of times. My father lived in Haiti for seven years as a missionary and is fluent in Creole.

The Haitian people are a joyful people. You can feel it in their music and see it in their smiles.

The Haitian people are a resilient people. You can see it in their eyes. And you can see it in their bodies, which pick themselves up again and again after each new calamity and hardship.

The Haitian people are a generous people. You’ll feel it in their homes and in their presence and with the gifts they give, both physical and spiritual.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Many just assume that this is due to poor self-government on Haiti’s part, but from the birth of the nation in 1804, the forces of white imperialism and racism did everything they could to prevent Haiti from surviving and flourishing.

Haiti was the first black republic in the world and the second free republic in the world (The first was the United States). Haiti’s foundation came as a result of a successful slave revolt against the French. However in order to discourage slaves in the US from revolting the US imposed a total trade embargo enforced by a naval blockade to choke the life out of the newborn nation. Throughout Haiti’s history, it has faced unjust treatment from Western Imperialism, particularly America. This injustice has come in the form of embargoes, sanctions and foreign interventions, both militarily and covert.

But against all odds Haiti survived, and in spite of many internal and international blows against her, Haiti remains a proud nation, strong in spirit.

So it is especially sad and appalling that our current president, who is the descendant of immigrants and whose ancestors joined countless others who left their poor, struggling homelands to come and bring their gifts, talents, heritage and hard work to “make America great” has now insulted America’s own heritage by referring to Haiti (and other nations) as “s***hole countries.”

What has truly “made America great” has been the rich and diverse tapestry of nations and cultures which have all been brought together. Haiti was once known as the pearl of the Antilles and what our country needs more than ever is to see and appreciate the beautiful jewel that each and every people and culture is. Every jewel is created and formed in God’s image and we are to embrace and treasure them as such.

 

Blade Runner 2049

Aesthetically brilliant. Sonically gorgeous. And these are understatements.

Blade Runner 2049 is what cinema artistry is all about.

The pacing, the videography, the score, the dialogue have all been crafted to a degree that clearly denotes the passion driving the makers of this film. Careful, poetic detail has been given to all aspects of this film. The world of Blade Runner 2049 feels real. This is rare in cinema. And under-appreciated by most. Most contemporary films lack true artistic flair. They lack world-building, thoughtful character development and creative, visually enthralling cinematography.

Perhaps many of us lack the ability to appreciate a film that stretches the boundaries of our normative movie-going experience. We settle for movies centered on overwhelming CGI/special effects and non-stop action that purvey the myth of restorative violence and vengeful justice. We settle for movies that reinforce our collective assumptions about the exceptionalism of America.

Movies far too often portray war and violence in and abhorrently unrealistic manner. But even films that refuse to shy away from blood and gore, often ignore the real scars of psychological trauma. Furthermore they perpetuate false dichotomies that present clear, but often misleading boundaries between good and evil.

Now, I’m not implying that a movie must be devoid of all violence for it to be profound or insightful or even entertaining. Nor am I saying that there can’t or isn’t ever good or evil people on either side of a given conflict.

And Blade Runner 2049 contains its share of violence, retributive or otherwise. But what sets a movie like Blade Runner 2049 and the original apart is that the violence isn’t what makes this story so compelling, in every respect. And even if the film is about a “Blade Runner” who “retires” (a euphemism for killing) replicants, the film does not use action simply for the sake of action at least not gratuitously or casually. Rather, the movie is centered around the humanity or perhaps inhumanity of its characters. And in it’s careful focus on these characters and their stories, the film brings out the beauty and darkness of existence. It’s forces the audience to ask poignant questions about science, technology, sexuality, progress and nature.

At some level, all movies can produce thoughtful philosophical and existential insight, but not all movies make this their starting point. Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor is art for the sake of art, as opposed to entertainment for the sake of profit.

And that is what separates the master film from the amateur one.

The ability to pace a plot, the ability to know when more is less and less is more, this skill is what defines something that is truly magisterial.

Many movies can have moments or stretches of brilliance that resonate with us deeply. But when each successive moment, every scene, every second of pulsating music or silence or tension, resonates with our eyes and ears and hearts, that’s when a movie has earned the title of a magnum opus.

And Blade Runner 2049 has earned that title.

 

The Dialectic of the Two Ditches

Greek mythology tells the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who construct wings so that they may flee from their captor King Minos. As they prepare to leave, Daedalus warns his son that he must not fly too high or too low in order to protect the wax of the wings from being melted by the heat of the sun or soaked from the spray of the waters below. However Icarus fails to follow his father’s advice, foolishly flying higher and higher until the sun melts the wax holding his wings together. Icarus falls into the sea, to his death.

