Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Onward Christian Soldiers?

I have been away from blogging for some time. I am working on a book on eschatology and needed to get some material to my editor. I am returning with a commitment to write more frequently and less lengthily! Writing for me is a way to get my thoughts in some order. I trust others will find my thoughts helpful and perhaps even interesting. In the end, however, I write to make sense of my own struggle to understand and communicate what God is doing within me and within the world. I will also use the blog to describe what I am reading. I am frequently asked about my reading, so here is my chance to let you know and to make some recommendations.

Recently I have been working my way through Peter Gomes’ book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He is widely regarded one of the country’s great preachers. I purchased his latest book (ironically at a bookstore right across the street from Harvard yard) last spring. I have been reading a chapter each morning as part of my time of prayer. I was particularly struck by the chapter “The Gospel and Conflict.” Many of these pieces were written during the run up to and the immediate aftermath of the beginning of the war in Iraq. In “The Gospel and Conflict” Gomes explores Christian squeamishness over images of and engagement in conflict.

He begins by citing the Christian tradition of militant hymnody. Many of us were raised with rousing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Stand Up, Stand Up, for Jesus”, and “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” Most of these hymns have been eliminated from mainline hymnals because of their militant images and triumphalist rhetoric. But Gomes wonders if we really read these hymns well. The Bible and the evidence of our own lives would suggest it is a struggle to follow Jesus and live faithfully in a world filled with many enemies. It is, in fact, naive to pretend otherwise. The Apostle Paul certainly understood the nature of the conflict. He encouraged us to put on God’s armor, to fight the good fight, to face down the spiritual forces ranged against us.

There is no question that our culture is engaged in deadly conflict. This conflict is not chiefly military or even political. The real conflict is over what sort of people we will be—both individually and corporately. The real conflict is, for Gomes, seen in Gandhi’s seven social sins. I would suggest Western culture is deeply entrapped in these sins and that the church must accept the role of struggle and conflict to address them:

• Politics without principle

• Wealth without work

• Commerce without morality

• Pleasure without conscience

• Education without character

• Science without humanity

• Worship without sacrifice

The first in each pair is a good thing distorted and ruined by human weakness and sin. God has called the church to the inevitable conflict engendered when Christians faithfully call for and live out the virtues that balance and ameliorate the dangers of a “good” that can become evil. If we surrender the fight, we are doomed as a culture and a people.  Without the conflict, we are lost.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Culture of Voyeurs

The country is professing shock today at the suicide of Tyler Clementi. The Rutgers freshman killed himself by jumping from the George Washington bridge after his roommate Dharun Ravi recorded Clementi having sex with a man. Ravi then invited others to join him in watching another recorded encounter between Clementi and the man. This is only one of a number of recent teen suicides brought on by bullying, brutality and humiliation. Rene Girard would call this a form of scapegoating. Clementi was sacrificed to preserve the power and group identity of his tormenters. In uncertain times scapegoating produces unanimity and an ersatz, strictly temporary “peace”. When that “peace” is frazzled, it is time to find another scapegoat, another victim to sacrifice. What happens on a small scale in classrooms, dorm rooms, playgrounds and corporate offices happens on a larger scale in parliaments, palaces, and capital cities. Whether it is Islamic radicals rallying their followers against America, the “great Satan” or fundamentalist preachers threatening to burn the Koran the outcome is the same. In other words, what happened to Tyler Clementi was, so far as humanity is concerned, business as usual.

While many in the media are professing shock at what happened I am yet to hear anyone wonder if the climate nurtured by our media contributed to the suicide of Clementi. It is not that our media are any nastier than, say, the reporters and political cartoonists of the 19th century. Reporting, particularly political reporting, has always been a vicious game. It is rather that our current media people have more powerful tools to humiliate and denigrate their opponents. We have become used to “gotcha” journalism—reporters waiting around for a politician or other public figure to say something incautious. Reporters complain about political figures who speak in a careful and scripted manner. But when every offhand and thoughtless remark can be rebroadcast and distorted throughout the 24 hour news cycle, it is little wonder our politicians say as little as possible. “Gotcha” journalism is particularly evident during this political season. The suggestion that Social Security may need to be overhauled, for example, is distorted into a charge that this candidate wants to take away the social safety net and let seniors starve to death!

Savage mockery and brutal distortions for the sake of political gains or ratings growth is as American as apple pie. We see it every day on CNN and Fox. Its very popularity is a damning indictment of our culture. We evidently long to see the “other” humiliated. We long to see “our side” vindicated even if it as at the expense of the truth and common decency. Yes, sometimes the actions of our leaders need to be exposed and challenged. Yes, questions should be raised about going to war or raising taxes or bailing out banks. But if we accept the cruelties and venalities of junk journalism, if we put endure without protest the lies and distortions of pundits and politicians, we make ourselves complicit in a culture of corruption—the kind of culture that leads a young man to kill himself because someone thought it a hoot to expose and ridicule him.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Internet and Civil Discourse

I was a child during the McCarthy hearings, a teenager during the key years of the civil rights struggle, and a young adult during the escalation of the Vietnam War. I have lived through protests and riots, murders and assassinations. I remember James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner buried in an earthen dam in Mississippi in 1964. I remember vividly the assassinations of John Kennedy in 1963 and of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. In many ways the latter year, the year I graduated from high school, was one of the worst in American history. For me the 50s were no “golden era” in American history, but a time of brutality and conflict over the very soul of the country. I grew up in the American south, in Tennessee and saw and heard the racism and xenophobia that held my home state and region in thrall.

You would think that having lived through all this I would take our current conflicts in stride. As far as we know there are no bodies buried in Mississippi dams. Protests have been rather mild. No major political figure has been assassinated—yet. And yet, I find myself more concerned, more fearful of the state of the country than I ever have been. I fear we are standing at the brink of an era of bigotry and bloodshed that will make the 50s and 60s seem tame in comparison. I say this because we are living in an era of dehumanization fostered by the anonymity of the internet and the outrageous behavior of media personalities who mock, sneer, and demean their opponents with evident impunity. And the first step to brutality and murder is dehumanization.

Throughout the 20th century, perhaps the most murderous century in human history, the first step to genocide was dehumanization. Whether the hated minorities were capitalists or communists, Jews or Serbs, Hutus or Tutsis, the strategy was the same. They were vermin, cockroaches or leeches. There were infections or cancers on the body politic. They were diminished with crude epithets and mocked via cartoonish depictions. They were less than human. As a result they could be killed with impunity. Who worries over much about the fate of a rat? Whether they were locked up in camps, lined up and shot, imprisoned and starved to death, or sunk in misery at the margins of society, dehumanization was an aid to their demise.

Whether we are given the language of demonization by Glenn Back or Keith Olbermann, whether it comes from the Tea Party or Moveon.org, the result is the same. Human beings are reduced at best to intellectual stick figures and at worst to insects or viruses to be eliminated at all costs. Although the media and our politicians are to blame for fanning the flames of bigotry and fear, we are to blame for listening and responding. We no longer hear genuine concerns. We scoff at honest objections. As a result, truth is a victim of ideology. I have my views and convictions like everyone else. But I want to listen—because I could be wrong. And perhaps more important, I know people whose views are very different than mine who are generous, loving, good-hearted people—many in my own family.

It is tempting in such a brutal time to fall into despair. And I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that there are days I want to find that cabin in the woods. I am genuinely concerned about the world I am bequeathing to the grandchild that is on the way. But I am a Christian. And that means I live in hope. Not the “hope” or “change” offered every four years by politicians, but the hope of the new heavens and the new earth--the hope of resurrection. And I believe that the job of the church is to bring the light and life of the coming kingdom into the darkness and death of the present. Years ago Stanley Hauerwas argued that the failure of a Christian couple to desire children is a failure of hope and faith. Having children, he suggested, was a way of declaring our confidence in God in spite of the circumstances. So I look forward to welcoming a granddaughter and live in faith, hope, and love. But I also hope for a world in which she will be able to state her views without being diminished and scorned.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why are Christians So Afraid of Muslims?

