After insurrection

After insurrection

What do you say after watching a violent mob at the Capitol mercilessly beat a fallen police officer with American flags, while chanting Pro-Trump slogans and hurling profanities?

What do you say, especially if you are a pastor?

While the past year has been hard on everyone, my heart goes out to pastors. They have been tasked with reinventing weekend gatherings, distance-shepherding, budget shortfalls, and attempting to hold together congregations divided by political and social disagreement.

Then came January 6th.

How do pastors and Christian leaders respond to that?

Perhaps it is worth noting some of the different approaches on the table.

  1. Ignore it, because anything you say will be used against you.

This is the coward’s way, but I sympathize with it. Even the blandest statements will be challenged on social media, so it feels like there is no way to win. I’ve seen pastor-friends excoriated for what I take to be the most basic and biblical repudiations of such violence. Seemingly anything can be met with a digital conflagration of “Whataboutism.”

The temptation, then, is simple: Just talk about the new women’s Bible study on Esther (Er… bad example, she confronted the king; Ruth? No, she left behind her nation’s gods. Okay, maybe something on the Enneagram.)

  1. “We just need to pray.”

This approach is like the first, with the caveat that it acknowledges some vague problem. Call it division, discord, unrest, anger, polarization, upheaval—but don’t get into specifics. Don’t renounce or repent, just lament.

I sympathize with this approach too. We should pray, even when we don’t know what to say (Rom 8:26). And in some contexts, this may be the only path that will not result in a full-fledged revolt (still a metaphor?) from certain factions.

Nevertheless, in at least some instances, both Christ and the prophets were specific. They were willing to call out specific sins committed by specific groups. They weren’t cowards.

That’s why the mob killed them.

  1. The “both sides” approach

I sometimes choose this path too. After all, if all people are fallen, then “both sides” in any given dispute usually have done something wrong.

Clearly Leftist groups have engaged in violence too, even in recent memory. And that too should be condemned.

But the danger of adopting a “both sides” approach to every incident is that of falsehood and false equivalence. If one of my children beats the other senseless, I do not denounce them all because the others have also acted out at various points.

Prophets like Isaiah and Amos did not worry about allotting an equal word count to the sins of Israel and those of pagans. Nor did Jesus focus equally upon the failings of Gentiles, tax collectors, and Pharisees.

In some cases, the “both sides” approach is warranted. But not on January 6th.

  1. Pick a partisan team and go “all in.”

If the prior approaches suffer from a lack of courage, this one suffers from a lack of truth.

In polarized times, it’s tempting to choose Always Red or Always Blue, and then call balls or strikes to support that conclusion in every instance. You can build a big “platform” that way.

In this approach, “My side is never wrong.” And if the evidence appears otherwise, it must be a well-hidden conspiracy. “It must have been Antifa.”

To be honest, most pastors do not choose this path. It simply does not lend itself to leading a congregation.

Unfortunately, the so-called “leaders” of evangelicalism today have not been pastors—they have been self-appointed Thought Leaders™ without any theological training. They are “shepherds” who have never smelled like sheep. Or as they say in Oklahoma, “Big hat, no cattle.”

This approach produces cult members, not Christ-followers.

  1. Use discernment on when and how to speak the truth in love.

I’m convinced that Options 1-3 are sometimes right. It is not a pastor’s job to comment on every item in the news. Sometimes we should be silent. Sometimes we should simply pray. And sometimes we should stand between opposing factions (like Jesus between Pharisees and Sadducees) and say “Both of you are wrong.”

But in other moments, we should reject false equivalence and partisan Kool Aid-drinking to speak a clear word with truth and love.

Conclusion

What happened at the Capitol this week was the predictable result of idolatry.

One segment of that idolatry was rooted in a so-called Christian nationalism (see here and here), conspiracy theories, social media silos, and a consistent rejection of the way of Jesus.

Not all evangelicals are implicated in that failure. Neither are all Republicans, or even all people at the rally, many of whom were peacefully protesting what they thought was an injustice.

