Monday, January 28, 2013

Decoding the Bible

I've been thinking about how Christians often seem to have a tendency to pick out passages of the Bible to defend positions that can ultimately be debunked by history.  For example - you won't find very many people in America today condoning slavery.  But go back to the 1800's and look through some of the literature and you might find that some Christians felt that the Bible fully condoned slavery.  In fact, they felt it was those who were against slavery who were quite mistaken, and even saw them as heretical, questioning the authority of God.  These pro-slavery Christians would point to passages such as Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Ephesians 6:9, and Colossians 4:1, which all deal with the treatment of slaves.  As is pointed out by Pastor Henry Brinton of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia (from this article):
In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, "slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Ephesians 6:5), or "tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect" (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.

Today, you'll find few Christians taking this position.  History has given us new perspective, and we've left this particular debate behind.  But there are other examples where Christians have used the Bible to support arguments we have now left behind, such as (but not limited to): the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, and Segregation.  So the disturbing question we are faced with, in light of our history of using the Bible to support arguments that are ultimately debunked by history, is this: are we currently using the Bible to defend arguments which will be seen in the future as having been soundly debunked and shameful positions?  And the question that should follow it is this: how can we avoid using the Bible to support positions which may ultimately be seen to have been harmful to the cause of Christ?

To illustrate how difficult approaching the Bible can be, let's look at how the Bible deals with enemies.  Jesus tells us in Mathew 5:44 to love them.  Paul tells us in Romans 12:17-21 not to repay evil with evil (and he doubles down on the rhetoric by telling us not to seek revenge), but to repay evil with good and seek to live in peace with everyone.  But then in Psalm 137:9 the writer speaks about taking joy in the fact that Israel's enemies have had their babies dashed against the rocks.  In Psalm 139:19, the writer prays for God to destroy the wicked.  In Deuteronomy 7:1-6, it seems that God, Himself, has commanded the Israelites to completely destroy their enemies and show no mercy. 

There are a number of other arguments we could have, using the Bible to justify two contradictory positions, as well as ways we could use the Bible to justify positions that are not acceptable in modern society.  So how do we avoid taking up these kinds of positions?  How can we assure ourselves that we haven't already taken positions which will one day be seen as unacceptable even in Christian societies?  As I've thought about this problem, I came up with an analogy that I'd like to share.  I am aware that it is not a perfect analogy, but it helps me to deal with this problem and I hope it helps some of you as well.

I am a computer programmer.  Computer programs are often written in a way that involves building layers upon layers - writing code that can be re-used for multiple purposes.  One piece of code can inherit the properties of another piece of code and then expand upon it in order to serve another purpose.  Sometimes, in a particular business, programmers will write a set of libraries that can then be re-used in multiple projects, so that if they want to apply the same security rules for all of their projects, for example, they simply need to import the security library and declare that set of rules to apply to their new project.  But then, sometimes when they do this, they will have a project that is a bit of a special case, and they will apply the security library rules, but add to or modify them in order to serve the needs of this special case. 

With this in mind, it is often difficult to enter a support role where a programmer was not involved in the original design of the code.  It can be quite tricky to decode these layers upon layers of code and understand how they function.  One trick that has helped me in doing this is to keep in sight the end result.  Often I will be asked to fix a "bug" in a program, and the very first thing I will do is to make sure I can reproduce these results.  I want to see how the code actually functions, and what the result is.  Once I've seen this, I know for certain that this result exists and can be reproduced.  If I see code that doesn't seem as if it would produce these results, I know there must be something I'm missing - some other piece of code that changes the result somehow.  If I know the result is true, then it doesn't matter if I'm reading a particular piece of code that doesn't seem to end in this result.  So when I'm faced with this situation, I know that I have to keep looking.

So, if we carry this analogy to the Bible, you can imagine it like the "code" for how we are supposed to live our lives.  This code is quite complex, and multi-layered.  The Jews had a couple of terms they liked to use for referring to what we now call the "Old Testament" - the Law, and the Word of God.  I think God left us a profound clue for understanding what the result of his code is.  In John 1:1-5, John tells us that Jesus is the embodiment of the Word of God:
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
The Word gave life to everything,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

So, when I think about this passage like a Programmer, I think that maybe Jesus is like the executable that results from compiling the code of the Bible.  If we want to understand how all of the code of the Bible works when practiced perfectly in real life, we have no further to look than the way Jesus lived his life on earth.  And when Jesus was on earth, he often faced disagreements from the religious leaders of his day, who would accuse him of not following certain commands of the law.  For example, in Mark 2:22-28, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath.  But Jesus illustrates for them that they have misunderstood this law, and tells them that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  And in Matthew 5, Jesus makes a series of very powerful statements starting with this: "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose."  He then goes on to make a series of "you have heard that it was said" statements, where he illustrates that though many of the religious leaders of his day have observed the letter of the law, they have not accomplished a life that embodies the spirit of the law. 