I can perhaps understand why secular or anti-religious people would fear Islam. It can appear to be fearsome, monolithic and intransigent. Strong, single-minded faith is always perplexing to people who have none. But I am stunned that so many Christians seem to be swept away by the anti-Muslim tide. I am particularly perplexed that Evangelical Christians are frequently in the forefront of opposing mosques or (shudder) burning the Koran. From an Evangelical standpoint this amounts to, if nothing else, attacking one’s own mission field—at the very least a foolish and destructive thing to do. But there is more to it than that. I wonder—why should Christians be as afraid of Muslims as Muslims evidently are afraid of them?

Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued in his numerous books that the Christian Church has always been strongest when it has faced a challenge. It grew amidst the hostility of the Roman Empire and entrenched paganism. It flourished when it was forced to clearly define itself and live out of its unique and powerful convictions about the nature and purposes of the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, Messiah and Lord. Stark suggests that when the church lacked the challenge of opposition and the necessity of clear self-definition it became flaccid, colorless, and empty. The challenge of the Reformation made the Catholic Church clearly define itself and clean up accumulated abuses. The challenge of varied denominations and traditions made the smaller Protestant churches more effective in mission. It was religious competition, Stark argues, that made the church in the United States strong when the state churches of Europe were shrinking. The challenge of the other made the church pay closer attention to its identity and mission.

The presence of Muslims or Hindus or any other religious tradition in a given area is no threat to the churches of Jesus Christ. These varied traditions can bring out the best in the church by forcing it to identify differences and challenges and pursue new ways of witness and welcome. I would suggest that the fact that most Muslim countries marginalize the Christian Church it or keep it out entirely is a sign that Muslims fear Christian witness and lack confidence in their own tradition and own people. Does the Christian Church in the United States really want to follow the same path? I think not. We have nothing to fear from the “competition” of Muslims. Rather than protesting the mosques, we should welcome them with open arms, with the compassion and generosity of Christ, and with genuine love. I find anti-Mulsim sentiments among Christians extraordinarily repugnant and terribly sad.

John E. Phelan , Jr.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Anne Rice and Harvey Cox and the Future of Christianity

Author Anne Rice has announced that she is leaving Christianity ten years after a much-ballyhooed conversion. According to comments reported by CNN, she found herself unable to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science and anti-democrat.” She continues, “It is simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” I have a good deal of sympathy for Rice. Hardly a day goes by without my being humiliated by the words or actions of one of my erstwhile co-religionists. Consider the brutally hateful rhetoric of Fred Phelps and his minions of “God Hates Fags” (in)fame or the recently announced plan by an individual claiming to follow Jesus to burn the Koran. Week after week the word Christian is covered with slime by pedophile priests, hypocritical preachers, and the church’s own bruising internal battles. Epithets are hurled from the right and the left in battles over human sexuality, abortion, and, in local churches, how one worships God. Although some Christians loudly denounce the “liberal media” or “godless atheists” for our bad press, most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

In his recent book The Future of Faith theologian Harvey Cox argues that the church made a disastrously wrong turn within the first four centuries of its existence. The “age of faith”, characterized by creativity, energy, compassion, and expansion gave way to the “age of belief”. During the age of faith, “sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each others and ‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.” (Cox pg. 5) It was a chaotic, theologically fecund, and breathtakingly diverse period. But it was not to last.

Cox argues that the need for the catechesis of new believers ultimately replaced “faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” (Cox pg. 5) This process was greatly enhanced when Christian leaders were seduced by the power and privilege of imperial patronage after the “conversion” of Constantine. Like all political elites the bishops wanted uniformity and stability. Above all they wanted to hang onto their own power. According to Cox the creeds and confessions of the church grew out of this desire for peace and stability. Margins were set. Heresy was defined. “From an energetic movement of faith,” Cox argues, “[Christianity] coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalist for centuries to come.” (Cox pg. 6)

In spite of much brutality and stupidity the “Age of Belief” was not totally bleak. Great works of beauty, wisdom, and compassion were produced. Saints that recalled the original spirit of Jesus operated at the margins of the church until they were co-opted by the center. Nevertheless, Cox remains hopeful that Christianity can recapture its founding ethos. He suggests we are entering a new “Age of the Spirit”. He sees hope for Christianity in the global south where “the Spirit, muted and muffled for centuries, is breaking its silence and staging a delayed ‘return of the repressed.’” (Cox 9, 10). The Spirit’s work will not be in a straight line: it blows where it will. It will be once again be messy, chaotic and uncontrollable. It will make ecclesiastical bureaucrats nervous and perhaps bring down the corrupt structures of the organized church. But out of the chaos the Spirit of Christ will brood over a new creation.

Some years ago my friend Dr. G. Timothy Johnson suggested to me that he no longer felt comfortable being labeled a “Christian”. Rather he wanted to be known as a “follower of Jesus.” I think Tim is onto something and, evidently, so does Anne Rice. “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic, atheist, lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me,” she writes. “But following Christ does not mean following his followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

Evangelicalism was given birth by Pietism. The Pietists argued that following Jesus was more important the believing all the right things about him. To follow Jesus was to live the life of a disciple, preaching good news, healing the sick, caring for the poor—adhering to what Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed: loving God and neighbor. Evangelicals have always emphasized experience over creed and confession. Most evangelical churches, including my own Evangelical Covenant Church, were non-confessional. They respected the ancient creeds but did not canonize them. The modern attempt by some to turn Evangelicals into, say, confessional Calvinists violates not only the spirit of Evangelicalism but risks robbing it of its spirit and life. When Evangelicals harden their theology and practice they are not consolidating their future, but eroding the very life and health of the movement.

At our best we welcome Anne Rice and everyone like her. She does not have to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, and anti-democrat” to be a follower of Jesus! This is not to say every Jesus follower will agree with her—this seldom happens in Evangelicalism or anywhere else. But everyone should love her, include her, and engage her—and everyone like her. I am glad Anne Rice is still a follower of Jesus. But we need her voice within the Christian community reminding us of the irresponsibly loving presence of Jesus within the derelict structures of institutional Christianity. Perhaps even now the Spirit of God is preparing a fresh wind to sweep through the corruptions and stupidities the characterize Christianity. I trust that Evangelicals will put up their sails to catch this wind. I can’t say, however, I am optimistic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Christian Jerks

Last week a popular blogger raised a pressing question: why are Christians such jerks online? He cited the sheer offensive nastiness of some and the whiney defensiveness of others. If you have visited the blogosphere on a regular basis you know what he is talking about. Some avowed followers of the Prince of Peace seem to relish violent, abusive attacks on their theological, political, and social opponents. Of course, Christian jerks are found everywhere: from the calculated anti-gay ugliness of Kansas’ Fred Phelps, to the anti-Obama screeds of fundamentalist preachers, to the borderline anti-Semitic rants against Israel by “social justice” Christians. Cringing at such misrepresentations of our faith, many of us resonated with the “Confessional Booth” story in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Like those Reed College students we would like to tell non-Christians we are sorry for the misbehavior of the church and many individual Christians.

All of this raises another question: Why aren’t we better? If we have been transformed by the Spirit of God and are to radiate the love of Christ, why are we so often characterized by foaming-at-the-mouth nastiness? It is too simple to say “Well those folks are not true Christians.” We are not the first generation to suffer from “Christian jerks.” We must acknowledge centuries of cruelty and violence, verbal and otherwise, done in the name of Christ. Recently Pope Benedict admitted, referring to the sexual abuse scandal, that the real “persecution” of the Catholic Church was from within. Or, as Pogo would put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Some years ago a North Park Theological Seminary student wrote a paper arguing for a “discipline of silence.” He argued that Christian mistreatment of Jews over the centuries was so horrendous and inexcusable that Christians had lost the right to speak to them of Christ. He suggested that Christians put a moratorium on evangelizing Jews until they had earned the right to speak through love, generosity of spirit and sheer humanity. Last week members of the Marin Foundation, a Christian organization ministering to the gay community, followed the example of those Reed College Christians. They donned t-shirts that read “I’m Sorry”. On behalf of the Christian community they expressed sorrow and shame at the shabby way the gay community has been treated by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians.

