Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Greatest Problem Western Christianity Faces

In an online forum I occasionally haunt, I saw someone post a topic on the following question:

What is the greatest problem that western Christianity faces?

I watched the replies go by for a little bit, and saw a lot of the same, tired answers you might expect if you've hung out in certain circles.  And it's not that none of them were legitimate problems - it's that I find it hard to justify making them the number one problem that the western church faces.  Answers like Biblical illiteracy, the phenomenon called the "rise of the nones" (where youths are leaving the churches in droves), and lack of empathy for the poor are all valid issues.  And then I'd see other answers that I am inclined to argue are not issues at all: answers like "belief in evolution", "allowing sin" (whatever that means - doesn't everyone sin?), or "allowing heretics in the church" (wouldn't that be the best place for them?
  And who gets to decide who the heretics are?  The Biblically illiterate?) - these are all answers that I'd say are indicative of the very problem that I think is the number one problem in the church.

I think the number one problem that western Christianity faces is a lack of humility. 

Oh sure, I thought of a number of other possible answers to that problem.  I thought of how there is a tendency for churches in the West to have an "us vs. them" mentality - pointing fingers at invisible assailants that are supposedly persecuting them by not allowing them to force public prayer in schools as the pharisees would do (Matthew 6:5-6).  I thought of how there is a lack of empathy for the poor, even to the point of scapegoating the poor as being the cause of our economic woes because of their supposed laziness.  I thought of how churches can sometimes be supportive of abusive behavior, and at the same time can be far too quick to cast people out of their communities.  I thought of how churches can sometimes put far too much emphasis on "right belief" and not enough on "right conduct" or "right character".  I thought of how churches can be so busy about the task of pulling specks from eyes without attending to logs within their own, or being the first to cast a stone.  I thought of how churches go about the business of enriching themselves and building enormous monuments in self-promotion, while ignoring the suffering world around.  I thought of how churches spread shame and fear in Jesus' name - both things I believe he would've opposed.

But I think all of those things are all part of the same root issue: a lack of humility.

The western church is set in a particular culture - a culture that prizes capitalism.  Within capitalism, everything is reduced to a product and spoken of in terms of worth.  And it's so easy, within this culture, to become enslaved to the view that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction.  We choose churches and even friends from within this paradigm - if someone is not enhancing my life in the way I'd like, I don't need 'em, and if a church doesn't have music that makes me feel happy and sermons that I find interesting, I don't need to be there.  And then, within these churches, the primary goal often seems to be promoting that church - tithes go towards building projects, or to advertising to bring more people into the church so it can grow bigger and bigger, or maybe to "preaching the gospel" (meaning: going out and presenting doctrinal ideas to "unbelievers" rather than showing unconditional love).

But this doesn't look much like Jesus, if we're honest.  This doesn't look much like the guy who went around serving people - feeding them, healing them, and inviting them into his friendship circle even when society considered them to be undesirables.

The western church is far too concerned with teaching doctrine, and not concerned enough with teaching love.  Paul said in I Cor. 8:1 that "knowledge puffs up while love builds up."  All this emphasis on having proper knowledge is puffing up our churches - filling them with pride.  And this pride stands in the way of loving those who need it most.  And the question I think we need to ask ourselves is: does God really care that much if you know the right things?

In his novel "And God Said, 'Billy!'", Frank Schaeffer writes:

The less you worry about God the better. If there is a Creator - and that is an open question to anyone but an ideologue - do you think He, She or It cares about your "correct" beliefs any more than you care about Rebecca's beliefs about you as the condition for loving her? Think about Rebecca. When you get home someday soon now and see her will you only love her if she remembers the correct date of your birthday and your dietary likes and dislikes and your rules, the correct name to call you and what fruit to eat from what tree in which garden and, when she grows up, when to have sex and with whom?

In many religions, there is a concept of the annihilation of self - Jesus put it this way:

Matthew 16:24b
"If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me."

What this means is that we must put to death the desires that cause barriers to go up between ourselves and our brothers and sisters.  Whatever causes division must go - whether it be physical possessions, or political identities, or even religious beliefs.  Because Jesus didn't say that the mark of a Christian is what they wear, or the lingo they use, or how they vote, or even the doctrine they claim - he said that the world would know if we're his disciples by our love (John 13:35).  And you can't love people if you hold something that's causing division dearer than the beloved - so you must "take up your cross", and put these divisive desires to death in order to take down the barriers between yourself and those around you.  Humility is the first step towards love.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Five Misunderstood Non-Violent Resistance Teachings of Jesus

Understanding Jesus' teachings can be tricky - most often because we did not live in his culture, as well as because they were originally recorded in what is now an extinct language.  I have written before on the subject of the political edge of Jesus' message that becomes clearer when we understand the historical context.  What I'd like to do in this post is to try to demonstrate how 5 of Jesus' well-known sayings teach non-violent resistance to the tyrannical government of empire, but are usually misunderstood outside of his historical context.  So let's start with:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Mt. 5:9)

This statement seems to commonly conjure up images of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild".  

Aw, look, he's so meek!  And very mild!

I think a common understanding of "peacemakers" is this idea that if two people have a disagreement, they should just drop it and be cool!  But the Greek word for peace, eirene, means not only an absence of conflict, but also a reconciled relation that results in a condition of health, prosperity, and well-being for all parties.  Also, one must keep in mind that Jesus would not have spoken these sayings in Greek, but the Greek New Testament would have been a translation of Jesus' native Aramaic.  Thus we must consider the native culture from which Jesus' thoughts sprung, and look into the Hebrew word "shalōm".  In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the scholar William Barclay writes:
In Hebrew, peace is never only a negative state; it never means only the absence of trouble; in Hebrew, peace always means everything which makes for a person’s highest good.