But the endless game of “Whataboutism” and false equivalence should not prevent the church from speaking clearly when the banner of Christ (literally, in the form of “Jesus 2020” signs and other Christian symbols) are aligned with behavior that is, in fact, demonic.

It’s one thing to be assailed by angry flag-wavers, it’s another thing when some of those flags have Jesus’ name on them.


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My Favorite Books of 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

If there was a bright side of 2020, it was some extra time for reading amidst the homebound months of the pandemic.

Here are my favorites from the past year.

BIBLICAL STUDIES

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

Who wouldn’t want a whole book on ancient Jewish views on genital discharges, corpses, and eczema-related skin conditions?

While the topic of ritual impurity may sound odd to some lay readers, Thiessen’s careful work sheds fresh light on Jesus’ ministry by showing how he upholds the Jewish Law and aligns himself against the forces of Death. In so doing, Jesus functions as a kind of “holy contagion” that removes impurity by healing its source.

See my prior blog post on the book (here), and look for my Outpost Theology interview with Matt to be released in January, 2021 (here).

THEOLOGY

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020).

My favorite theological works are rarely the ones I agree with most fully. And in this case, it’s not even a book I find intelligible at every turn.

In some places, understanding Sonderegger’s poetic prose and elusive argumentation is like trying to construct an elaborate piece of IKEA furniture by using a copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as directions.

“Just so.”

Nonetheless, this book remains the most interesting piece of theology I’ve read this year. Sonderegger crafts beautiful, opaque, surprising, and biblically-attuned reflections that cut against long-held assumptions about where we should to look to find the Mystery of the Trinity. Surprisingly, she finds pointers toward the triune processions in the Old Testament, through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificial rituals of Israel.

FICTION

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985).

Quite obviously, this book wasn’t written in 2020. But McCarthy’s dark, apocalyptic brooding fits well amidst the tone and tenor of this year. (Even if I technically started it in 2019 [see here].) Despite all the attention he rightfully receives for The Road, I think Blood Meridian is the work of greater genius.

McCarthy explores the rough edges of human depravity by mining (and expanding) violent events that actually transpired near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. Alongside shimmering descriptions of the desert landscape, the high point of the novel is the way McCarthy’s villain (the Judge) becomes a rumination on what Scripture calls “the Satan.”

Someday, when I am allowed to teach a combination literature and theology course on “atheist prophets,” this book will make the syllabus.

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE

Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World (Hachette, 2017).

If you want some perspective on our present pandemic, try going back a hundred years via Spinney’s treatment of the Spanish Flu. As I’ve noted previously (here), Spinney’s work in scientific history reminds us that pandemics are social phenomena as well as medical ones, and while history doesn’t technically repeat itself (Thank God), it does rhyme in all sorts of interesting ways.

BIOGRAPHY

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005).

I’m tempted to feel embarrassed by this one: First, because I’m late to the party; and second, because I read it after watching the musical more times than I can count with my four young children. (Don’t criticize my parenting.)

Still, Hamilton’s story is so improbable, and so well told by Chernow, that it stands on its own merits, even amid all the hype of the musical.

Especially in 2020, when America’s political fortunes lurched daily toward the abyss, Hamilton reminds us why the Experiment is worth protecting. This book made me care about our beautiful and broken country, though the daily news cycle often made me feel ashamed.

HISTORY

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010).

Despite residing in Oklahoma, I’ve been mostly ignorant of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and one of the more remarkable figures in the American West. Until this book.

Born to a famous White captive (Cynthia Ann Parker), Quanah bridges the gap both genetically and temporally between the old world of Comanche warriors, and the new world that was coming. (In some ways, this history book was the real-world doppelgänger of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but with the Native American narrative taking precedence.)

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way it refused to fall into either of the two simplistic tropes regarding Native American warriors. The Comanches are detailed both in their nobility and bravery, and in terms of their horrific brutality, displayed especially in their attacks upon other Native American tribes across centuries.