Neither my student nor the Marin foundation would suggest we no longer bear witness to Christ. But perhaps both would suggest that we once more earn the right to speak of Jesus by living like him for a change. A Christian ideology (I chose the term advisedly) without a Christian identity is a potentially deadly thing. We are not called simply to believe things about Jesus, but to follow him.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conversations between Jews and Evangelicals

We met at the venerable Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where, over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King met with Jewish leaders to develop strategies for the civil rights movement. About 40 of us were crammed into a small basement auditorium around long, thin tables—half of us Evangelical leaders from various churches, organizations and institutions and half of us Jewish leaders from various synagogues, organizations and institutions. The Jewish leaders were Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructionist. The Evangelicals also came from across the spectrum—Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican, and, of course, Evangelical Covenant, among others. The Jewish community has been meeting for years with leaders from mainline and Roman Catholic Churches, but this was only the second meeting of the type with Evangelicals. Over two days we considered how we might have civil but frank conversations. We explored the response of the Christian church to the foundation of the state of Israel. We explored our common commitment to social justice and our common struggle to come to terms with Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Some of us had been in conversations with Jews for a number of years. I have met regularly with a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to study scripture and discuss the challenges faced by the Jewish community in the United States and Israel. For many this was a new conversation—and a fascinating one. What did we learn?

1. For the vast majority of Jews the distinction is not Zionist or Anti-Zionist, but Hawkish or Dovish. Even the most liberal Jews support Israel and value it as a place for the Jews to preserve their culture, faith and community. One leader suggested Zionism was a “cardinal tenet” of Judaism. All Jews long for peace and justice for the Jews in Israel. But they differ on how these goals might be accomplished. One Orthodox leader said that although Israel would not be fully realized until Messiah came, “It is better to wait for Messiah in Tel Aviv than Warsaw.”

2. Although much of the world looks at Israel as powerful and dominant, neither American Jews nor the Jews in Israel feel powerful. They feel fragile and threatened. Even the most liberal are discouraged. One person said, “We got out of Gaza and got rockets in return.” They feel like the rest of the world wants them to lie supine in the face of violence and aggression. They were attacked for setting up buffer zones and so they backed away from them. They were vilified for the incursion into the Gaza to halt the rocket attacks. So they set up blockades and check points, perhaps the least violent, if still distasteful, alternative to stop the rockets and other weapons from being brought to Hamas—and there were still howls of protest. What are their options to keep their homes from being shelled and their citizens from being blown up on buses and in cafes? Giving “land for peace” hasn’t really worked so far. Why would they trust their opponents to stop the rockets and suicide bombings if they eliminated the blockade and checkpoints and tore down the wall? There is little evidence to suggest the extremists among the Palestinians would restrain themselves. What would the world have them to do?

3. Nevertheless, every Jewish leader was distressed and frustrated over the suffering of the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Many were unhappy with the heavy handedness of the Israeli government. At the same time they wondered where were their conversation partners? Who was willing in this difficult climate to really work with them to find peace? Many worried that the opportunity for a two-state solution was slipping away.

4. Most of them understood that Christians lived with an obligation to share their faith. But they refused to be in communication with any group that specifically targeted Jews. They were especially distressed by groups like Jews for Jesus, whom they thought were trying to redefine what a Jew was. One rabbi said, if a Jew becomes of Christian we are sad, but such things happen. But we do not like the deception of saying you can be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. Some Evangelical leaders found this difficult to grasp. I suggested that perhaps it was right that we let the Jewish community decide who was and was not a Jew.

5. The Jews have a rich history of social justice concerns, but some in the room felt that of late the word “justice” was being used as a club against them. Why, they wondered, was it peace and safety for Israel and peace and justice for the Palestinians? Didn’t the Israelis deserve justice as well? They were particularly concerned about the nearly universal hostility of the liberal mainline church to Israel. In some cases they thought the line was crossed from appropriate criticism to anti-Semitism. They had no trouble with criticisms of the actions of the government of Israel. They insisted that criticizing the government of Israel is a spectator sport among Jews in the United States and Israel. But for many Jews in this country it has become difficult to raise criticism when they sense the state is always, and often unfairly, under attack. They feel the positive things done by the state of Israel are chronically under reported and generally ignored.

It was a fascinating, provocative, and at times passionate conversation. I think we all had a sense of camaraderie and even common purpose. We all want Israel and the Palestinians to live in peace and safety and with justice. Many of the Evangelicals were involved in ministries to build bridges between the two groups. We also all wanted healthy and positive relationships between Jews and Evangelicals. We want to be able to call each other when there was a difficulty, question, or opportunity for collaboration. I think we also found common ground as believers in God who take our faith commitments very seriously. These conversations are important and will continue. I hope to be a part of them for years to come.

John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Israelis, Palestinians, and Rene Girard

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a paper for the “Theology and Peace Conference” held on the campus of North Park University. I was invited to give the paper by my friend Michael Hardin, seminary alumnus, member of the Theology and Peace board, and author of The Jesus Driven Life. Theology and Peace seeks to apply the insights of Rene Girard to the theology and life of the Christian Church. Throughout his long and prestigious academic career Girard has developed and promoted his theory of “mimetic rivalry” and “scapegoating”. He has argued that human beings learn what is desirable from other human beings. That is, we imitate the desires of others. Introduce a new toy into a group of happily playing toddlers. They may ignore the new toy until one of them expresses an interest in it. The once ignored toy is suddenly intensely interesting. Screeching and hair pulling is likely to follow.

Girard argues that primitive society suffered from the violence of mimetic rivalry. Limited resources and unlimited desires resulted in a war of all against all. Humans finally realized that perpetual violence was not conducive to survival and sought a means to check the violence and bloodshed. At some point in the murky past they seized on the notion of a scapegoat. If one person or group of persons could be blamed for the violence and punished or destroyed the violence would be diverted and dissipated. The “scapegoats” needn’t be guilty of any great crime. They could be people at the margins of society, odd men and women out. Or they could be randomly selected from the community. All that was necessary was that the society unified itself against them and literally or metaphorically sacrificed them. The sacrifice of the scapegoat would bring temporary unity and peace until the next “mimetic crisis” required additional sacrifices.

Girard develops his theory in a series of brilliant works including, most notably, The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, Girard immediately saw the application of his theory to the death of Jesus. He argued that in effect Jesus is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He exposes the mechanism for what it is: a crude but effective means of bringing temporary peace by focusing the hatred and loathing of the majority on a despised minority. As a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus the veil of secrecy is lifted and the mechanism’s effectiveness begins to wane. It becomes clear that the victim of scapegoating is not guilty or at least not so guilty as to merit destruction. For human beings to find genuine peace scapegoating and its attendant sacrifices must be rejected and love of God and neighbor must be pursued.

This week the Middle East has been once again in the news. The Israelis bumbled into a public relations disaster when they boarded a ship bringing supplies to blockaded Gaza. The raid on the flotilla produced a howl of protest around the world. Israeli leaders responded as belligerently as their opponents in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. I was reminded of another conference I attended at North Park. This meeting focused on “Christian Zionism,” that is, Christians who support the state of Israel. I was asked to give a short talk at the end of the meetings summing up the conference. I cited the work of Girard and suggested that the crisis in Israel was not likely to be addressed until both sides stopped “scapegoating” the other. Israel has become the source of all evil in the Arab world and thus a source of unity between otherwise fractious states. The Palestinians and their suicide bombers have provided the Israeli leaders with a convenient source of unity and outrage.

In the United States the left tends to excoriate Israel and throw its support behind the Palestinians. The right tends to attack the Palestinians and stand solidly behind Israel. Israel and the Palestinians become additional proxies in the ongoing fruitless and idiotic conflict between right and left. That Israel is genuinely threatened and that the Palestinians are genuinely suffering seems not as significant as winning points against your opponent. The reflexive support of one or the other regardless of their actions serves neither party well. It only serves the propaganda needs of people on either extreme of the issue. It only furthers the scapegoating violence.