Point being: you can't achieve peace by just "dropping it", if one party is involved in practices that harm another party or prevent them from arriving at a condition of health, prosperity, and well-being.  In order to achieve true peace, you must find a way for all parties involved to avoid practices that harm, whether directly or indirectly.  I think Thomas Merton highlighted the problems with a misunderstanding of peace best, in his book "New Seeds of Contemplation":
To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference.  To others peace means freedom to rob others without interruption.  To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving.  And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.

Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was "peace" and wondered why their prayer was not answered.  They could not understand that it actually was answered.  God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.

The point is that peace is not merely walking away from a fight and pretending everyone is "ok" with each other - peace is removing the sources of conflict; the practices that harm each other (whether directly or indirectly).

Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. (Mark 12:17)

This statement is commonly used as a sort of proof that Jesus was for "separation of church and state" - or to put it in other words, a depoliticization of Jesus.  The message many would desire us to take from this teaching of Jesus was that we should not concern ourselves with political things, but concentrate on spiritual matters so we can "go to heaven" (which, by the way, is not a Biblical concept).

But there are a number of problems with this interpretation of the scenario in this passage.  The larger passage shows us that the officials of the religious authority complex were looking for a way to arrest Jesus, and were planning to catch Jesus in his own words.  What this indicates is that when they asked Jesus if it was right to pay the imperial tax, they expected Jesus to answer in a way that would implicate him in treason so that he could be arrested on the spot.  For Jesus to answer in the affirmative would have negated his teachings up to this point, but to answer in the negative would result in an end to his movement.  So Jesus had to come up with a clever answer to get out of this trap that they had set.

When you put Jesus statement above into the context, you find some interesting things - first of which is the fact that Jesus asks someone to bring him a denarius - the coin which would have been used for this particular tax.  What's interesting is that Jesus didn't have a denarius of his own.  Why wouldn't Jesus have one of his own sitting in his own pocket - why would he have to ask someone to bring him one?

A Roman denarius
A denarius bore a picture of Tiberius on the front with the inscription: "Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus".  This inscription indicated the divinity of Caesar - he was to be regarded as a god in the Roman culture of the empire cult.  This did not mesh well with Jewish beliefs, which included a little command that went "you shall have no other gods before me" and another command about not making graven images.  To even possess this coin could be seen as idolatry to a Jew.  So Jesus didn't even have one on him!

Additionally, the way Jesus words his statement in Mark 12:17 is very interesting.  He starts his statement with: "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's".  The question this statement raises is: what belongs to Caesar?  In other words - some things don't belong to him.  Also, how is it that you're giving back what already belonged to him?

The way Jesus' statement is worded indicates that if you have received benefits from Caesar, you should pay him back according to your debt.  In other words, if you want to protest the unjust taxes, you have no right to do so if you are living off of the benefits of the government.  If you want to protest the unjust system, you should remove yourself completely from the system first - which we see that Jesus has done, since he possesses no money at the time he is asked this question.  This idea has some interesting implications for the American political culture of today:


Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote about this passage:
Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, "How can you who traffic in Caesar's coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar's rule refuse to pay taxes?" Jesus' whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.

The second half of the statement in Mark 12:17 is also very interesting - Jesus says to give to God what is God's.  This statement is a parallel statement - in the first half of the statement, Jesus says to give a coin which bears the image of Caesar back to Caesar.  In the second half of the statement, he makes a parallel statement - the Jewish belief is that all people were made in the image of God.  As the coin bears the image of Caesar, so all people bear the image of God.  So what Jesus is saying in this statement is that we should give the whole of our being over to God!  This was a radical message of resistance, because Jesus was saying that Caesar's authority was limited, and God's authority was unlimited!

Dale Glass-Hess wrote:

It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide.

Next I'm going to examine three statements that appear back to back within Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount", in Matthew 5:39-41.

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Mt. 5:39)

Once again, the picture many seem to draw from this statement is the gentle, meek, and mild Jesus who taught us to lie down and take our beating like a good little slave.  It's as if Jesus was telling us to accept the abuse of the unjust.  But when you examine the historical culture in which this statement was set, you may find that this statement had some interesting connotations.

The first question I think the reader should ask is: why does Jesus specify the right cheek?  To answer that, I'd first ask: how would a person be struck on the right cheek?  The answer is that there are only two ways this could happen: 1) by an overhand blow from the left hand, or 2) by a backhand blow from the right hand.

See?  Right cheek, right hand.

In the Jewish culture of that time, they did not have indoor plumbing with hot water heaters and disinfectant soap like we have today.  So in their culture, it was customary to reserve the right hand for eating and the left hand for "unseemly" uses.  To put it in plain English - you used your left hand to wipe your butt.  Thus, your left hand was considered the "unclean" hand, and to use it to strike another human being would also be considered "unclean".  In other words, if you strike someone with your left hand, it would be seen as a distasteful and vulgar act and you would be seen as morally questionable as a result.

But a backhand blow from the right hand indicated an authority structure in that culture - a master would strike his slave that way.  You didn't hit an equal with an awkward backhand blow like that - it was specifically meant to humiliate the person being struck.

So what Jesus is doing in this statement is teaching his audience how to resist abusive authority in a non-violent way - if someone puts them in a position over you and then uses their power abusively, "turn the other cheek".  In other words - force them to stop using backhand blows!  Turning the other cheek forces the other party to switch to overhand blows which would have been used in a fight between equals!

As Walter Wink writes in "The Powers That Be":

By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore."