All too often, we take the Bible in the same way a lawyer would, and pick out statements and cases that support the purpose we have, and then use it to beat down our opposition.  But Jesus illustrated how mistaken this approach is through his life.  If you believe that he embodied a life that perfectly accomplished the purpose of the law, you may start to understand that perhaps the limitations of the words used to express the law could not accomplish the task of fully illustrating what its purpose was, but Jesus' life succeeded where words fail.  Perhaps looking at Jesus' life as the result of the execution of the code will help us to decode the Bible.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Are Christians Persecuted in America?

I was recently involved in a conversation where I made a point which implied that Christian persecution was not the issue we need to be worried about, and was asked [to paraphrase] "you don't think Christians are persecuted in America?"  I would like to answer this, and I didn't want to waste keystrokes as I think this is a valuable discussion to have with anyone who calls themselves a Christian. 

First, let's start with some facts that I'd like you to chew on: a recent Gallup poll conducted in 2011 concluded that 78% of American adults identify with a form of Christianity.  Furthermore, it found that out of those who identified themselves in the poll with some form of religion, 95% of them identify themselves as Christians.

Now, while you chew on that, I'd like to tell you about a hero of mine.  This hero lived approximately 2,000 years ago in a land known as Israel, whose people were known as Jews.  During the time that he lived in, his people lived in a state where their land had been invaded and taken over violently by an oppressive regime.  The government of this regime believed, quite literally, that their emperor was a son of a god and thus was to be worshipped as a god himself.  The Jews believed there was only one God, and only He was the only one they should worship.  Another one of their sacred beliefs held that it was wrong to eat pork.  So the enforcers of this oppressive regime, in order to flush out "Judaizers", would often force the Jews to sacrifice or even eat the meat of pigs publicly - and if they did not, they would be killed.  This government was clearly oppressive, and its beliefs were clearly in conflict with the beliefs of the Jews.

So the question was - how would they respond to this situation?  There were three main responses that the Jews had to their situation.  The Zealots' response was to revolt.  They believed in resisting the government, and even overthrowing it by any means, including violence.  The Essenes' response was to withdraw.  They believed that the world they lived in had become so corrupt that the only response was to withdraw completely and devote themselves to a life of purity.  And the Sadducees decided to assimilate.  They often worked as tax collectors and paid allegiance to the emperor.

Now, the hero in my story had some radical teachings that were strange and unusual to...well, everyone in his time.  He taught that humility was a virtue, and that his followers were to act as servants to those they encountered - this was strange and unusual as in his day, as one of the marks of the heroes of legend was their pride and another was the strength exhibited in how they vanquished their enemies.  My hero taught to love your neighbors as yourself, and when asked what the definition of "neighbor" was, he told a story where a man whose religion rivaled the Jewish religion helped a Jewish man who had been robbed, beaten, and left to die, and then this hero posed the question "which man acted as a neighbor?" right back to those who had questioned him.  To put it in today's terms, imagine the man who had been beaten and robbed was a Southern Baptist and the man who helped him was Muslim.