My Orthodox Rabbi friend has children and grandchildren in Israel. He longs for them to grow up in peace and safety. He wants them to be able to sip coffee at a café without fearing for their lives. He wants them to be able to worship and live with freedom. There are many grandfathers in Gaza who want the same for their children and grandchildren. They want them to live free from the threat of violence, from the bitterness of sanctions, blockades, walls and checkpoints. As long as their leaders eagerly use hatred and fear of the other to sustain their power and undergird their moral authority, that is, as long as they scapegoat the other, both of their hopes seem forlorn.

Christians are not to scapegoat. We, perhaps more than others, should see its perniciousness. Our own history is a sordid tale of scapegoating violence. It has taken us years to see clearly that the gospel does not sacrifice the victim, but sets the victim free. Christians refuse the crudity of scapegoating. We refuse to blame the liberals or the conservatives, the African Americans or the Jews, the Catholics or the Fundamentalists, the Muslims or the Atheists. We refuse the cheap and easy assumption of evil at the margins, the smug assignment of blame and disdain. We do not sacrifice—we love. Can we, together, contribute to the peace of Jerusalem? Sadly, if this week is any indication, I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Talking but Not Listening

In his book American Protestantism and a Jewish State Hertzel Fishman describes the disagreements between pro-Arab and pro-Israel Protestants following the establishment of the state of Israel as follows:

The rival groups in American Protestantism were simply talking past one another with neither group answering the other’s viewpoint convincingly. The position of the pro-Israel faction who argued Israel’s security needs, was ignored by the pro-Arab group. The latter’s claim for justice for the refugees was all but brushed aside by the former group. (pg. 129)

Nothing much has changed, I thought, reading these lines. To this day such conversations often amount to little more than verbal struggles for the moral high ground. Few are really open to being convinced by the other. Few are willing to really learn or really hear the other. In a black and white world of heroes and villains we assign noble goals to our favorites and sordid motivations to our chosen adversaries. Undoubtedly some of us listen and learn eagerly. Some of us overcome our skepticism, if not our convictions, long enough to ponder the positions of our opponents. But this seems increasingly rare.

Last week I inadvertently initiated a (fairly mild) conflict with members of my own family when one of my siblings posted one of those ubiquitous Facebook polls. The poll read as follows: “Do you approve of Obama’s decision to skip the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to go on vacation?” My objection to this poll question had little to do with whether skipping the ceremony was a good thing or bad. I rather objected to the way it was put. First it uses “Obama” rather than “President Obama” or even “Mr. Obama.” During the years of George W. Bush’s presidency his last name was used in similar and equally disrespectful ways. Second, I was put off by the phrase “to go on vacation.” This implies that a rare weekend in Chicago with his family was the equivalent of “going on vacation.” It also suggests President Obama intended to do nothing to honor American dead on Memorial Day—also untrue. I suggested the poll question was about as fair as asking, “Should Bush have launched a preemptive war that killed thousands of innocent Iraqis?”

Be all that as it may, this poll and the conflict that followed underscored for me how poorly we engage in significant conversations about important things. We often seek advantage not clarity. We frequently seek to silence our opponents, not understand them. Now it may surprise some of you, but I am a real fan of conflict avoidance. I would rather not get into arguments over the relative merits of the Republicans and Democrats. I would just as soon skip the fulminating about the perfidious behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis. And please don’t try to rally me to your cause on the issues of hymns and praise choruses. I am definitely an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of guy. When all else fails, I would argue, keep your mouth shut! Now this may keep the peace (especially important in a family!), but it seldom helps us solve our most intractable human problems. If the Arabs and Israelis really want to engage their differences (and there are plenty on both sides of the issue who have little interest in doing so), they are going to need to listen to each other. If those who are concerned about the poor who lack the most basic healthcare and those troubled by the growth in government spending are ever going to find common ground, they will need to stop shouting at one another.

A perfect example of all this is the ongoing uproar over the Arizona law requiring people suspected of being illegal aliens to produce their papers they are requested by a policeman. On the right people cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” while the left accuses such people of racism. Neither side, I think, is really listening to the other. No country can be expected to permit unlimited and unchecked immigration without significant fraying of its infrastructure and support systems. On the other hand, it seems likely that persons targeted by police will have darker skin and Hispanic accents. And would the law’s supporters be happy if the police had the right at any time to demand that any of us show our “papers”? Such a demand reminds one of an eastern European country under Communism! All this is to say that the conversation could be carried on around different poles than “illegals” and “racists”. Could we ask what are the conditions impoverishing our southern neighbors? Could we discern whether the labor needs of southwestern agriculture could be effectively served by more readily granted work permits? Could we open our hearts to children brought into this country as infants who have no legal status but are in every way as American as the other kids in their grammar and high schools. Could we sit still long enough to genuinely hear the concerns of the other? I have my doubts.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Humility and Humanity

Recently the evangelical world in the United States has endured two more embarrassing scandals involving prominent public figures. George Rekers, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality, gay rights and gay marriage was “outed” for hiring a gay “rentboy” to tour Europe with him. His explanation that the young man was hired to carry his luggage was received with a considerable amount to skepticism. Just last week Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, an ardent advocate for morality and “family values” resigned after admitting a long affair with a much younger staffer. Souder was savaged by commentator Rachel Maddow for making an “abstinence only” video with this very woman. I have no intention of adding to the mockery and abuse heaped on Rekers and Souder. Quite the contrary. I have a good deal of sympathy for them. This sympathy is grounded in my own sinfulness and brokenness. I am a fallen and sinful human being, like Rekers and Souder and, for that matter, everyone who reads these words. As my colleague Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “Ain’t none of us straight.”

My problem with many of my fellow evangelicals is that they don’t seem to fully grasp this. Every time put themselves forward as public scolds and the arbiters of moral correctness, they alienate the very people they are trying to reach and set themselves up for a brutal fall. Why, I have often wondered, do they have to sound so angry, so embittered, and so scornful in attacking the many failings of their fellow citizens? Don’t they realize how this goes over? Can’t they grasp how unappealing, how cruel, and how bitter they sound? And, perhaps more to the point are they completely unaware of their own “twisted little hearts” bent toward self indulgence and security? I have reflected many times on how attractive Jesus was to sinners. They flocked to him. They listened to him. They knew he understood their brokenness and loved them anyway. I don’t think many contemporary sinners find American evangelicals attractive. When they think of us they don’t think of love. They rather think of supercilious condemnation and outright hatred.

American evangelicals need a new strategy. This strategy must be founded upon humility, modesty, compassion, and humanity. We need to see our “opponents” as objects of love, however scornful they are of our values; however much they mock our convictions. Too often evangelicals justify their outrageous rhetoric by claiming the role of prophet. But Israel’s prophets for the most part addressed the failings of their own. Evangelical leaders in the United States seem to spend most of their time these days assaulting their own mission field for the sake of their “base” of outraged traditionalists. There is much to criticize in our current culture. There is much to be distressed about and to weep over. But none of it will be addressed by throwing rocks from the moral high ground. None of it will be addressed by pursuing political power and hoping for the right kind of Supreme Court justices. None of it will be addressed by noisy protests in Washington or angry letters to the editor. It will rather be addressed by the most common, ordinary acts of humble, generous love.