Jesus continues this theme of non-violent resistance in the next statement:

If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. (Mt. 5:40)

This statement becomes hard to understand due to weak translations.  Some translations seem to indicate that the garment involved in the civil suit is the inner garment - a shirt.  But this distorts the picture of non-violent resistance Jesus is painting here.  In the law of that time, if someone failed to pay a debt, the creditor could sue the debtor for their coat.  If you were poor, your coat also served as a blanket at night.  Confiscating a poor man's coat was essentially taking away his only method of warmth, and was an act of cruelty.

So what does Jesus say to do in this scenario?  Give the creditor your cloak as well.  Typically, if you were poor, this was the only other garment you wore.  So to remove this would be to strip naked, and in that culture it was a shame to be exposed to the nakedness of the other human being.  It should also be considered what condition the body of a poor person would be in underneath his/her clothing - it would not be a pleasing sight.  So what Jesus is saying is: if someone cruelly demands your only method of warmth, publicly shame them by stripping naked in front of them and revealing what the unjust system is doing to you.

Jesus finishes this trio of non-violent resistance teachings with this:

Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. (Mt. 5:41)

Once again, without an understanding of history, this teaching sounds like Jesus is telling his audience to just be super nice to people who are trying to take advantage of you.  But when you look into the history, you might find a different story.

Roman law allowed soldiers to command people from the cultures they had conquered to carry their packs for a mile.  This was a way of asserting their dominance over the conquered people - to put them in their place.  But because this law had been abused too often, the law also strictly prohibited the soldiers from requiring any more than a mile.

So what Jesus was doing was telling his audience to put these soldiers into an uncomfortable situation.  This law was a way for Roman soldiers to be legally abusive.  A mile takes a bit of time out of your day - time that is precious to those who work in manual labor that pays by your amount of productivity; and to those who are burdened by debts they have to pay.  

If we keep in mind the law prohibiting a soldier from forcing anything more than a mile, we realize once again that Jesus is not merely teaching his audience to just be super nice and lie down and take your beating like a good little slave - rather, he's telling his audience to put these soldiers into a compromising position.  If you come to the end of your mile, and you keep walking, the soldier has a choice between risking getting into big trouble, or scuffling with you in an attempt to wrestle back his gear!  And this struggle would have caused enough of a fuss to call attention to the situation!

When we put these statements into their proper context, we find that they are radical ways to empower abused people without compromising integrity.  So if one is seeking to be a follower of Jesus, I think it would be a good idea to look for abusive situations in our modern culture, and then seek ways to empower the abused to stand up to their abusers without compromising morality.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Is It Biblical to Deny Climate Change?

One of the issues we face today that I find completely astounding (in that it is even an issue) is the issue of climate change.  I am continually amazed by the people I meet who still deny that it is a fact, and oppose the notion that we should try to do anything about it.  Since most of the people I have met who do this also claim to be "Bible believing Christians", I thought I'd tackle this issue from a Biblical perspective.

Of course we could get into how ridiculous it is to deny Climate Change is real when 97% of climate scientists agree it is, or we could take a look at the details of the science behind it, or we could even discuss the fact that the North Pole has a lake now:

Where's Santa's runway?

Or perhaps the most compelling argument of all: every major insurance company believes in climate change. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of that fact - think of it this way: if a single insurance company decided that they didn't believe in climate change and lowered their prices to undercut the rest, they would make a killing.  And yet every single major insurance company has weighed the risks, and found this idea too risky.

But I think there's more to this problem than science, and besides: there are much smarter people than me (they're called scientists) debating that side of the issue (try googling "climate change peer reviewed studies" sometime).

So I want to make an argument as to why it is not Biblical to deny climate change.  And the argument is really quite simple - so simple that it's baffling that so many people can't see through the rhetoric defending the other side.  The argument is: cause and effect.  Or, to put it in Biblical terms: sowing and reaping.  Galatians 6:7 says that "a man reaps what he sows", and Job 4:8 says that "those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it."  The prophet Hosea says that "they sow the wind and reap the whirlwind" (Hos. 8:7) and later on speaks of planting wickedness and reaping evil (Hos. 10:13).  And Jesus speaks in Matthew 7:15-20 of knowing a false prophet by their fruits - all throughout the Bible the theme of cause and effect are present!  

So when I approach the debate about climate change and face those who are determined to prove that climate change is made up, the astoundingly simple question which must be raised is: does it matter?  No really - does it even matter?  If climate change is all a made up thing, well then: what would be the worst case scenario if we were to trust those who claim it is a real thing?  The end goal of proving it is real is to demonstrate that we should stop sowing filth into the air.  In what universe is that bad?  At the very least I'd think we'd want to avoid having to wear masks when we go outside into the orange smog like they have in China:

But then again, why is it so incomprehensible that maybe...just maybe...maybe if we sow a bunch of filth into the air, there might be consequences?  Maybe Hurricane Sandy wasn't God punishing those secular liberals - maybe it was reaping what we've sown?  Maybe all that filth we put into the atmosphere is coming back to bite us - is that really such an outlandish idea?

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells a parable about a shrewd manager.  And in this parable, he makes a statement that I find very interesting.  He says in verse 12:
And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
The reason I find this statement to be interesting becomes apparent when you consider whose property the earth is - as Psalm 24:1 says:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
I think we need to start thinking about what it means to treat the earth as if it didn't belong to us, but was on loan from God.  How would you treat a lavish home that a very rich and powerful person loaned you to live in?  And if you trashed it, how would you expect this person to respond when they returned? Revelations 11:18 says:
The nations were angry,
    and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
    and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
    both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. [emphasis mine]
The final thing I would like you to consider is why someone would deny that climate change is happening, even in the face of overwhelming scientific proof.  And the answer is really quite simple: $.  We are so addicted to profit in our modern society that even the minor inconvenience of investing in cleaner energy is treated as a threat of epic proportions.  We are told that switching to natural energy cannot be done, but I know some young geniuses who would disagree.

