Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


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Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC

In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: 

“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].” 

And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.

In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Likewise, Sanders said:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.

She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.

But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”

And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.

WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES

This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.

In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.

What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws.  Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).

Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)

In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”

“Obey the ruling authorities…”

THE “WHISKY BIBLE”

With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.

And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.

It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.

It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.

So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.

And it’s not just me who thinks so  – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).

NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM

In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)

All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.

On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.

“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.

Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.

For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.

Could any sober person miss the irony?

A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH

One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.

Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.

As Alan Jacobs writes (here):

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.

The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.

CONCLUSION

We must do better.

But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.

 


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Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.

Things – for money.

In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.

And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.

Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.

But eventually the truth came out.

One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.

Somewhere a rooster crowed.

All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.

And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.

THE GOSPEL IS NEW MUSIC

And that’s the trouble for Christians too.

All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.

So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.

It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.

The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”

Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.

JESUS, THE IMPRACTICAL

But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.

In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.

A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:

  • “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”

Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.

I WAS A STRANGER

I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.

A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.

My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.

The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.

So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.

In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.

IN FAIRNESS…

To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”

But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.

Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.

To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.

Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.

This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.

But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.

And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.


For one organization helping refugees, see here.

For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.

God of Immigrants: Three points for Christians to remember

God of Immigrants: Three points for Christians to remember

In some ways, the Bible is a chronicle of immigrants.

This is true from Adam to Abram, Moses to Mary, Jacob to Jesus.

The Scriptures record the sojourns of vulnerable families who set out from their native land in search of safety and provision.

This reality is even enshrined in a “creed” that the Israelites were to recite upon taking possession of the Promised Land.

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance… Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders… (Deut. 26.1, 5—8).

MY FATHER WAS A WANDERING IMMIGRANT

One reason for the recitation was to remind the people of their “rootless roots.”

They were not always planted in positions of security and dominance.

Their forefather (Jacob) had been a wandering immigrant in search of food and safety. And his own son (Joseph) had been trafficked to a foreign land.

Thus there was a call to treat later foreigners with hospitality.

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22.21).

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.” (Exod. 12.49; Lev. 24.22).

“You shall not strip your vineyards bare…leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev. 19.9–10; 23.22).

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19.33–34; 24.22).

But what implications might this have for us today?

Spoiler alert: I don’t think it means that borders are meaningless and that all illegal immigration is okay.

THE DEBATE

As we know, immigration (both legal and illegal) remains a controversial subject.

Indeed, words like Trump, Syria, and “Brexit” now bear witness to this. (Incidentally, I have it on good authority that for every pun invented to describe an EU exit—a kitten dies. “Brussels pouts” killed untold thousands.)

But back to the topic.

Immigration issues are complex: national security, economic stability, fairness, race, religion, social services, the rule of law, and many more. And as always, both sides have sometimes oversimplified the conversation. With that in mind, there is no way that a brief blog post can do justice to the topic.

Given that, my goal is merely to set out three broad ideas that the American church must keep in mind amid the controversy.

  1. Commands to show hospitality to immigrants still apply to Christians.

While America is not ancient Israel, the Bible is clear that God wants his people to reach out in love and service to the immigrant and the foreigner. This much is non-negotiable. Jesus even says that to welcome the “stranger” is to welcome him. Thus a lack of love for the other may be a lack of love for Christ (Mt. 25).

  1. Care for immigrants does not mean endorsing all illegal immigration.

In addition to welcoming the foreigner, the Bible also calls Christians to respect the rule of law (e.g., Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2). Thankfully, there are many legal ways to show love for immigrants, even if some are undocumented. Many churches lead citizenship classes, offer low-cost legal services, and host foreign language gatherings (see here).

As The Wesleyan Church states:

Immigration is an issue, but immigrants are people, and Christ’s love compels [us] to act as agents of Spirit-filled outreach and hospitality to all.

  1. Christians should embrace wise reform over (racist) rhetoric.

One thing that everyone admits is that U.S. immigration policy is broken. Change is needed. Yet wise reform is often impeded (on both sides) by rhetoric that is meant to score political points rather than address a complex issue.

In fairness, not all who call for a wall are being overtly racist. And it isn’t fair to say that those wanting to secure the border do so out of bigotry. Love and law need not be antithetical.

Still, there is often a not-so-subtle current of prejudice behind calls to “take back our country.” (Ironically, a phrase not usually uttered by Native Americans.) I know for a fact that my friends of other nationalities hear it this way.

For believers, the right attitude is that “our [true] citizenship is in heaven” (Php. 2) and that we ourselves are resident aliens (1 Pet. 1).

As Paul illustrates, “Christian racism” is a contradiction, an oxy-moron, and a failure to believe the gospel (e.g., Gal. 2.14). And when directed at immigrants, of whatever kind, it is a failure to remember one of the first “creeds” recited by God’s people:

“My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut. 26.5).

CONCLUSION

While these three points are too broad to offer specific solutions to many immigration issues, they may help Christians orient their hearts. And as Proverbs teaches, from the heart “flow springs of life” (Prov. 4.23).