I must add that “right wing” Christians have not cornered the market on moral superiority and public scorn. “Social justice” Christians can be just as high minded, harsh, and intransigent as their more conservative brothers and sisters. They can also call “prophetic” what is merely bad manners and simpering arrogance. They can profess love for the “oppressed” while they despise the benighted “fundamentalist.” An angry and hateful “social justice” Christian is no more attractive than an angry and hateful “fundamentalist.” Jesus called us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. He made it clear that neighbor was not just people we agreed with but the irritating liberal at the next desk or the ignorant fundamentalist across the hall. Our public impact as followers of Jesus will continue to wane unless we are able to acknowledge our own sinfulness and love the unlovable—as God as loved us.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Privatizing Reconciliation

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has written widely and well about the challenges of reconciliation and forgiveness. His book Exclusion and Embrace is widely recognized as a classic and Free of Charge is also highly regarded. There is nothing sentimental about Volf’s approach to the challenges of reconciliation. He was raised as a Pentecostal in Communist Yugoslavia and suffered marginalization and abuse for his faith. He also watched his country fall into brutality and genocide in the 1990s. He is well aware of the human capacity for unspeakable evil. And yet, he insists that for Christians seeking reconciliation is foundational. He argues in his aptly titled essay “The Core of the Faith” in Against the Tide that “a vision of reconciliation” is the governing reality of Christian faith. God seeks in Christ to reconcile all things to himself—each broken sinner, every battered society, even the crumbling world.

The problem, Volf argues, is that we have “privatized reconciliation.” We have made it only a kind of spiritual exchange between an individual and God. Such reconciliation is real and important. Writing of Paul’s conversion, he insists that Paul encountered a God who sought reconciliation with the persecutor, not punishment for his victims. The reconciliation between Paul and God was profoundly significant. But Paul never saw this personal reconciliation as the last word. He spent his life seeking reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between urban pagans and his tiny Christian communities, and even between those small groups of Christians and the mighty Roman Empire. In Romans 8 he wrote movingly of the groaning hope and anticipated redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8:18-25). Paul knew that his personal reconciliation with God had corporate implications. He wanted his congregations to seek reconciliation within their communities and without. He wanted them to forgive their brothers and sisters and love their enemies. For Paul reconciliation was not a personal possession but a corporate gift—a gift of the church for the entire world.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul tells the Corinthians they have been given a “ministry of reconciliation.” We are God’s ambassadors entrusted with a message of peace. We come to our fractured and divided world with God’s offer of cease fire. For Paul the church is about reconciliation. And reconciliation, Volf insists, “has social and political dimensions.” He goes on to say that the Christian church has been hesitant to make this move and “offers very little wisdom on the social meaning of reconciliation.” In fact, one could argue that our inability to get along with each other within the church makes it extraordinarily unlikely that the wider society would look to us to bring about reconciliation between and within nations and peoples. With some notable exceptions, like the South African “Truth and Reconciliation” process, the Christian Church has been ineffective and even reluctant to pursue such reconciliation. Heroic individual Christians have acted to seek peace, but the institutional church has an unenviable record.

As I suggested, even within the church reconciliation seems hard to come by. We evidently love our divisions and relish our demonizations. Consider, for example, the contemporary neo-Calvinists and Brian McLaren. Some of the attacks on McLaren and his ilk are startlingly vicious. If you don’t believe me a simple Google search will suffice. Now clearly there are issues to be addressed and differences to be explored. But there seems little willingness to seek common ground or even acknowledge a common struggle. The same could be said for political differences between Christians. The language used by people on the Christian right of President Obama is frankly embarrassing. But, of course, the Christian left was no less scornful of President Bush. Every day on Facebook I see vicious attacks on the President on the one hand and sneers at the “teabaggers” on the other. I have my own concerns and recognize the temptation to unfairly caricature the “other side” of a variety of issues.

I do not mean to say we should not fairly and firmly differ with one another. But should we, can we, seek reconciliation. Should John Piper and Brian McLaren sit down together? Could Franklin Graham seek common ground with Muslim leaders? Could anti-immigrant activists in Arizona and members of immigration reform groups in Chicago actually hear one another’s concerns? Could liberals recognize the humanity of Glenn Beck? Could conservatives hear the anguish of a Jesse Jackson? Could people on different sides of the “Gay marriage” debate seek reconciliation, if not common ground? Can the Church help with any of this or do we simply shrug our shoulders and say there is nothing we can do?

I have not always been able to disagree gracefully. I have failed many times to be an agent of reconciliation. Undoubtedly I will do so again. But I think Volf is right. Christian faith has a social and political dimension that pursues reconciliation—with God, between persons, within nations, and around the world. It is time the church exercised it commission to be ambassadors for Christ with a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation does not always mean agreement. But it does mean respect, love, and hope. Too often we may think that reconciliation means I finally persuade you to agree with me. But perhaps the most important opportunities for reconciliation come when we recognize we will never agree, but we can learn to love.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Vexation of Participation

In an article written before President Bush launched the second gulf war, theologian Miroslav Volf argued that on both Christian pacifist and just war theory the war was wrong. The pacifist critic would argue, rather than “turning the other cheek” as Jesus recommended, “President Bush, who claims to be a follower of Jesus says, ‘If you think that Hussein will strike you on one cheek, hit him, along with innocent bystanders.” (“Indefensible War” in Against the Tide, 152-154) For just war theorists, Volf argues, “a preemptive war is unjust for a very simple reason: it cannot be just to condemn masses of people to certain death in order to avert the potential death of an equal or lesser number of people.” Volf goes on to recommend that Christians of all stripes oppose the war in, as it turned out, the vain hope it may be averted. However history judges this war—and historians have to take the long view of things—Volf would judge it from a Christian viewpoint a failure.

Volf’s critique of this particular war does not mean that either for him or for just war theorists there are no wars supportable by Christians. For most Christian theologians throughout the history of Christianity it was deemed perfectly appropriate for Christians to join a war effort as soldiers. Wars in defense of hearth and home may force followers of Christ, perhaps reluctantly, to take up arms. It is tricky, of course. Wars of national aggrandizement were (and are) frequently dressed up as defenses of the fatherland (or motherland). It is wise to peer beneath the fig leaf obscuring the motivations of kings and presidents. All this raises painful questions for a Christian in uniform. What happens when the soldier or sailor considers a particular war unjust? They have sworn an oath to the country, but they have an even more foundational commitment to Jesus Christ. Governments are not normally willing to let women and men in the military choose their wars. They are to obey orders, not make judgments about the justness of the cause. In the Vietnam era there were people who were not pacifists and were perfectly willing to fight a defensive war, but unwilling to participate in what they thought was an unjust war in Vietnam. Their arguments were rejected. For government and military officials letting soldiers decide whether or not to fight on the basis of the justness of a conflict or the appropriateness of its leadership seemed a road to chaos, as a recent officer critical of President Obama has discovered.

Following World War II many interrogators and judges asked German officials and soldiers why they did not refuse to carry out clearly illegal orders and immoral actions in the prosecution of the war. Repeatedly they heard the accused argue that they had no choice. They were simply obeying orders. Both then and now such an answer seems an evasion. The logic of refusing to obey unjust orders, however, is the same as the logic of refusing to fight in a particularly unjust war. The interrogators were quite right to critique those soldiers for not refusing to murder innocents. Even a secular state must recognize there is a” higher law” than the “law of the land.” If a soldier is ordered to rape a woman in Bosnia or butcher a civilian in Rwanda, people throughout the world, whether Christian or not, recognize this is an evil command and should be resisted regardless of the outcome.

Now I understand soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are not required to obey an illegal order. I also understand that it would take an enormous amount of character, courage and discernment to refuse a direct order considered evil. The military women and men I am most familiar with are chaplains. I am quite sure that most if not all of these impressive people would stand against evil acts at the risk of their careers and even lives. Having said all this, I would suggest that Christian’s in the military are not the only ones who face hard choices. They are not the only ones subject to peer pressure and threats to life and health. In fact, every Christian lives uneasily in this society. Every Christian faces seriously ambiguous moral choices. At the beginning of the book of Revelation is a series of letters addressed to the churches of Asia Minor. These letters are largely concerned with the question of the place of Christians in the Greco-Roman society. For John the crucial issues are not raised by Caesar’s military policy, but by everyday life in the cities addressed.