This hero even went so far as to teach the Jews to love their enemies, something which was unheard of. He demonstrated his teaching on loving enemies in a way that frightened the Jews - at one point, a crowd so big had gathered to hear this hero speak that he had to get in a boat and have his companions row him out into a lake to teach.  And after he was finished teaching, he said "take me to the other side."  The other side was a land that Israel had been in many battles and wars with.  They practiced a religion that involved using prostitutes as an act of worship towards their gods, drunken orgies, and even child sacrifices.  One of the men in the boat with this hero was so afraid that he begged to be allowed to go home and get his affairs in order before they crossed over.  On the other side was a man who was an outcast because of his insane rages - he had been possessed by an evil spirit.  The hero asked the spirit's name, and it identified itself as "Legion", which was a loaded name, as the oppressive regime that Israel was subject to called their groups of soldiers by the same name.  The hero commanded the spirit to leave the man and go into a herd of pigs - also somewhat loaded imagery.  This hero's authority had been demonstrated in this event, as the spirit listened and obeyed.  Later on, some of the other people of this enemy territory saw the hero talking to this man, and that the formerly possessed man was coherent.  When they heard the story, they begged the hero to leave because they were afraid of his power.  The formerly possessed man asked to be allowed to accompany the hero.  But the hero told the formerly possessed man to stay and tell his people the story of what happened to him.  Later on, this hero returned to this enemy territory and was greeted by one of the largest crowds that had ever greeted him, and it was a dramatic event as many people were healed by his power that day, many just from touching him.

This hero addressed all three of the main responses to the oppressive regime that I outlined.  At one point, one of the commanders in the army of the oppressive regime asked this hero for help with a sick servant who was like a son to him.  The hero told the commander to lead the way to his home, but the commander replied:
"Say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." 
After hearing this, the hero's reply was that he had "not found anyone in Israel with such great faith."  Imagine the Zealots' reaction to this - the hero just implied that none of them had faith like this man who was one of their sworn enemies.  The hero taught that "if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles" - this directly referenced a practice by the oppressive regime where their soldiers had the right to force citizens to carry their heavy packs for a mile.  This was not a popular teaching for the Zealots.

This hero healed lepers and socialized with prostitutes, people of other religions, tax collectors, and all manner of sinners.  He ignored common conceptions of purity.  This was not popular with the Essenes.

One day, someone tried to entrap the hero and make him say something that would enrage those he taught by asking a loaded question: "we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to [the emperor] or not?"  When this hero was a boy, a man named Judas of Galilee had led a revolt about this various issue, and had been executed with about two thousand of his followers.  Also, it should be noted that on the face of the coins of the oppressive regime was a phrase that is translated "[the emperor] is lord".  If the hero had responded "yes" to this question, it would outrage many Jews.  If he answered "no", he would likely be executed by the oppressive regime.  But the hero said "show me the coin used to pay this tax."  He did not carry one of his own.  He did not assimilate like the Sadducees.  Then the hero asked "Whose picture and title are stamped on [this coin]?"  They had to reply that it was the emperor's.  So the hero said "give back to [the emperor] what is [the emperor's], and to God what is God's."  This not only reinforced the hero's disagreement with the Zealots, but it introduced a new idea - there are some things which do not belong to the governmental leaders.

This hero also had a group of close friends known as his disciples.  Among his disciples was a man named Simon, who was known as Simon the Zealot: he despised the oppressive regime and anyone who collaborated with them, such as tax collectors.  Another one of the disciples was Matthew, who was a tax collector.  This hero had a new strategy that none of the three groups had thought of.  It was to love everyone, regardless of their social status, position, politics, race, or vocation.  His response to those who oppressed his people was to say "I love you and I'm inviting you to join me in loving others."  One of the hero's disciples picked up on the fact that the instruction to love your enemies meant that you had to forgive them.  This disciple asked the hero "how many times should I forgive?  7 times?"  He thought 7 was generous.  The hero answered "not 7 times.  70 times 7."  The hero knew that no one was going to count that high.

The unnamed hero in my story is Jesus, and he is the One that I follow.  He was called Christ, and this is where the moniker "Christian" came from.  And somehow, with all I've just laid out for you in mind, I feel like the question "are Christians persecuted in America?" is irrelevant.  Somehow, I feel like it's not even the right question to ask, and if one is asking it they are distracting, and are distracted from, the message of my hero.  And, strangely enough, it seems that often the people who constantly shout about Christian persecution seem to be persecuting others.  But I want to move on - I don't feel it necessary to pose this question because there are so many more important questions I'd like to ask.  Because I believe that the one I follow taught a different way of dealing with the troubles of this world.  I believe he taught me that if I am being persecuted, I ought to respond with love, and love does not demand its own way, and it keeps no record of wrong.

Now, for a more humorous take on the answer to this question....