If you haven’t read this one, pick it up.

CHURCH AND CULTURE

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020).

This year saw a number of books on racial justice shoot up the bestseller lists. And rightfully so. But McCaulley’s text is different in several ways.

Reading While Black is not a “Dear White people” book that attempts to explain the African American experience to outsiders. It is more a love letter to the Bible that has sustained the Black community through years of injustice, even while that same Holy Book was often used against Black Christians.

McCaulley reveals a tradition of African American exegesis that refuses to be weaponized or tokenized by EITHER White Conservatism or White Liberalism—and in that way, it has a prophetic word for all of us.

Listen to my interview with Esau (here) and pick up the book.

PREMODERN, PRIMARY SOURCES

Origen, On First Principles, A Reader’s Edition, trans. John Behr (Oxford, 2019).

Premodern texts often get left out of these lists. My favorite for the year is John Behr’s fantastic new translation of Origen’s On First Principles (Even if I couldn’t afford the two-volume critical edition).

The translation reads far easier than many other treatises from the period, and while Origen has often been derided and dismissed by orthodox theologians, a careful reading of On First Principles reveals a mind that is enraptured with Scripture, with God’s loving justice, and with questions that still plague us today–even if not all his conclusions are to be followed.

(Look for a section on Origen in my forthcoming book on the place of imaginative speculation in theology.)

Here’s hoping 2021 has even more time to read, but for different reasons.


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WWJV?

WWJV?

WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?

As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?

In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)

After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.

It is not.

And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.

CRATERS ON THE MOON

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.

What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.

After all, one study showed that the average length of stay in a nursing home before death was about five months (here). Other studies differed slightly (here).

But by any tally, it’s not long.

So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT

I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.

He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.

I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).

My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.

My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.

And I give thanks for that.

A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN

Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.

As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”

When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in those assumptions].

Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.

Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.

To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.

Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.

And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

CONCLUSION

What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?

Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.

That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”

It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.


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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Jesus, holy contagion

Jesus, holy contagion

What is Jesus’ R0 factor?

In this time of COVID-19, we’ve all learned some new words; words like spike proteins, viral load, and hydroxychloroquine.

One of these new concepts—the R0 factor—measures contagiousness. How close must one be to an infected person to “catch” what they have? Is the contagion passed primarily by blood, saliva, or has it been aerosolized? Can it live on surfaces?

In the early days of the pandemic, while my asthmatic son was dealing with some breathing trouble—I took the extreme step of constructing a cleaning station in our garage where I would wipe down our groceries (and mail) before they entered the house.

But what does any of this have to do with Jesus?

JESUS AND THE FORCES OF DEATH

One of the best books I’ve read this year was Jesus and the Forces of Death, by Matthew Thiessen. The text focusses on the Gospels’ portrayal of ritual impurity–and it argues, in line with scholars like Jacob Milgrom, that the Jews associated these impurities with forces of death.

Baker Academic, 2020

The Law of Moses taught that certain substances rendered one ritually unclean. These contagions included genital discharges, skin diseases (lepra), and corpses. To be ritually impure was not sinful. But it meant that one was barred from approaching God’s presence (for instance, in the temple) until one had undergone purification.

Ritual impurity comes up repeatedly in the Gospels:
• Jesus touches lepers and they are cleansed.
• Jesus encounters corpses and they rise.
• Jesus faces impure spirits and expels them.

But there is one story for which Thiessen’s work is particularly illuminating: Jesus and the bleeding woman (Matt 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:42–48).

JESUS AND THE ZAVAH

In Hebrew, the zavah was a female “discharger”—a woman with chronic flow of menstrual blood.

As with other bodily discharges, Jewish Law maintained that no one could touch the zavah (or even her bedding) without being rendered impure (Lev 15:25–27). Even one’s clothing must be purified if it had potentially been contacted by such a woman.