In the letter to Thyatira he blasts a prophetess he calls Jezebel who “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Without entering a long discussion, I would suggest at issue here is participation in the commercial and social life of the city. John is a rigorist who argues against Christian participation in the various guilds and social groups that made the commercial life of Thyatira possible. On the other side, perhaps, is the more tolerant Apostle Paul who would permit eating meat offered to idols in certain circumstances and thus a certain level of participation in pagan society. John clearly believes there are some parts of pagan society Christians should shun regardless of the economic and social consequences. Paul would agree, but would also insist that Christians must be permitted to live in the real world for the sake of the gospel.

Christians today live between John and Paul—between a rigorist critique of cooperation with the “world” and an insistence that our place is in the midst of this world. As I have said to students, we live between Romans 13 and Revelation 13—between “the powers that be are ordained by God” and “the beast and false prophet.” We must live with this tension. Both Paul and John are right. We must resist and we must participate. We must say no and we must say yes. It will require a great deal of discernment and prayer. And this is why we have the Church, the Scriptures, and the Christian tradition to aid us in seeking answers to such painful and difficult questions.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Are They Thinking in the Vatican?

In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid, all-male Vatican hierarchy that bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is HIV-positive. Yet there is another Catholic Church I admire intensely. This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. Lepers, prostitutes, and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns, and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

Nicholas D. Kristof

During my time as President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary I have met many rectors, deans, and faculty members of Roman Catholic Seminaries. Because of our affiliation with the Association of Theological Schools I have been able to work alongside these men, and yes, women at workshops, business meetings, and accreditation visits. To a person I have been impressed with their deep commitment to Christ, their compassion for their students and the world and their humanity. I have never felt they considered me any less a Christian for being a Protestant. They have been patient with my questions, interested in my concerns, and curious about my experiences. Now I realize that not all leaders in Roman Catholic seminaries are like this—any more than all Protestant or Evangelical seminary presidents and deans. We are all, after all, subject to original sin. Nevertheless, I have not experienced the rigid and paranoid hierarchy Kristof refers to, but an open and compelling community.

The same is true of the Roman Catholic members of the North Park University faculty. For several years I have interviewed prospective faculty members. My interviews are concerned with “mission fit.” I want to know if the applicant is a follower of Jesus. I want them to understand the ethos and commitments of North Park University and the Evangelical Covenant Church. As a result of these interviews and my work with University faculty, I would observe that most of our Roman Catholic faculty members are as deeply committed to our Christian mission as anyone on our faculty and staff. Many, in fact, are among the most committed to that mission. Worshipping, serving, and teaching with Roman Catholic faculty and staff has given me a deep appreciation for the Roman Catholic Church at its best, whatever my theological questions and concerns.

Nevertheless, having observed the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse crisis over the last few years I am bound to say that seldom has a community been more ill served by their leadership than the Roman Catholic Church. I have been perplexed by their slowness to respond, their mulishness and defensiveness. I have been shocked that the hierarchy has appeared more concerned for their abusive priests than their victims. The Christian faith, if nothing else, is, or should be, a champion for victims. It seems that for many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy the victims are a problem to be dealt with rather than wounded to be cared for. I know this is not true for everyone in every case, but it has been true in enough cases to raise questions. Why does the Vatican and Catholic leadership in general seem so tone deaf about this issue?

I would suggest that Pius XII provides some clues. Pius was the Pope during the devastation of World War II. He was faced with an unprecedented threat to European civilization. The Roman Catholic Church faced the challenge of both Fascism and Communism. Priests and nuns suffered in the hands of Hitler’s Germany as well as Stalin’s Russia. Any critique of Pius must take seriously the threat the church faced. We have the benefit of hindsight. We know the allies won. For Pius the outcome of the war was at certain points very much in doubt. Pius despised the Nazis. And yet he has been accused of being “Hitler’s Pope” because of his hesitancy to speak out regarding the fate of the Jews. I have read a good deal about Pius and I am not convinced he was anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that he did not speak plainly on behalf of the Jews when he had the chance. His reticence perhaps explains the contemporary failures of the Vatican.

Pius was concerned about the survival of the church as an institution. He was concerned about preserving the structures, facilities and agreements forged with governments around Europe, including Germany. He feared the Germans would pillage the Vatican and slaughter its inhabitants if he spoke openly in criticism of Hitler. He had good reason for such a fear. Nevertheless, I would argue that Pius’ failure to speak out for the sake of preserving the church as an institution is one of the great moral failures of the 20th century. I would suggest that the failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy today to speak out plainly and consistently on clergy sexual abuse is based in the same concern for the preservation of the institutional church. Although this is not another holocaust, it is, in my opinion, a moral failing of the same order. It also reflects a stubborn refusal to let “outsiders” tell the church how to do its business. I believe this is at the very least incredibly shortsighted and a severe disservice to deeply committed and compassionate followers of Christ. One can only hope that something will change, but I fear that a Pope John XXIII only comes along once in a century. There are some signs that some in the leadership are finally “getting it.” I hope it is not too late.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sleepless in Stockholm

On April 14th I left Chicago bound for Barcelona with a layover in, of all places, Stockholm, Sweden. I was bound for a meeting of the executive committee of the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches—a big name for a rather small organization. I am the chair of the theology committee and had a report to make. We were late arriving in Stockholm and only as we approached the city were we told the reason. A volcano had erupted in Iceland and forced our plane south to avoid the ash. A few hours later my fight to Barcelona was cancelled along with every other flight out of Arlanda Airport. Across Europe airports fell like dominoes. The skies above Stockholm were eerily silent and no one knew how long they would remain that way. I was able to find a hotel room and let my friends Doug and Jodi Fondell know that I would be around for awhile.

As many of my friends reminded me, one could be stuck in worse places than Stockholm—a fact I readily acknowledge. I have been to Stockholm every year for the last fourteen years. I have many friends and colleagues in the city and have spent many pleasant hours wandering its streets. No, it was not hard to be stuck in Stockholm. But I had no idea when I could be able to go home. As every traveler knows, when your flight is cancelled you go to the end of the line, not the beginning. When my second flight home was cancelled SAS told me the next open seat for a return to Chicago was a full week away. Europeans were enduring long train rides and miserable bus rides to get home. But for the thousands of North Americans in Europe there was no option but to wait and worry.

Over the course of my stay several things became apparent to me. First, our dependence on airplanes to deliver people and materials makes us more vulnerable than we may be willing to acknowledge. Getting people from Europe to America is one thing. Delivering perishable foods, medical material, military personnel, and sick people are another. Fruit and vegetables meant for markets in Europe rotted in Africa waiting for transport. Both the Africans and the Europeans have made themselves vulnerable to a fragile transportation system that can be crippled for long periods of time by entirely natural forces. In the United States we depend on long distance transport of foods from within and without the country. We have not developed the capacity to feed ourselves from locally grown produce. We are foolish if we imagine we are not also vulnerable.

The second thing that became apparent to me was that I was very frustrated at not being in control of the situation. It is an American trait to go out of the window if the door is closed. We love to work the angles. We are confident we can “figure things out.” In this case, however, there were no angles to work. Not only could I not control the volcano or the policies of the regulatory agencies, I was helpless to get over the ocean without a plane. I had to wait, with growing impatience, for a solution to an intractable problem. A trip home on the Queen Mary was not an option! And I didn’t know how long the volcano would erupt and how much ash would clog the skies. It was sobering to be helpless and dependent. But it was also sobering to confront my assumptions and limitations!

The third lesson was a much more positive one. I was reminded again of the importance of the generosity of friends and the kindness of strangers. Doug and Jodi took me in and allowed me to disrupt their schedule for several days. They opened their home and made me feel welcomed and cared for. Friends in the Swedish Mission Church offered encouragement and logistical support both in Stockholm and in Jonkoping. Friends in the US prayed, offered help, and gave encouragement. I found myself very thankful for Facebook! I was reminded of the value of the community called Church.