I Timothy 6:10 says:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
So when you consider that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and is likely man-made, it then becomes interesting to question who the other 3% are, and then to apply the principle of I Timothy 6:10 to the answer you find.  It is the love of money which is the cause of most pollution in the world.  It is the love of money which resists implementation of technology that would reduce this pollution.  It is the love of money that is the only thing preventing us from working towards making this a cleaner world, filled with more life.

Romans 8:19-22 says:
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
If creation is waiting for the children of God to be revealed, do you think that the children of God would be the type of people who would carelessly destroy creation?  And if the creation is to be "liberated from its bondage to decay", do you think that means that the children of God will carelessly trample over it with irresponsible behavior?

I doubt it.  Rather, I think that if we are to be children of God, then we ought to take up the business of the Father - cultivating and caring for life.  If we are to make our lives a statement of the Lord's Prayer and pray "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven", then we should be seeking to incarnate a kingdom where there is abundance of life, clean air, clean water, and no shortage of food for anyone.

After God created man in His image - male and female - he commanded us in Genesis 1:28 to "fill the earth and subdue it."  Do you think He'd want us to subdue the earth our way, or His way?  Do you think He'd want us to selfishly consume and destroy everything He made, or to be wise stewards of His creation and manage it in such a way that it brings forth life abundantly?

So what do we do?  What can we do?  That's the other side of this debate - when you're not trying to convince someone that climate change is actually a thing, you're butting up against a cynical attitude that says that there's just nothing we possibly can do - might as well give up.  This is also a lie coming from the powers that have trained us to think this way.  We need to climb up out of this cynicism.  One of my favorite quotes on cynicism comes from Stephen Colbert, in a rare, out of character serious moment:
Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.
If we could just stop making excuses, and as a collective start looking for each little thing we can do, I think we'd be surprised at how much we can accomplish together.  The American lifestyle involves so much waste!  Do we really need two of everything?  Do we really need to replace things as often as we do?  Do we really need to have so many lights on in our houses?  Could we take a break from the internet/TV and take a walk outside every once in a while?  Could we start recycling?  Could we bike to locations occasionally instead of driving?  Maybe we should stop voting for people who deny science?  When we run out of an item, do we really need to run to the store today, or could we wait until the next trip and get the item along with our usual shopping?  Do our vehicles really need to be the largest thing on the lot?  Don't let cynicism paralyze you!  Don't let those in power convince you that because you don't have the power, you can't do anything - just take a step!  Look for every little thing you can to make this world a better place and take one step at a time!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Lord's Prayer: A Politically Subversive Message

Prayer is a tricky concept.  Far too often in spiritual practices, it becomes a magical incantation.  It is treated as a way of giving our wishlist to the big bearded dude in the sky, and if He likes us, He'll reward us by granting our wishes.  But I think that when we examine the things that Jesus said about prayer, we get a completely different picture of what prayer is, and what it is for.

In what was arguably Jesus' most famous sermon, the "Sermon on the Mount", Jesus teaches on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15.  One thing I have learned is that Jesus' messages lose their edge when we lose sight of the historical context he lived in.  So before I get into what Jesus said in this passage, I'd like to try to put it back into its historical context.

Jesus lived in the time of the Roman empire.  This empire was arguably the most tyrannical, violent, "big brother" style, cultish empire the world has ever known.  The whole empire was built on, and kept in line through violence.  The expansion of the empire was brought about by Rome's superior military skill and might, which was something Rome was very proud of.  When a new culture was conquered and made a part of the empire, it wasn't enough that this group had been conquered - they were subsequently humiliated.  The very word that "triumph" comes from - triumphus - indicated a hymn to ritually honor someone.  

A depiction of a Triumphus parade

This word also came to represent an elaborate parade that Rome would enact to honor the military achievement after conquering a new province.  In this parade, there would be floats on which various scenes from the conquest would be reenacted - battles, gruesome executions, destruction of the city, etc.  During this parade, the general would wear a crown of laurel, and a purple toga which was painted with designs that indicated the divinity of the general.  When the general passed by, and the standards of Rome with him, the people were supposed to bow down and worship him and the standards, showing their surrender.  The triumphus was a way to humiliate and demoralize the newly conquered people.  Along with this, the Roman emperor was addressed with terms that indicated divinity - he was actually referred to as the son of a god - and he expected to be worshiped as one. 

In the time Jesus lived in, there was a systemic economic inequality in the Roman empire.  Rome would tax the empire, and conquered cultures were to pay tributes to the empire on top of this, and all of these riches were used to improve the elaborate cities that were a prized trophy of the heart of the empire.  The rich grew richer off of these taxes and tributes, and the buildings grew bigger and more ornate, but the towns and villages outside were being bled dry, and starvation was rampant outside of these cities.  On top of this, in order to control the areas that were not directly part of Rome, the imperial government would appoint local governments to enforce Roman control.  In Israel, where Jesus lived, the government was enforced through the puppet king Herod, and through the religious institution of the Pharisees.  Herod would tax the provinces of Israel on top of the Roman tax and tribute, and the Pharisaical religion would demand tithes in order for people to gain access to God.  All of this added up to great economical stress for the Jews of Jesus' day.  

And if you live in America, like myself, you might be interested to know that our country has more in common with Rome than you might think.  For example, it's interesting to consider America's imperial global military reach, the number of foreign regimes America has toppled, and that studies have indicated that inequality in America today may be worse than the inequality in the Roman empire.