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In the Name of the Fodder
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GOP - Special Victims Unit
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some interesting thoughts on Jōdo Shinshū

I have been reading a book called "Who Is This Man?" by a man named John Ortberg.  The book seeks to explore how the teachings of Jesus have left a mark on history, and there are some astounding revelations and challenging ideas within.  One of the interesting observations that Mr. Ortberg makes is that Jesus changed a very important and well-known Jewish teaching - in Deuteronomy 6:5 the commandment was to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength", but in the gospels we see that Jesus changed the word "strength" to "mind" - though in the version of the story told by Mark we see that "all your mind" was inserted and "all your strength" followed.  But the point was that Jesus added this idea of loving God with your mind.  And as Mr. Ortberg explores how this affected history, he makes some very interesting and challenging observations.  He notes how, before Jesus, the common practice of invading nations was to destroy the works of the nation that they invaded in order to wipe that culture out and insert themselves as the new dominant culture.  But this seems to have stopped after Jesus.  As Jaroslav Pelikan says:
"One may perhaps begin to comprehend how completely Christ the Monk conquered the scholarly world of the Middle Ages by checking, in the standard modern editions, how many works of antiquity even exist for us today only because they were copied by monks in some medieval scriptorium... [works of] not only Christian saints but of classical and pagan authors." 
The idea, as it is proposed by Mr. Ortberg in his book and now paraphrased by me, is that we are not to reject all that comes from those who are not members of our faith without examination, but are to engage their ideas without fear, as (to paraphrase Augustine) "all truth is God's truth".  To put it another way, as Mr. Ortberg says:
"To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.  It means cherishing truth whether it comes from the Bible or from science or from an atheist.  It means anti-intellectualism is anti-Christian." 
Later on, Mr. Ortberg says:
"Loving God with all your mind means answering the works of people you disagree with, rather than burning the works.  Loving God with all your mind means you don't have to be nervous about where a book might lead if its reader is sincerely seeking truth." 
It is in this spirit that I went on the intellectual journey I am about to relay to my readers in the hopes that it causes some interesting thoughts and inspiration for others as well.

Searching for Truth in Jōdo Shinshū
I have a friend from Japan.  We'll call him "Kenny" to protect his identity.  I met him at Prog Power USA, a music festival that is located in Atlanta, GA, which I have repeatedly attended with two very good friends of mine.  We were standing in line this year waiting to get into the festival on the first day and "Kenny" was in front of us wearing a Dream Theater shirt.  I complimented his shirt, and that led to more discussions of music, and we found out he was visiting from Japan and was in America for the first time.  We ended up sitting with him during some parts of the festival, standing with him on the main floor for some other parts, and we even offered him a ride to his hotel both nights.  I am very glad to have had the pleasure of meeting "Kenny" as he has a very pleasant personality, and after the festival we ended up connecting through Facebook and email, and have had a few online interactions since.

Recently I had posted an anti-fear quote on my Facebook and mentioned a Christian teaching that was on my mind the other day.  "Kenny" commented on this, expressing his appreciation of the teaching I had mentioned and made some mention of the state of religion in Japan.  So, out of curiosity I messaged him a couple days later asking him about his own religion.  He mentioned Jōdo Shinshū, which is a form of Budhism.  So, continuing in my curiosity I read a few things about Jōdo Shinshū.  I will not claim to be an expert at all, and I hope I do not butcher the teachings I am about to relay, but I found some things I read about it to be interesting.  In particular I found a teaching known as "shinjin" to be interesting - a couple sources I read about this teaching mentioned its similarity to what Christians call "faith", but went a little further by saying that this does not capture the nuances of the teaching.  You see, shinjin has a certain concept to it that has been described in English as being "egoless" - the concept being that you cannot attain shinjin (or faith) without renouncing or releasing your own ego.  Furthermore, the teaching of shinjin is that it can only be attained by renouncing self effort and taking refuge in Tariki, which is translated in English by some as meaning "other power". 

I find this nuanced understanding of faith to be quite interesting as I see some similarities to Christianity that members of the Christian faith may actually miss.  The word "ego" does not appear anywhere in the Bible...however the idea of losing one's ego is actually a familiar idea to me, as I find it very similar to the Bible's teachings about humility.  In the Bible, the first sin occurred when Adam and Eve were told that they could "be like God" if they were to eat a certain fruit - a fruit which comes from a tree we often refer to as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  So as I thought about the similarities of the Jōdo Shinshū teaching on shinjin to Christianity, I had the following thoughts on the original sin:
- Man wanted to be like God.  I'm not sure the desire to be like God is necessarily, in and of itself, evil.  For example, in Ephesians 5:1, it says to "imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children."
- So what was the real problem?  Perhaps the real problem was not that man wanted to be like God, but that he - rather than seeking God in response to this desire - tried to attain this goal through his own means.  He tried to attain this goal through an attempt to gain knowledge through his own power, from other sources than God.