Finally, I discovered the value of slowing down and paying attention to God. More than one person remarked that being forced to wait in Stockholm with a stack of books sounded appealing. And I was able to get a good deal of reading, writing, and praying done. I had meals with colleagues and long conversations with my hosts. My pace at home is so frenetic that I don’t even notice it. Being forced by circumstances to slow down, be patient and wait, was a good thing. I am very glad to be home. But I am also glad for the experience and blessed by the memory of those days. However, the next time I am getting ready to board a plane for Europe I will check on volcanic activity in Iceland!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Echo Chamber

Historian Tony Judt’s stunning new book Ill Fares the Land presents a savage critique of our culture’s “nihilistic individualism.” He argues that the rise of the internet not only contributed to this individualism but crippled our ability to communicate our differences and sustain our communities. Such a judgment is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. Defenders of the internet are swift to assert that the internet has made more and more information available to larger and larger group of people. Furthermore, it has enhanced our ability to communicate our ideas around the world and to varieties of constituencies. The problem with the internet, however, is not the availability of information or the speed of its dissemination. The problem is that users of the internet select what is important or interesting to them and avoid exposure to what is disagreeable to them.

Judt says of his students, “Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments.” They may read informed and thoughtful blogs. They may also read dishonest and bigoted blogs. In either case they may not distinguish an “opinion piece”, like a blog, form a sober news story or scholarly article. They accumulate fan pages on Facebook and seek for persons who share the same tastes in music, art, movies, novels, politics, religion, or sex. “In the past,” Judt writes, “thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay.”

This, Judt worries, is a serious challenge for democracy. The problem with our social discourse today is not that we disagree with each other. “The disposition to disagree, to reject and dissent,” Judt argues, “however irritating it may be when taken to extremes—is the very lifeblood of an open society.” Our problem is that our dissent is frequently so ill informed. We attack from a position of gleefully sustained ignorance and freely chosen isolation. We do not listen to each other, because we do not need to. Comfortable in our circle of agreeable friends, we demonize all who differ with us using our most extreme and abusive language. Obama is not just wrong, he is a Marxist. Bush is not simply mistaken, he is a Fascist. We solicit electronic pats on the back from our friend and “hide” the status reports of those we disagree with.

We are living in intellectual “gated communities”. We intend to keep the “tea party riff raff” outside. We bar the way to the “liberal loonies”. This problem extends to the religious world. The church in the United States is on its way to experiencing a similar “atomization.” In the mainline church people who disagree on human sexuality are dividing up the ecclesiastical spoils. Advocates of differing positions on homosexuality are well on their way to establishing separate denominations where they won’t have to put up with people who interpret the Bible differently than they do. In the Evangelical world the “really Reformed” want nothing to do with the “pragmatists”. The Southern Baptists want nothing to do with “emergent”. And to “enlightened” Evangelicals everyone to the right of themselves is a “fundamentalist.” When people are labeled, they are silenced.

We need to learn new, kind, and generous ways to listen to each other. We need to learn to grit our teeth and attend to those who differ with us. Otherwise our democracy and our religious communities are doomed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Theology of South Park

One of my more cynical friends sent me this week a bit of dialogue from “South Park”. The episode is entitled “Kenny Dies” and contains some dubious theologizing by Chef.

Stan: Why would God let Kenny die, Chef? Kenny’s my friend. Why can’t God take someone else’s friend?

Chef: Stan sometimes God takes those closest to us, because it makes him feel better about himself. He is a very vengeful God, Stan. He’s all pissed off about something we did thousands of years ago. He just can’t get over it, so he doesn’t care who he takes. Children, puppies, it doesn’t matter to him, so long as it makes us sad. Do you understand?

Stan: But then, why does God give us anything to start with?

Chef: Well, look at it this way: if you want to make a baby cry, first you give it a lollipop. Then you take it away. If you never give it a lollipop to begin with, then you would have nothin’ to cry about. That’s like God, who gives us life and love and help just so that he can tear it all away and make us cry, so he can drink the sweet milk of our tears. You see, it’s our tears, Stan, that give God his great power.

This would be simply outrageous and offensive if it didn’t represent exactly the view many people have of God. Perhaps they would not express it as crassly as Chef, but their actual understanding of how God interacts with his creation is practically the same. When people wonder where God was when the earthquake in Haiti struck or the when the towers fell or when a child or spouse or parent died, it is Chef’s God they are wondering about. A god in direct control of every event cannot evade the charge of injustice and even cruelty. This is the god the “new atheists” despise and scorn. And I don’t blame them. I would despise such a god as well. But this is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Recently I was part of a dialogue with an orthodox Rabbi friend. We were discussing what both the Church and the Jews still need to learn from the holocaust. My friend suggested that both Jews and Christians had been seduced by Greek speculative theology. He insisted that the Bible does not try to explain God, it rather tells stories about God. Our attempts at rationality, at explanation, leave us backed into an intellectual corner. Our explanations result in a god that is either ineffectual or a monster. Rather than a God who is “not willing that any should perish” or a God that notices the fall of a sparrow, we have a god that plays random and cruel games with his children. Such a god is more like the vicious, arbitrary, and cruel gods of the Greco-Roman world. My friend said that like most young Jews coming of age after the Second World War he wondered where God was during the murder of Europe’s Jews. In the end he said he realized that God did not build the gas chambers or stoke the fires of the ovens. Those were the cruel actions of human beings.

During holy week we recall that far from causing us pain for the sake of his amusement, our God bore our pain for the sake of  our salvation. This God calls us to join him in his effort to renew and restore his creation. This God calls us to confront evil and suffering. This God looks to his church to be the presence of his kingdom in anticipation of the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells. The god of Chef and the new atheists is a caricature, a monstrous distortion of the God who forgives, loves, and endures the suffering of his people. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the waiting father who throws a party when his manipulative and wasteful son arrives home. This is the God who with us makes all things new.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


There is nothing new about name calling. It is as old as childhood. Call someone a fundamentalist or a liberal, a fascist or a Marxist and you have diminished and dismissed them. You no longer need to listen to them, because you already know what they think. You no longer need to look at them, because you know what you are going to see. Name calling is a form of intellectual laziness. It amounts to a refusal to stay in conversation, let alone sustain a relationship. The United States has experienced periodic outbursts of name calling. In my lifetime there have been three such outbursts. When I was a very young child Joe McCarthy brought name calling into ill repute with his reckless claim that “communists” had infiltrated the government. When I was a young adult, supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War hurled epithets at each other. Soldiers returning home were “baby killers”. Protesters were called “dirty hippies.” And now, over the last 20 years we have experienced a political balkanization that is producing another spate of name calling—and worse.

In her recent book The Lacuna Barbara Kingsolver explores the changes in the United States that led to the rise of McCarthyism and the virulent fear of Communism. Her protagonist Harrison Shepherd was the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Physically abandoned by his father and emotionally abandoned by his mother he struggles to make his way in two alien cultures. Living in Mexico as a young man he is befriended by muralist Diego Rivera and his painter wife Frida Kahlo. As a result of these friendships he is introduced to Leon Trotsky, the former Communist leader now on the run from Stalin. He helps Diego by mixing plaster. He cooks for the household and acts as a secretary for Trotsky. Although he is sympathetic with their political aims, he is more interested in telling stories. He returns to the states, lands in Ashville, North Carolina and begins his career as a novelist.

At the height of his success he is caught up in the “red scare”. His past associations are seen as damning evidences of disloyalty—a charge he denies. Kingsolver uses the grim paranoia of the post-war years to point to a fundamental change in America. One would have thought that following victory in the Second World War Americans would be brimming with confidence. She suggests that on the contrary in the post war era American politicians began using fear to control the conversations and accrue power. Russian communists were ready made opponents. They became the monsters lurking under the beds and crouching in the closets. Guilt by association was the order of the day. In the hands of a skilled politician an opponent’s reasonable appeal for justice and compassion could be morphed into Communist sympathies. Political demagogues like McCarthy found fear of Communism a very useful tool for rallying the troops. During these years, truth, fairness, and common sense were in scarce supply.