When we put Jesus' teaching on prayer in this context, I think this illuminates some sharp contrasts to the authority structures and religious practices Jesus' audience were used to.  And I think that this also highlights the incredibly politically subversive nature of this message (this ties in with the Biblical themes of social justice).  The fact that Jesus challenged the authority structures of his day is extremely important in order to understand his message - and this should be obvious to anyone who understands what a crucifixion is, as it was reserved for the political enemies of the empire.  Rome did not just crucify anyone.  Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents; the terrorists; the insurrectionists who had undermined the imperial structures and authority.  Crucifixion was used to make a point.

So within this context, I wanted to take the message of Matthew 6:5-15 piece by piece and highlight the controversial and challenging nature of what Jesus is saying in this section of his sermon.

The first line of this section in verse 5 reads:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
In this verse, Jesus is directly undermining the authority and integrity of the religious leaders.  The Pharisees would commonly pray in public areas, loud enough for everyone to hear.  And the Pharisees were well known for their legalistic knowledge of and practice of the religious code - they were known for piety, which they equated with goodness.  But Jesus is saying "don't be like them", and he calls them "hypocrites".  This word has become a well-known insult in modern times, but it wasn't an insult in Jesus' day - he made it into one.  The word comes from the Greek word hypokrisis, which means to act out, and was used when talking about plays and actors.  Greek actors would commonly play multiple roles, and in order to show when they were stepping out of one role into another, they would don masks which represented each character.

By calling the religious leaders "hypocrites", Jesus is saying that their belief is not sincere.  He's saying that their practice of praying in public betrays an insincerity in their belief - this is like a way to reinforce their shaky belief system amidst the skepticism.  And Jesus says that the only reward they will get from this practice is the fact that they have been seen.

Jesus then states what we should do instead in verse 6:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus is demonstrating that prayer is meant to be an intimate, relational act - only shared between the individual and the Father.  In order to ensure that prayer is genuine, it should not require the reinforcement of an audience.  This is still challenging to the modern culture, where all too often the pious religious elite are fighting to enforce public acts of piety in our schools.

Verse 7 is challenging as well:
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

Don't try to impress God (or other people listening to your prayer) with your vocabulary!  Don't try to impress anyone with your eloquence!  That's not what prayer is about!  And the next verse totally overthrows the "magical incantation" view of prayer:
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
If God knows what you need before you ask, what's the point of presenting your wish list?  There is no point!  Because that's not what prayer is for!  To pray without an attempt at eloquence, and to pray in secret, is to open one's heart to Love, as God is love (I John 4:8, 16).  Prayer is not about changing God, as love cannot be changed.  Prayer is about changing me.  In "Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer", Richard Rohr writes:
Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence.
And this Presence can be enjoyed no matter where you are or what you are doing!  You don't have to enact pious ceremony to be aware of and enjoy the Presence - the Presence can be felt and enjoyed while gazing on a flower, or smelling a warm biscuit, or while sweating on your morning jog.

Jesus moves on to teach a specific prayer we call "The Lord's Prayer", and it's a very subversive message, if you keep in mind the historical culture.  It starts in verse 9:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name
This statement expresses a desire to keep the name of God holy.  Again, we lose so much of the meaning behind this concept because we don't understand the historical culture, and the importance of a name in that culture.  In this culture, a name stood for reputation and the spirit of a person.  To do something in the name of another person was to act in a way worthy of that person's reputation.  I have written more on this concept in a post titled "Praying in Jesus' Name".  

To keep the name of the Father holy meant to act in a way that showed His influence on you.  Too often, we take the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain to mean "don't say 'oh my God'".  But that's such a shallow interpretation.  I think Brennan Manning shows the deeper meaning of this command in the following quote:
The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
Keeping the name of God holy is more about how you live than being legalistic about what you say.

Moving to verse 10, Jesus prays:
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Here's where it gets politically subversive and dangerous.  "Your kingdom come" - as opposed to Caesar's.  "Your will be done" - as opposed to Caesar's.  This is a defiant prayer - an opposition to tyranny and oppression of the weak by the strong.  And the next phrase is still challenging to us today - it highlights one of the problems of modern Evangelical Christianity.  Evangelical Christianity all too often makes faith about "my own personal salvation", or "my ticket to heaven".  But the Jews didn't believe in the Platonic concept of Heaven as a realm up in the clouds with pearly gates that we "go to" when we die.  The Jews believed in resurrection of the body.  The idea that Christianity is about how we can get to "Heaven" makes it all about figuring out the minimal requirements one must meet in order to get your ticket to "Heaven", and who cares about the state of things on earth?  But Jesus prays for God's will "on earth".  Jesus prays that God's kingdom would be established "on earth".  What would such a kingdom - built upon the principle that God loves all people and shows no favoritism (Romans 2:11) - look like?

The next statement in verse 11 was challenging then, and is still challenging now:
Give us today our daily bread.
In a culture of stark inequality, this statement meant different things depending on who was hearing it.  To the poor, this prayer indicated that God does care about your physical state.  God does desire your health and well-being.  To the poor - who struggled each day for their bread - this part of the prayer was comforting.

But if you were rich, this statement was challenging, and probably not a welcome addition to the prayer Jesus taught.  To the rich, asking to receive your daily bread was in contrast to receiving enough bread every day to provide lavish meals for years.  Asking for my daily bread contrasts the American dream of making enough money every day to live in an enormous mansion, and the ability to constantly update to the latest technological fad, and wear the most expensive designer clothes, and drive the fastest car.

In the next verse, Jesus states:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
In this period of history, it was customary to work for a person you were indebted to.  Debt and slavery were one and the same thing - if you owed me a debt in that culture, I owned you until the debt had been paid off.  In modern times, debt can still be very much synonymous with slavery, but it is much more subtle.  In the statement above, Jesus is pointing out that every person owes debts, whether physical or spiritual.  And he is challenging his audience to forgive the debts that people owe them - because if you want to experience forgiveness, you need to extend forgiveness.  This statement of the forgiveness of debts also references the year of Jubilee, which I have written about in another post.  Again, Jesus is demonstrating that God is concerned with physical issues.  He is concerned about the crushing weight of economic debt.  And God wants His people to practice the forgiveness of debts - both physical and spiritual.