Then in Mark’s Gospel, we read of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years:

27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:27-3)

THE HOLY CONTAGION

In Thiessen’s words,

“The story implies that Jesus’s body can function like an unthinking force of contagion that inevitably destroys impurity” (7).

Instead of Jesus being made unclean by the woman’s touch, the opposite happens: The source of her impurity is healed, because Jesus embodies a contagious form of holiness and purity.

Incredibly, Jesus never decides to heal the woman. He merely notices that power has gone out of him, and then inquires, “Who touched my clothes?” (v 30)

So I ask again, what is Jesus’ R0 factor?

HOLINESS BEYOND SEGREGATION

We often think of holiness as something that is maintained by separation: “social distancing” if you will. For indeed, to be holy meant to be “set apart” by God for special use.

But Jesus’ holiness challenges the exclusivity of this notion. Christ’s holiness is contagious; it is not merely a fenced off and fragile status. Jesus’ holiness goes on the offensive. It heals the sources of impurity, and yet (apparently) without itself being defiled.

Never is this truer than in Christ’s crucifixion—in which the forces of death come calling for his own body. Yet even in death, Christ’s corpse emits a purifying power.

This point is seen most notably in the strange passage from Matthew that describes how Christ’s final breath brought the corpses of many holy ones to life within their tombs (Matt 27:50-53). (See here for my post on that unusual passage.)

There is some prophetic precedent for this kind of holiness. But not much. Elijah raises a widow’s son after laying his own body atop the boy’s (ritually impure) corpse. And Elisha unwittingly raises another dead man after the man’s corpse is thrown into a grave containing Elisha’s bones. (Happy Halloween!)

Still, Thiessen’s claim is that Jesus’ contagious holiness is unequaled in the Scriptures.

CONTAGIOUS HOLINESS TODAY

As a work of biblical scholarship, Thiessen’s book does not intend to make the turn to contemporary or pastoral application. But I’d like to gesture in that direction: What does Jesus’ contagious holiness mean for us today?

Incidentally, I come from what is often called a “holiness tradition”—and specifically, from a denomination that has roots in the revivalism of John Wesley, in abolitionism, and in women’s suffrage. I’m proud of that.

But in my own holiness tradition there has sometimes been a failure to learn the lesson of Jesus’ R0 factor. We saw holiness as something “set apart” and fragile—but not as something that is powerfully contagious.

In fact, holiness is both.

Elements of the holiness tradition propounded legalistic and extra-biblical rules on everything from wedding rings, to hairstyles, to alcohol—but we did not always grasp that Christ’s holiness is something that was spread by CONTACT with an unclean world, rather than by mere segregation from it.

This point requires discernment.

SET APART FOR SERVICE

There are times in which separation is required.

Moral impurity is not healed by uncritically immersing ourselves in environments where it is glorified. When we cozy up to wicked leaders and excuse their abusive and arrogant behavior in the attempt to gain “influence”—we deceive ourselves. Holiness doesn’t spread like that.

And yet, to be Christ’s body—filled with his Spirit—seems to imply that we might also view holiness in contagious rather than defensive terms.

Christians are, as it were, “set apart” for service.

In the holiness tradition, the group that most clearly embodies this holiness-on-the-offensive posture has been the Salvation Army. But it is a shift in perspective that is important for all Christians.

Impurity isn’t cleansed by pretending it does not exist (Liberal relativism). Nor is it healed by mere separation (fundamentalist escapism). Whether it is ritual or moral impurity, the solution comes by transformative CONTACT with the Holy One of God–or at least the fringes of his garment.


Get Matthew Thiessen’s excellent book here–and stay tuned for an upcoming interview with him on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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Justice and terror

Justice and terror

In her excellent book, On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior notes how virtue can slide toward “excess” and not merely deficiency.

For instance,

[The] virtue of courage is found between the excess of rashness (a vice) and the deficiency of cowardice (also a vice).

Aristotle made this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. But I’ve been thinking about it in regard to justice.