So then I was thinking about the idea of needing to become "egoless" in order to attain shinjin, and its similarity to the teachings of the Bible on humility.  For example, Matthew 23:12 says:
"Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." 
And in I Cor. 4:7 Paul asks the question: 
"What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
And the most profound example of humility and its results are in the person of Jesus - as described in Philippians 2:6-9:
"Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names."

Perhaps the most similar Christian teaching to shinjin is found in Ephesians 2:8-9:
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."

So the question that entered my mind as I pondered the Jōdo Shinshū teaching of shinjin in relation to my own faith is this:
What if we began to see faith as being unattainable through our own understanding, and saw pride (or lack of humility) as a faith killer?  How could we go about loving God with our mind and searching for truth, while maintaining humility and not relying on our own understanding?  What would that look like?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on these musings!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

We are at war?

In the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting, there have been many, many opinions that have surfaced.  This is most likely frustrating for many, and they would possibly wish for people to stop talking about the issue altogether.  And in the days that followed the shooting, when some called for action this upset others.  But everything happens for a reason, and events call us to action.  When a light-bulb burns out in your house, you are called to an appropriate action.  When your car breaks down, you are called to an appropriate action.  And when society breaks down, you are called to an appropriate action.

Let's examine some of the analyses and proposed causes of the problem:

God has been pushed out of Schools (see here for an elegant contention to this argument)

Not enough guns in schools

Teacher's unions

Not enough manly men in schools and too many womenfolk in schools

Too many children in schools

Mental illness and self-esteem movement

Autism / Asperger's syndrome


Video Games

Fisher Price Toys


The media!

LIBOR Scandal and the Hunger Games movie

Jon Stewart (side note: when his show returns, I hope for a hilarious reply from him)

The OBAMA Regime Brainwashed him!

Abortion pills

Gay Marriage


Schools teach "junk about evolution" and "how to be a homo"

The 1968 Democratic Convention

Now, some of these are obviously (should be, at least) insane.  And it should be noted that I feel some of these may have a point - such as the reasoning that video games have become too violent.  That might be a discussion we need to have, to some extent or other.  But why is it that so many people seem to want to distract us from any direct reasoning towards the obvious sources of the problem?  It is very, very hard for me to make a connection between some of the "reasons" people have offered and the actions that occurred at Newtown, CT.  So how can we come up with a solution to this problem?  Yes, this is a complex issue, and the answer will not be simple.  But why is it that so many reasonable people simply will not touch the GLARINGLY OBVIOUS?  I'd like to offer my opinion (yeah, I'm so closed about it, I know) and my proposals (the latter of which I recognize are not complete), and as being a Christian is a large part of my life and a source of identity, this will include some Christian perspective.  But let's start with the most glaringly obvious problem and the simplest solution:

As in the example I provided in the beginning of this post - if your light-bulb burns out, you get to the direct source of your problem, and you replace it!  So, DUH, why are so many people so afraid to talk about gun control?  Yeah, if you take away "their" guns, they can still kill.  With, say, a car.  But in order to get a car, you need a license, which needs to be renewed periodically.  And in order to get this license you need to go through the proper education, and you need to take a written test proving your knowledge in the subject, and you need to take a physical driving exam as well, proving that you are competent.   And every so often you need to take your car in to get it inspected to make sure it is still in proper condition.  And if you are involved in certain illegal activities, or if you develop certain medical conditions, you lose your license and need to go through the process of proving you are competent all over again.  So why don't we go through a similar process for guns?  Cars don't just kill people - they get us from point A to point B.  They serve a purpose.  The only purpose of a gun is to kill.  So why are guns regulated less strictly than cars?  (Hint: there i$ an an$wer to that que$tion.)

Now as I said, I recognize this is a more complex issue - as in my "light-bulb" analogy, if your light-bulb burns out repeatedly in a short span of time, there may be a deeper issue.  But you still replace the bulb, right?  But what else is a problem here?  Let's stay with the direct approach for a minute here - the shooter in the Newtown incident, it seems, had mental issues, so....