It was also the Ancient Greek philosophers who coined the term “golden mean,” or the notion that every virtue was a balance between two extremes, not unlike walking a tightrope. In a sense, life is a lot like walking a tightrope. It’s a delicate balance where if you lean a little too far in either direction, the result is equally disastrous. I have come to see, along with the ancient Greeks, that in many if not most cases in life, the true path of wisdom is a matter of avoiding the two ditches of partial or incomplete truth which lie on either side.

To avoid the two ditches is to live in a tension between two apparent opposites. That is essentially what a dialectic is. In life each individual must navigate their own pathway. Every person walks a unique path, but like our roads, every path is paralleled on either side by a ditch. The two ditches represent polar opposites, the radical extremes on each end of a spectrum. There are some who choose to walk in these ditches, entirely aware of where they are. Others unintentionally fall into one of the ditches and keep on walking as if they’d never left the path. They become oblivious to the damage they are inflicting on both themselves and on others.

There are many reasons we fall into these ditches. In order to illustrate let me use an example from theology. Christians confess that Jesus is somehow both fully human and yet at the same time fully divine. These apparent contradictions must be kept in tension, or we risk falling victim to either the over-emphasis of Christ’s humanity (the heresy of Arianism) or the over-emphasis of Christ’s divinity (the heresy of Docetism).

But the danger regarding the two ditches isn’t just about avoiding two extremes, it can also come in the form of setting two truths against each other. When we pit a position on one end of a truth-spectrum against a position on the other end of that spectrum, polarization occurs. This is most prevalent in American politics. What are sometimes meant to be truths held together in tension are instead seen as incompatible ideas that cannot be reconciled with each other. One is seen as the correct way to do things, while the other is seen as the antithesis of what should be done. Perhaps we need to start seeing some of the seemingly conflicting ideologies as complementary pieces of a more comprehensive and balanced perspective.

This polarization is most widely illustrated in the broken two-party political system here in America and particularly in the culture wars being waged around various issues. It often can seem like the conservative and progressive ideologies could not be further apart from each other. In some sense they are. However I would like to suggest that this is not always the case. For example, it is not uncommon to encounter a more liberal leaning person who will tend to advocate for individual freedom. Conversely, many conservative leaning people, will tend to advocate for individual responsibility. Likewise, those on the left tend to support social or collective responsibility, while the right supports social or collective freedom. Both sides consistently claim that they are in the right and that the other is sorely mistaken, often caricaturing and demonizing each other. But can it really be said that either side is entirely wrong? Or exclusively right? Perhaps in clinging to an either-or paradigm instead of a dialectical view, both sides end up in opposing ditches, in unnecessary conflict with each other.

Of course, it is also true that this polarization is spurred on by legitimate differences. Sometimes these differences are generational. When a previous generation has taken a particular stance on an issue, one that leaves them in one of the ditches, the pendulum is bound to swing towards the opposite direction at some point in the future. The next generation rightfully rejects the one-sided extremism of their predecessors and rushes to the other side and ultimately embraces a new extremism. Some would argue that this explains the contrast between the extremes of over the top political correctness and the corresponding rise of “PC pushback” that has emerged recently. My primary contention with the analogy of the ditches is that often in our rejection of one extreme, we simply replace it with another.

But there is another way, especially for those of us who follow Christ. Some call it the third way, or perhaps the narrow road. This way is a way that should be guided by the fruits of the spirit. Somehow, Jesus called both a far-right tax collector, who upheld the status quo, and a far-left zealot, who believed in overthrowing the establishment, to come together and abandon their extremist ideologies. The truly wise will try to see the validity of opposing views and to discover the understandable concerns beneath what seem to be distasteful or wrongheaded opinions. There are of course times when a line in the sand has to be drawn, but that does not mean we have to leave the middle way in favor of either one of the ditches. Most importantly our journey on this path should always err on the side of mercy, of justice, the side of peace and self-sacrifice. Jesus called Matthew and Simon to follow a middle path of mutual acceptance and understanding in addition to being a prophetic voice of cultural challenge. The Gospel and the teachings of Christ compel us to follow this example. May we reject the ditches in our lives and in so doing, show the world something radically distinct.

– A shorter version of this article was published in the online Bethel University newspaper The Clarion:

The dialectic of the two ditches