Justice, after all, might be the word of the year for 2020—along with “apocalypse” and “social distancing.” Unfortunately, even a noble thirst for justice can get twisted by our sinfulness.

JUSTICE AND THE TERROR

Consider these words from Maximilien Robespierre, the social justice warrior/talk radio host of the French Revolution.

“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Robespierre helped orchestrate the so-called “Terror” in which thousands of French citizens were guillotined, some for no reason other than the pent-up vengeance of the mob.

He was an “influencer” who was obsessed with severe justice. But he lacked mercy, and the monster he helped create devoured him. He was guillotined in July of 1794 as the Jacobin regime collapsed around him.

This raises an important question: Was the murderous bloodletting of the guillotine an “emanation of virtue”?

Perhaps so (at least in some cases). But that doesn’t make it right.

The problem lies—as it does with every severed head—in the distance between the body of motivating virtue and the blood that “emanates” from it.

In other words, an act can start (or emanate) from a desire for justice, even while it results in flailing vengeance that is itself unjust. Violence begets violence. Victims become perpetrators.

When justice becomes a god, she begets vengeful demons.

JUSTICE WITHOUT JESUS

Michael O. Emerson makes a related point in his recent CT article, “Goodbye Christ; I’ve got justice duty” (here).

There he tells the story of two Christians who could stand in for many others.

“They represent what I see repeatedly. Christians grow up in faith defined as an individual relationship with Christ. When they learn that God cares about justice, and when they see the whiteness and complicity of the faith they claim, they either become tied tenuously to that faith, mocking many aspects of it, or they leave it all together.”

In these cases, the bitterness is directed toward Christ and his bride.

Some of that is understandable, and especially when certain evangelicals assume that the solution is to deny systemic injustice altogether (see here).

There is a better way.

As Emerson concludes:

Justice is not about domination or identity politics or even getting what is fair. Justice is about realizing right relationships, making right what is broken between us—including fixing our systems. Jesus’ justice is shalom: peaceful, equitable community in communion with YHWH, directed and empowered by the Spirit of Christ, certain to come to pass by God’s power and not our own.

Neither complicity nor vengeance will do. Neither deficiency nor excess.

CONCLUSION

The human tendency to “excessorize” virtue (not least through signaling) is worth remembering in this strange year of 2020.

We must guard not only against apathy but also anger that turns into bitterness, vengeance, and self-destruction.

To cite a philosopher far older than Aristotle, we must not only “act justly” but “love mercy,” and “walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8).


For my full interview with Karen Swallow Prior, you can listen to it on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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Watching from the corner

Watching from the corner

Liberty University needs a new Board, not just a new President.

Despite appearances, this is NOT a post about the allegations of what Jerry Falwell did to witness and participate in a sordid affair between his wife and a former pool boy.

Instead, this is a post about what the Liberty board of trustees did for years in the face of Falwell’s other disqualifying actions.

Because those actions (Jerry’s and the board’s) are actually much the same.

The board at Liberty (or at least some members) did exactly what Jerry Jr. is now accused of doing: They sat and watched—for years—from the corner of the room, and they participated in sinful and degrading behavior by their acquiescent presence.

The Liberty board has long had a front row seat to Falwell’s racist comments, rude behavior, shameful tweets, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, late night clubbing, and shady business dealings–long before the latest bombshell.

The board watched for years as the reputations of Christ and their university were ravaged many times before this week. And while some board members surely had misgivings, the board as a whole did nothing definitive to stop it.

They watched.

So their sin is not unlike Falwell’s; it’s just less titillating.

For that reason, it’s not just Falwell that should go.

A NEW BOARD, NOT JUST A NEW PRESIDENT

As a professor in Christian higher education, I realize the relationship between a board and a university can be complicated. It is not the job of the trustees to micromanage an institution. And no single board member can oust a president—especially one as powerful and nepotisticly-connected as Jerry Falwell Jr.

Still, at what point during years of bad behavior should the Liberty board have stepped in?