Mental Health
Yeah, we need to make mental health care more easily available.  We need to treat mental health issues as if they were of the same importance as other forms of health issues, and health insurance ought to pay for mental health care with the same sense of urgency and importance as they do for other health issues.  We need to make education on the subject of mental health more readily available to parents who may have children with mental health issues.  And we need to figure out how to be more sensitive and remove the stigmas that hold people with mental traumas back from coming out and admitting their problems and asking for help.

Ok, I've given two very direct proposals to the problem.  And I said that the issue was complex, so what else do I think is contributing to this problem?

The Newtown CT shooting, and proposed solutions to it have been hashed and re-hashed so many times that my readers might be wondering why I'm even bothering to chime in.  I, myself, did not intend to write any of my own opinions (it was easier to just link to other people's articles when they said things that resonated with me - there was an abundance of them).  That was until I saw a link on a friend's Facebook to a Christian blogger who seemed to believe that the reason for the shooting was spiritual warfare aimed at banishing Christianity from our culture.  When I saw him using the phrase "we are at war", combined with the sense that he was blaming culture for the shooting, it just didn't sit right with me.  Over the past few years I have come to believe that there is a war on Christianity, and that the reason it has been so successful is that there are too many Christians fighting on the wrong side of that war - I believe the problem is not that culture is trying to banish Christianity, but that Christians are fighting an ugly battle to call more attention to themselves and their piety and in so doing are banishing themselves. 

Ok, let me unpack that - what is a Christian?  A Christian is a follower of Christ - a person who seeks to emulate Christ.  What does that mean?  Jesus gave us a good definition, himself, in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  When I hear Christians talking about the war on Christianity, somehow it doesn't sound right in context with this statement.  Somehow, I think we stopped furthering Christ and started fighting a war that is actually damaging our own cause.  As we've given in to fear, we've lost sight of love.  Jesus said to love "as I have loved you" - he gave us a perfect example of how to be a Christian in his own life.  He showed us how he wants us to live when he reached out to the marginalized in his day.  Jesus began his ministry in love - he met people's needs.  And then, after he had earned the right to speak to them this way, he preached.  Too often we preach first and never ask how we can meet needs.  Too often, we fight to make sure our voice is heard above all others, never realizing that if you follow Jesus' example and meet the needs of those around you, you won't need to fight to be heard: they might just ask you why you are doing the things you do.

I believe that in today's political culture, we have an epidemic of fear.  So many ridiculous conspiracy theories have popped up in the last few years that I think people have started to become used to this type of rhetoric, and to accept the fear before ever questioning it.  And perhaps one of the best examples of the ugliness of this paranoia is the very same group that promotes gun ownership (each word goes to a different article) - and this group actually profits every time there is a shooting in our nation!  Fear gives birth to more fear, and the epidemic only grows.  And it is a sickness that results in devastating symptoms - when we allow fear to take root in our hearts, that fear begins to justify irrational paths in our minds.  We begin to manufacture reasons as to why our fears are rational, and we protect this line of reasoning at all costs. 

There is a term in psychology known as cognitive dissonance - a theory proposed by Leon Festinger in 1954 to describe “the feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another. Festinger proposed that the greater the discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce the dissonance of the two cognitive elements” (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999).  Before the Newtown shootings occurred, the NRA preached fear of the government taking away their constituents' guns, even when the gun control laws have actually relaxed over recent years, and yet they kept preaching their fearful prophecies and profited big time.  And now that deadly shootings are becoming a rampant occurrence in our society, rather than face the uncomfortable truth that the push to make destructive weapons more available to people, and filling those people with fear may have caused this situation, more twisted conspiracy theories are surfacing in order to reduce the discomfort.

Believe me, this is not the only example of cognitive dissonance (each word goes to a different article, and that's just skimming the surface) in today's discourse.  Fear has infected our nation like a cancer, and what really bothers me is how it has infected the church.  Logic has been discarded for ideology, and love has been traded in for fear and hatred.  Idols have been made in the form of guns and rich people, and McCarthyist style witch hunts have been conducted to distract us from the real problems our nation faces.  And I pray for our nation, and especially for the church, that we would turn from fear and battle it with love.  Yes - we are at war.  But the reason we are losing is that we are trying to fight this war with conventional means, rather than following the radical example of Jesus who fought his battles with love.