Jesus then says, in verse 13:
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
The first request - lead us not into temptation - shows that the spirit of a loving God would not teach us to purposefully seek out situations which will tempt us to act unlovingly.  Love teaches us how to withstand temptation, and we don't need to avoid other people in order to be loving - no, love would compel us to seek other people who need to be shown love!  But living in love does not mean deliberately seeking out situations which will be difficult for us.

And when Jesus says to deliver us from the evil one - I think it is good to consider the various ways "the evil one" is referred to, and their literal meanings.  "Ha-satan" literally means "the accuser", and "devil" comes from "diabolos" which literally means to slander or to accuse falsely.  In this prayer, Jesus teaches us that being in touch with the spirit of God means to desire to be free from attitudes that would lead us to accuse and slander others.  And love does that - love avoids accusation and slander, which cause conflict.  

In some versions, verse 13 goes on to say:
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Once again, this is a defiant, politically subversive statement.  If the kingdom, power, and glory belong to the Father, then they are not Caesar's.  And since Caesar was always looking for ways to demonstrate his power and glory, and to establish and protect his kingdom, this kind of statement would have been considered treasonous.

Jesus ends his message on prayer by stating in verses 14-15:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
To experience forgiveness, one must release animosity towards others.  You can't truly experience forgiveness if you are holding on to your sense of vengeance, or your sense that the world owes you one.  To experience the love of the Father, you have to release these things, and then you will realize that they were always worthless - they only held you back from experiencing the goodness of life.

Monday, October 7, 2013

No Social Justice in the Bible?

Today I wanted to take the time to put together a defense of the proposition that the Bible does outline a proper role for government, and that this does include social justice.  I have been disturbed to find that many people in America have been led to believe that there is no concept of social justice in the Bible.  In fact, it is not totally uncommon to be faced with anger and cries of heresy at the mention of social justice in the Bible.

One of the things I have found in debates like these is that those who are "wrong" are simply missing some of the puzzle pieces.  We are often taught not to try to understand the viewpoints of our "enemies" by society, unfortunately.  This blinds us to the fact that our "enemies" actually have reasons for believing the things they do.  I think that a Christian attitude would be one of loving humility that approaches the "enemy" and asks him/her: "why do you believe the things you do?  What led you to the beliefs you hold?"

So in the interest in showing how this is also the case in the debate over a proper Biblical role of government, I will attempt to illustrate that the Bible does, in fact, present two main sides of the issue:
  1. The wrong way for government to behave
  2. The right way for government to behave
I think that those who deny that there is a theme of social justice in the Bible do so because they have focused so heavily on #1 that they've completely missed #2.  And, as history is so full of examples of how government has failed, it's not hard to sour on your perspective of its role and begin to wish for its absolute annihilation.  

One of the earliest examples in the Bible of a government that failed in its duties and provided an example of the wrong way for government to behave was the Egyptian government, which tyrannically enslaved Israel, even killing their male babies in order to keep their numbers under control.  Through this story, we get an early picture of how God is concerned with oppression:
Deut. 26:6-9
6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 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. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
But in this very same chapter, a few verses later, we see that God does not want His people to become so consumed in their individuality that they forget those among their own society who are needy:
Deut. 26:12
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
What's going on here is this: God is instructing the Israelites to care for those who are not caught in the "social safety net".  In the ancient Biblical times of this day, inheritance was law.  Family took care of family.  Grandma didn't go off to the retirement home in that day - she was cared for by her family.  What the verse above is doing is to point out the groups of people who fall through the cracks in a society that takes care of family - it's pointing out those who don't have family to take care of them.  Levites were the priests of the day, and thus their well-being depended on the gifts of the people.  Foreigners did not have family in the land of Israel, and neither did orphans or widows.  So this passage is instructing Israel to care for the people who fall through the social safety net.  And lest you think this was just a friendly suggestion, I suggest you go back a few chapters:
Deut. 14:28-29
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
The tithe was effectively Israel's tax system at this point in their society, and this above passage is stating that the purpose of their society's tax system was to care for those who fell through the cracks in a family-based social safety net system of society.  To add to this, Israel had what is called a "gleaning" law, which is summarized in this verse:
Lev. 19:9
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
This was a law.  Modern American "Conservatives" love to talk about the so-called "tyranny" of government, whenever government uses tax dollars to help those less fortunate.  But here I have just given two examples of Biblical laws that dictated that the Israelites must provide for the poor in their society.  If you think taxation and laws that dictate care for the unfortunate are tyrannical, perhaps Christianity is not the religion for you.

Not only was there laws to provide for the poor, but there was also law that instructed the Israelites not to take advantage of the poor through interest and unfair prices:
Leviticus 25:35-37
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you.  Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.  You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.
In Proverbs 31:8-9, King Lemuel is giving instruction on how a King should act:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.
This message of the proper role of government is reinforced in Jeremiah 22:3:
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
When rulers do not follow this code, it makes God really upset, as we see in Isaiah:
Isaiah 1:23
Your rulers are rebels,
    partners with thieves;
they all love bribes
    and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
    the widow’s case does not come before them.
Isaiah 10:1-3
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches? 
In these two passages, we see an intense feeling of angst over rulers who refuse to care for the unfortunate.  In the eyes of God, the way these rulers have treated the poor is actually thievery.  And to add insult to injury, these rulers have accepted bribes from the wealthy in return for making laws that benefit them.  This is something to keep in mind in the present American political culture, where politicians are bought through large campaign donations, and then lobby to create laws that benefit the wealthy over and against the lower and middle class. 