At what point should the board have gotten out of their collective “corner” to stop a pattern that was happening in public long before Jerry posed and posted a photo with his pants unzipped?

Perhaps some tried. I know for a fact there are excellent people at Liberty University, especially amongst the faculty, staff, and students. Unfortunately, those people have had no power to change the university’s president. That authority resides only with the board.

WHEN WATCHING IS PARTICIPATING

This point brings up a broader problem that is relevant for all of us. It has to do with how sin, power, and the idol of “proximity” often collude in broken institutions.

Humans crave influence. And we tend to see that influence as magnified by our proximity to power. So when Christian leaders show themselves to be corrupt and un-Christlike, those called to hold them accountable face a difficult choice.

If they speak up, they could lose “proximity” and “influence.” Hence, the easy path is to rationalize one’s silent “watching” as if that does not make one part of the whole sordid affair.

CONCLUSION

That’s why a new president won’t fix Liberty. Only God can do that–and that same God can even redeem the Falwells. No one is beyond hope.

But for Liberty University, a crucial further step is this: Every board member that did not speak up against Falwell’s other disqualifying actions should also be replaced. And their replacements should come from the ranks of those who were brave enough to speak truth to power long before this week.

If Falwell’s latest scandal teaches anything, it’s that silently watching from the corner can itself be a form of complicit participation.


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The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 10.43.45 AM
Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

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The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 2)

Why call individualism a heresy and not just a bad idea?

While the first installment in this series dealt with a definition (and some examples) of what might be called a “toxic individualism,” the present post touches on some biblical and theological reasons for rejecting such a posture.

But first, a brief digression.

THE TWO EXTREMES

I wrote my PhD thesis on a British theologian named Colin Gunton.

In several works (but especially The One, the Three and the Many), Gunton ping-pongs between theology, Scripture, philosophy, and political theory in order to understand the nature of human and divine personhood.

In so doing, he identifies two ideological extremes in modern times: 

  1. Western Individualism, and
  2. Eastern (Communist) Collectivism.

IMG_1846 2.jpg
Like many of Gunton’s sweeping claims, this is more than a little oversimplified, but I still think it can be helpful.

His claim is that both extremes represent deficient understandings of God, humanity, and the nature of reality.

In his words,

The person is neither an individual, defined in terms of separateness from others, nor one who is swallowed up in the collective (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 13).

Building on a certain doctrine of the Trinity, Gunton writes the following:

To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others cut off from the them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship.

Being a person is about being from and for and with the other. I need you – and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others, and to the world from which they come (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 14; italics added).

PARTICULARITY AND PARTICIPATION

In contrast to Western individualism and Communist Collectivism, we might highlight the Christian concepts of “particularity” and “participation.”

Particularity speaks to the way we retain our distinct identities by virtue of our relationships, not in spite of them. To use an example: I am not my wife, but my relationship with Brianna makes me distinctly who I am in innumerable ways.

Particularity is important as it helps us see and appreciate differences rather than consuming others or homogenizing them with foolish and dishonest phrases like “I don’t see color.”

Particularity is beatified by participation.

Participation means that I am bound up with others in a way that baffles and and offends the individualist.

SOME BIBLICAL EXAMPLES

Scripture gives multiple examples of a shared existence that is very far from an isolating modern individualism, even if we struggle to understand what that means.

Salvation is being “in Christ” through a union wrought by the Holy Spirit.

The two become “one flesh” in marriage, which is an imperfect picture of Christ and the church.

Paul was crucified “with Christ” despite never having met Jesus in his pre-ascended state.

Jesus prays that his followers would “be one,” just as he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” him (John 17:21).

To show hospitality to the hungry, the naked, the immigrant, or the imprisoned is to welcome Jesus in disguise (Matt 25).

Romans claims that we can be united with Christ in his death (by baptism), and so also united with his resurrection life (6:5).

1 Corinthians says that “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (6:17).

Ephesians states that Christians “are all members of one body” (Eph 4:25).