This is not to say there were no things to fear in the post war era. This is not to say there were no dangerous people and deadly situations. The nuclear threat was very real. But we had faced dangerous people and deadly situations before without sinking into morbid fear and vicious name calling. But this was an America growing more diverse. This was a time when people at the margins were beginning to move to the center. Our isolation was ending. We were now an international power with growing responsibilities. Rather than grow into this new diversity we became a country of adolescents. Can anyone watch CNN or Fox today and have any doubt that we are still behaving like adolescents? There is a hole in our soul carved out by fear—a fear of loss of power, control, wealth, prestige, and security. Ironically, this fear itself and the national adolescence it produces may bring about the very corruption and collapse we fear. If our current public conversation is any indication, we need to grow up—fast.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chance for Renewal?

The news out of Europe for the Roman Catholic Church is not good. Following on the heels of a disastrous sexual abuse scandal in Ireland is an even more embarrassing scandal in Germany. The press is raising questions about how Pope Benedict XVI handled the case of a pedophile priest when he as an Archbishop. Outraged Catholics in Europe are calling out for greater accountability from their leadership—particularly from local bishops. Whatever moral authority remained for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe is quickly draining away. The church seems plagued by sclerotic leadership more concerned with the preservation of institutional prerogatives that with openness and truthfulness. I fear that excessive worry about preserving power in the hands of the clergy and hierarchy has cost the leadership its power rather than enhanced it. Will the church long survive without completing the renewal process began under Pope John XXIII but sabotaged by John Paul II?

I speak, of course, as an outsider to the Roman Catholic community. But my own Protestant community is in no less trouble. The mainline church seems determined to tear itself to pieces over human sexuality. Having accommodated itself to the culture long ago it is struggling to find a message and a purpose. Since the 1960s its numbers and influence have declined precipitously. It seems to unerringly swerve wherever the cultural wind is blowing. Will the mainline church long survive without clarity on the gospel, connection with a Christian past, and commitment to a Christian future?

My own community, for better and for worse, is Evangelical. In spite of apparent gains we have no reason to be smug. The evangelical community suffers from a nihilistic individualism that continues to fragment churches and denominations. Its churches are frequently glittering and large. Their programs are impressive. Their pastors are masterful communicators. But are they any less accommodated than their mainline sisters and brothers? Are their values rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ or in market capitalism? Are they as thoughtlessly wedded to the political right as the mainline church is to the political left? Evangelicals are no less subject to squabbling than the Protestant mainline churches. But they suffer from having no center, no tradition, and no larger community of discourse. In another generation will the Evangelical Church exists only as shards and fragments?

Perhaps the future of Christianity requires a total collapse of its current institutional forms. Perhaps followers of Jesus need to called back to his message, his gospel. Perhaps out of the ruins of our Christian present we can reclaim a Christian past. Perhaps we need to be formed once again as disciples in a community that reads God’s word, worships breaks bread, and loves one another—and the world. I am not anti-institutional. I have been a part of the institutional church all of my life and served it in my adulthood. But I wonder if the church of Jesus Christ in both its individual and institutional form has ever needed a renewal, a reformation, more than today.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and Big Government

Last week Glenn Beck created quite a stir among Christians committed to social justice. He denounced churches concerned for social and economic justice and recommended they be “turned in” by their parishioners. The Sojourners folks immediately responded, recommending that “social justice” Christians “turn themselves in” to Beck. In a subsequent broadcast Beck backed off a bit. But he still insisted that “social justice” or “economic justice” is a smoke screen for “big government.” I wonder about this. Certainly some social justice advocates are also advocates of “big government.” Others do look to government for solutions to injustices and corruptions—but this does not necessarily indicate a universal love of big government. Still others are as wary of big government as Beck and his allies, though perhaps for different reasons.

Social justice Christians draw their inspiration from the prophets of Israel. For the prophets the governments of Israel and Judah are “part of the problem”. Isaiah rants, “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieve; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23). Judah’s most powerful and wealthy citizens are denounced in no uncertain terms for their dissolute living and indifference to justice and mercy (See Isaiah 5). Amos similarly denounces the rulers of Israel: “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.” He continues, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times for the times are evil” (Amos 5:11-13).

Passages like this could be multiplied over many pages. The solution to the oppression of the poor in the law courts and the burdensome tax levies was not for the prophets more government or less government—it was good government and just government. God’s law set the parameters for human flourishing. Following the will of God meant caring for the entire community of Israel. If the poor were over taxed and their cries for justice were ignored, this was a violation of God’s communal order. Not even their sacrifices would atone for such perversions: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though your bring me burnt offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 521 ,22). Rather, God declares, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

The prophets’ critique is a critique of the powerful from the margins. In contemporary terms it is “populist.” It is a critique of powerful and wealthy elites. According to the prophets they are more concerned with savoring the good life than carrying out the will of God. They prophets also attacks leaders who forget their obligations to the entire nation of Israel. The rulers appear to live in an individualistic, every-man-for-himself bubble. But the prophets insist they pay attention to the suffering and injustice at their very doorsteps.

The charges made by Israel’s prophets can easily be laid at the feet of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Both parties contribute to injustice and the grinding of the poor. So how should Israel, should we, respond? The prophets did not call for revolution. They called for a moral and spiritual renewal of their leaders. “Seek good, not evil that you may live. . . .Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:14, 15). In the end, pursing justice has never been about pursuing power. In John’s great vision in Revelation the opposition to the power of the Roman empire is a slaughtered lamb. He wins through love, sacrifice, and witness. And so will those of us who follow him.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


"The consumption society has become a system of exchange of signs, rather than an exchange of actual objects."
Rene Girard

Rene Girard has argued that primitive humans used sacrifice as a means of diminishing the rivalries that threatened to devolve into societal chaos.  The fear and violence associated with rivalries were blamed on a "scapegoat."  Sacrificing the scapegoat became a safety valve.  Blame and scorn were heaped on the scapegoat, unity and focus were restored  to the community and chaos and violence were diminished--for a time.  Eventually the ritual would need to be repeated to insure the survival of a given community.  

Scapegoats often came from already despised groups: enslaved enemies, ethnic minorities, deviants, and criminals.  At other times the choice of a scapegoat could be quite arbitrary.  Girard contends that Judaism and Christianity eroded the effectiveness of scapegoating.  In the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament the scapegoat mechanism is exposed.  Story after story, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus, declares the scapegoats innocent, or, at least not guilty of the charges made against them.  Biblical figures like Joseph, Job, and Jonah illustrate this. 

Today scapegoating is still in use, but its effectiveness, at least in the west, is waning.  For all the critique of the so-called "victim mentality" it demonstrates western sensitivity to scapegoating.  Marginal groups refuse any longer to accept the role of societal whipping boy.  This is a fairly recent development.  In American society the time is not long past when it was acceptable to speak disparagingly of African Americans or Jews or Communists or sexual deviants.  Hatred of such marginal people underscored the goodness and  enhanced the cohesion of the majority.  Despising "those people" told me who I was and where I belonged.  Such scapegoating of persons at the margins, of course, continues.  But, as suggested, is much less effective and acceptable.

Scapegoating is about creating and sustaining group identity and cohesion.  It reduces rivalry and violence by attending to the alien other.  Girard suggests that today the consumer society is an attempt to accomplish this by another means.  Since limited resources are a source of rivalry, the consumer society provides a glut of cheap consumer goods.  It then assigns to these goods a transcendent meaning.  What you drive, what you wear, where you live, and where you went to school determine who you are.  Your identity is shaped and declared by goods you consume.  Advertising is quite explicit about this.  Consumerism is an exchange of "signs", not an exchange of goods.  The signs that one is "cool" or sophisticated or culturally savvy are always shifting.  Consumerist identity is constantly morphing and generating novel desires.  The consumer must remain constantly vigilant. 

Our wars and financial crises contribute to our crises of identity and unity.  We fear financial losses and limitations not just because we fear hunger and poverty.  We fear a loss of identity.  When we can no longer spend as freely as we like, we can no longer differentiate ourselves. In a consumerist society we are our desires. We find ourselves hollowed out when we can no longer fulfill them.  No wonder our leaders want to restore our economy at almost any cost.  They too fear the loss of identity and cohesion and the violence that is sure to follow.