Another thing that ought to be realized by now is that widow, orphan and foreigner are Hebrew code words for those who fall through the cracks of the social safety net - because you'll see examples all throughout the rest of the Bible where the widow and the orphan appear in close proximity, and it's usually within the context of either talking about what a just ruler should do, or what and unjust ruler has not done (which is what qualified him for the "unjust" status).

Also, in Isaiah, we get a picture of how God feels about monopolies:
Isaiah 5:7-9
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Woe to you who add house to house
    and join field to field
till no space is left
    and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
    the fine mansions left without occupants."
In this passage, we see a picture of the wealthy leveraging their wealth in order to take over the land and shut out those who are less fortunate, and the prophet Isaiah is pronouncing a judgment upon them.  In God's eyes' the entire nation should work together, as in a vineyard, but because the strong have taken over and oppressed the weak, the prophet declares that their estates will be crushed.

A modern misconception that has been taught (dare I say: propagandized?) is that the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed was due to sexual sin.  But the prophet Ezekiel paints a different picture:
Ezekiel 16:49-50
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. 
In the prophet Amos, we find that when society does not live by the code of justice I've been outlining, God wants nothing to do with them.  He becomes sick of them, and finds their worship services to be sickening:
Amos 5:21-24
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
Perhaps one of the strongest cases for social justice is the Year of Jubilee, the laws for which can be found in Leviticus 25.  The purpose of this law was to break up monopolies and redeem debts.  The chapter outlines a system where family members will redeem debts, but if no family is able to do this, they will simply be released from their debt.  And lest you protest and say "but Geoff, that was Old Testament!  We don't live by Old Testament law any more!"  Well, I got news for you - take a look at Jesus' first sermon:
Luke 4:18-19
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The "year of the Lord's favor" is another way of saying "the year of Jubilee."  In Jesus' day, the rural provinces were struggling to survive.  Rome would tax them, and all of those tax dollars would go towards building extravagant architecture in their cities, but none of it would help the outer towns and villages.  On top of this, the local government of Israel - the Herodians and the priestly class of the Temple - would impose their own taxes on the Israelites, none of which would be used to benefit the common people.  Jesus is pointing out in his first message that God cares about the poor and the oppressed, and then Jesus affirms the practice of Jubilee and gently hints that maybe it's time to put it back into practice.  

This is an interesting concept to consider in light of the economic crash of 2008.  When the banks crashed in 2008, money was given directly to the banks to bail them out, because they were "too big to fail."  But where did all that money go?  Straight into the pockets of the rich - into big, fat bonus checks!  But what caused the problems in the first place?  Mortgages were going sour - more and more homes were falling to foreclosure, and the whole system crashed.  But what if the "bail out" money had been given directly to the people who were facing foreclosure - to those poor souls who were worried about how they would be able to find a roof to put over their heads?  Wouldn't this have taken care of both problems at once?  The lower and middle class would have received a boost, and in saving the loans that faced foreclosure, the banks would have been saved as well.  And to put this into perspective, studies have shown that American inequality may be worse than the inequality that Rome faced in Jesus' day!

Care for the poor was a very common theme in Jesus' messages!  And when he encourages his listeners to care for the poor, it often comes with a promise of blessing as well.  In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus instructs his audience to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to banquets - invite those who are not able to repay your kindness.  And he promises that those who do will be blessed, and will be repaid through the resurrection.  In Luke 12:33, Jesus instructs his audience to sell their possessions and give to the poor.  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus tells us that no man can serve both God and money.  In a longer sermon in Luke 6, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in verse 20, but proclaims a less cheery message for the rich in verses 24-26:
But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
But then in verse 38, Jesus turns around and states that if you give, you will be blessed:
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Some might try to argue that the instructions of Jesus only applied to people, not governing authorities.  First of all, I would say that one issue with this is that modern government strives for democracy, and in democracy, the government is the people.  As President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address: "government of the people, by the people, for the people."  But along with this, it is important to note that even while early Christians were standing against the tyranny of Roman rule through non-violence, the apostle Paul affirms the role of government in Romans 13:1-7:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
I hope that what I have done here is to provide a glimpse into a pattern that is seen all throughout the Bible (note that the passages I've provided are only a piece of the pie - not the whole thing).  Whenever government is mentioned, we see that there is a wrong way to govern, and a right way to govern.  When we focus too much on some of the passages that affirm government, we end up supporting the status quo of the oppression of the weak.  But when we focus too heavily on the passages that speak negatively of the oppressive ways of government, we can also lose sight of the fact that the Bible affirms a proper role for government, which is to protect the people and care for the unfortunate.  There are some extreme voices in America who will try to say that any taxes whatsoever are thievery by the government, and every man should be left to be an individual.  But this is not the Biblical model.  The Biblical model shows society working together, with members taking care of each other for the greater good.  The Bible prizes altruism and generosity, and shows that God blesses those who care for the poor.  Even in the face of one of the most tyrannical governments in all of history, Paul affirms the institution of government.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Another Logical Path To "Checkmate", and Additional Resources

In "Checkmate for Hell", I started out with the most basic (and in my opinion. the most elegant) logical defense for Biblical Universalism.  This defense is based on the following three propositions which are all defended by many of the most respected theologians in history, but which cannot all be true as they are logically exclusive:

  1. God's will is inescapable.  In other words, God is omnipotent/sovereign/in control.  In other words, God gets what God wants.
  2. God wants all men to be saved.  God doesn't want anyone to perish.
  3. Some will not ever be saved and will end up either annihilated or in eternal conscious torment.