Colossians claims that “all things” in heaven and earth hold together “in him” who is the Son (Col 1:16-17).

Hebrews says that Christ “shared in [our] humanity” when he took on human flesh (2:14-16).

And 2 Peter claims that humans may actually “participate in the divine nature” because of what God has done for us (1:4).

To unpack each of these references would require more time and wisdom than I have. But the overriding point is that personhood is porous: we are designed to be both distinct and yet united with others (both human and divine) in relationships of love and obligation.

Or as Paul writes, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19).

CONCLUSION

None of this makes any sense through the lens of Western individualism, wherein the highest value is independence. It is heresy. And that’s good news.

So while an apt description of current American culture might be that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; ESV), the biblical hope is more in-keeping with some marriage imagery from the musical Hamilton (I couldn’t resist…):

“To your union, and the hope that it provides.”

 


In the next post, I’ll tackle what Scripture has to say about the reality of “structural” or “systemic” Sin, as opposed to purely individualistic conception of transgression.


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The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)

The heresy of radical individualism (Part 1)
[*This is the first in a series of posts on radical individualism. In it, I hope to touch on questions of the common good, human responsibility, racial justice, and how Jesus saves.]

Tim Keller makes a point about the way we Americans sing our national anthem.

At sporting events or graduations, the cheering begins during the next to last line: “O’er the land of free…”—at which point, the singer invariably elongates the final word:

“…freeeeeee–eeee!”

The song finishes with a nod to “the brave,” but both the vocals and the cheering highlight individual freedom as what Keller calls “the main theme and value of our society.”

So, in the diagnosis of Jake Meador, “the solution to every problem is simple: more freedom.”

I’ve been thinking of this lately. Because whether it’s the debate over systemic vs. individual racism (future post), or a stubborn refusal to wear face masks, it’s clear that America is unique in its attachment to individualism.

You might say, we’re “exceptional.”

pandemic chart
We’re winning.

In extreme cases, even the smallest impositions for the common good are taken as tyrannical calls for freedom’s martyrs to live out the final scene in Braveheart.

Case in point: This was the result in a Florida City Council when elected officials voted unanymously to require face masks in certain public spaces. (Whatever your thoughts on masking, you have to admit this is, uh, a bit extreme.)

 

And you thought you’d have to wait till July 3rd to stream Hamilton.

So much exceptionalism.

THE UPSIDE OF INDIVIDUALISM

Of course, individualism has upsides.

It can be a safeguard against actual tyranny, an endorsement of universal human rights, and a means of encouraging democracy and meritocracy. All good. (It is also vastly preferable to a Communist Collectivism, that dumpster fire of 20th c. ideology.)

But for Christians, there is a reason why “individualism” has never been a heralded as a virtue. In many forms, it clashes sharply with the Kingdom of God: that undemocratic realm led by the “one” in whom we live and move and have our being.

DEFINING RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

But first things first: What is radical (American) individualism?

In his famous work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following in 1835:

“[American] Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

De Tocqueville’s point is that one distinctly American form of individualism “leaves the greater society to look after itself” while I focus on “me” and “my circle.”

But of course, things have changed since 1835. More recently, Mark Sayers offers some hallmarks of what is called “expressive individualism.”

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows.

4. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

THE COMMON GOOD

In the end, the most obvious problem with radical individualism is how a stress on “my rights” and “my preferences” overshadows my responsibility for the common good.

This “freedom” is entirely negative.

Hence the Christian pastor and actual (non-Floridian) martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has this to say:

In the Bible, freedom is not something [one] has for [the self], but something [one] has for others … It is not a possession … but a relationship … Only in relationship with the other am I free.

For this reason, the apostle Paul writes that “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

CONCLUSION

In future posts, I’d like to ask how a biblical view of love and personhood may challenge certain individualist assumptions–even while it steers far clear of a collectivist homogeneity.

For now, however, my conclusion is this: Radical individualism runs contrary not only to the common good (and common sense), but also to the commonly held teachings of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 


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