These three cannot all logically be true.  So what has traditionally happened is that Christianity has been divided into two camps - one camp, which calls themselves Calvinists (but should really call themselves Augustinians), affirms propositions (1) and (3), but denies proposition (2).  The other camp, which calls themselves Arminians, affirms propositions (2) and (3), but believes that because of free will, some men are able to escape the will of God for all men to be saved.  But I argue in my first three "Chess moves" that propositions (1) and (2) are BOTH Biblical and BOTH true, as well as showing in "Chess Move #3" that the logical conclusion that all men will be saved is also Biblical.  Then, in "Chess Moves 4 & 5", I show why the verses used to defend proposition #3 above have been mistranslated and thus misunderstood.

But there is another logical path one could take in order to defend Biblical Universalism, and it is good to understand this path, because if you can arrive at the same logical conclusion through two separate paths, you can be more sure that the conclusion is, in fact, logical.  So let's examine this alternate route:

Move #1:  What Characteristics Would the Eternally Blessed Possess?
In Part 12 of "Checkmate for Hell", I present a defense for the idea that the view of "Heaven" being a realm outside of our present reality that Christians will one day be magically transported to is not a Biblical idea.  Thus, I will now use the phrase "Eternally Blessed" to describe the state of those souls who are united with Christ in "the end".  

So one must ask - what characteristics would the "Eternally Blessed" possess?  The first characteristic, which is the view I would say most people would jump to quickest, is what I would call "perfect bliss", and we see a picture of this state in Revelations 21:3-4:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

So the picture of tears being wiped away, as well as the elimination of death, mourning, crying and pain will be termed "perfect bliss".

But I believe there is another characteristic that would be a result of being "Eternally Blessed", and I call this "universal love".  Jesus said in Matthew 22:39 that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.  When asked who our neighbor was, Jesus told a parable of a Samaritan, who is arguably a member of another religion altogether from the Jews, and could be seen as an enemy.  Jesus implied here that everyone is our neighbor.  Not only this, but in Matthew 5:44, Jesus told us to love our enemies, and right after that said in verse 48 to "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  Therefore, I propose that the "Eternally Blessed" would posses both perfect bliss and universal love.

Move #2: Anyone who possesses universal love for all persons and who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess perfect bliss.
Feeling sorrow for others who are in pain is a sign of love.  Consider Paul's remarks in Phillipians 2:27 about Epaphroditus:

Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.

Paul is showing empathy here - he loves Epaphroditus with such force, that if harm were to befall him, Paul would experience "sorrow upon sorrow."  The idea that the love of God causes empathy like this is reinforced in I John 3:17:

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Also, in Romans 12:15, Paul says:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

This is empathy - to feel the joys and sorrows of the ones you love.  Thus, I argue that anyone who possesses universal love would not be able to possess perfect bliss if anyone is eternally damned.

And so I conclude:

Move #3: Therefore, anyone who is aware that some persons are eternally damned cannot possess eternal blessedness (1, 2).
But, you might say, God will cause the eternally blessed to forget those who are eternally damned.  This is a strange concept, if you stop to think.  So you're saying that God will give us a lobotomy for us to possess eternal blessedness?  In John 15:26, the Holy Spirit is described as the "Spirit of truth".  In John 14:6, Jesus describes himself as "the truth", and previously, in John 10:30, Jesus had said "I and the Father are one."  So if Jesus is "the truth", then we can logically conclude that God is truth.  In Romans 3:4, Paul says "let God be true and every human being a liar".  Finally, Jesus said in John 8:32:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free - not an elaborate hoax, whereby God fools us and takes away our memories of our loved ones.  So, because of this line of reasoning, I move on:

Move #4: If anyone is eternally damned, anyone who possesses eternal blessedness would be aware of this.
At this point, the moves are self-explanatory, so we can move forward a little faster:

Move #5: Thus, if anyone is eternally damned, then none possess eternal blessedness (3, 4).

Move #6: God, out of benevolent love for His creatures, confers blessedness at least on those who earnestly repent and seek communion with Him.

Move #7: Therefore, if anyone at all will be eternally blessed, this implies that in the end, God does not eternally damn anyone (5, 6)

Some Additional Resources
If you have the ability to stream Netflix movies, you should check out "Hellbound?" - this documentary features faith leaders from both sides of the debate:

If you don't have streaming Netflix, you can order a copy on this website.

The following are some good links for further research:

This is a forum where Evangelical Universalists discuss theology and theologically related topics

There is a nice thread on that forum here where one of the members has been working on exegesis into various Universalist passages

Here is a list of a number of passages that support Universal Reconciliation

Here is another list of passages that are contained in the book "Hope Beyond Hell" (the entire book is available in a link on that site as well)

This site also has many resources for exploration into Universal Salvaion

There is a free book on the site above is called "Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years"

Another list of Reconciliation Scriptures

The Christian Universalist Association

This article puts some interesting historical perspective into the issue of Hell

Here is a list of quotes from early church fathers on Universalism

This is a list of articles about Christian Universalism 

Note that there are plenty of other websites out there - these are just a few I have checked into.

Here is a list of Universalist Authors (note that this is not a comprehensive list - merely a nice list of scholarly authors who support Universalism):
Thomas Talbott
Robin Parry (also wrote "The Evangelical Universalist" under the pseudonym Gregory McDonald)
Karl Barth
Soren Kierkegaard
Eric Reitan
John Kronen
George McDonald
Christopher H. Partridge
Jaime Clark-Soles
Rene Girard
Peter Enns
Sharon Baker
Marilyn McCord Adams
Jurgen Moltmann
Hans Urs Von Balthasar
Karl Rahner
Richard Rohr
James Relly
Keith DeRose
F.D. Moule
Morwenna Ludlow
Jacques Ellul
William Barclay
Brad Jersak
Michael Hardin
Richard Beck

Along with this list, this link makes the argument that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to universalism.