Tuesday, November 26, 2013

5 Reasons Christianity Isn't About Religion

Perhaps I should have titled this post "5 Reasons Christianity Shouldn't Be About Religion" - because there's a common misconception that Christianity is a religion.  Not only that it's a religion, but that it's supposed to be a religion.  This misconception is shared by insiders and outsiders alike, it seems.  And it's completely wrong!

Now, I should pause here and define what it is that I mean when I say "religion" - I'm talking about religion in the sense of being an identifier, or a way of distinguishing one person or another.  What I'm talking about could also be described as "tribalism".  It's the insiders and outsiders paradigm.  The view that there are some who are favored by God, and some who are not, and that there are easily distinguishable traits which can tell you which group a person is in.

And this is a completely warped idea, if you truly understand Christianity - because Christianity is supposed to be about following Jesus, and there are so many ways that Jesus contradicted this view.  Here are just a few of those ways:

1. John's Baptism
Baptism seems to be one of those Christian ideas for which the historical context has been almost completely lost to the general populous, and as a result some very superstitious ideas about it have risen up.  Denominations battle over the method and timing of baptism: is a sprinkling ok, or should you be immersed?  Can babies be baptized?  Many seem to even connect salvation itself with baptism - I remember hearing one leader assure someone who was worried about salvation that "if you're dipped, you're in!"

But when you get a picture of the historical context that "John the Baptist" was set in, you might get a different picture of what this was all about.  In the Jewish culture of Jesus' day, there was a practice known as "mikveh" - a ritual immersion bath.  

Mikveh at Jerusalem temple
The mikveh was a purity ritual, and would be performed after various "unclean" events occurred to a person, before entering the temple, a priest would practice mikveh before conducting various ceremonies, and scribes would even practice it before writing the name of God!  What mikveh communicated was that a person had been dirtied by the outside world, and must clean him or herself before entering into communion with God.  The practice of immersing before entering the temple did much to communicate the "insider/outsider paradigm" or the "us vs. them paradigm" that the Jews in Jesus' day lived within.  It said "those who are not part of our religion are unclean, and we must wash their filth off before entering into communion with God."

But John the Baptist did something new - he started immersing people in the Jordan river, right out there in nature!  This was a bit of religious theater, if you will, and to the people of the time, the message was clear: "the real filth that must be washed off is not out there - it's the temple religion!  Their self-righteous arrogance and apathy towards the people trapped within unjust systems that create poverty is the real dirtiness that must be washed off!"  John's baptism was a symbol of washing off the attitude that there are insiders and outsiders - of putting aside the attitude that you're somehow special and others are not.  In Luke's gospel, the story of John's practice of baptism is accompanied by his instruction to share your possessions with the poor (Luke 3:11), indicating that this is part of a larger mission to break down the barriers between classes of people.  

When Jesus meets up with John, does he rebuke him for this rejection of the religious practice of mikveh?  Does he say "John, you know that mikveh should be practiced in the temple, so people can prepare to worship God properly!"  No!  Jesus affirms John's practice in Matthew 3:13-15, and says "it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."

2. The Parable of the Good Samaritan
In Luke 10:25-37, there is a story that begins with an "expert in the law" testing Jesus by asking him what must be done to "inherit eternal life".  What follows has been covered in different ways in other gospels, but in this version of the story, Jesus throws the question back at the "expert" and says "what's in the law, and how do you read it?"  The expert responds by summarizing the entire law with two commands: love God, and love your neighbor "as yourself".  The version of this story in Matthew has Jesus saying:

Matthew 22:40
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
One thing I find interesting is that the apostle Paul skips over the "love God" part and says that the entire law is fulfilled in the commandment to love your neighbor!  (Gal. 5:14)  This might sound curious, but it is a logical inference based upon the fact that Jesus implies that the way to show love to God is to show love to others in such teachings as the "parable of the sheep and the goats" (which can be found in Matthew 25:31-46).

But to return to the story in Luke 10:25-37, in verse 29, it says:
But he [the "expert"] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells a story which we commonly refer to as "The Good Samaritan".  I think that the cultural impact of this story is largely lost on us today, because we don't understand the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.  

To really understand the story, I think we need to retell it in today's terminology.  I think the modern equivalent of the story would involve an Evangelical minister being beaten up and robbed on the side of the road, and as he lies there, another Evangelical pastor passes right by, and then a Southern Baptist deacon as well.  And then, as he is beginning to despair, a Muslim Imam walks by.  When this Imam sees him there, he comes to his aid, taking him to the nearest hospital.  At the hospital, they find out that the minister has no insurance, and this Muslim says "I will pay his bills - just make sure he is taken care of."  After the hospital has patched up the minister, the Imam takes him back to his house to stay with him until he is back on his feet again.

You see, Samaritans were not seen by Jews as being other Jews - they were seen as another religion altogether.  Not only as another religion, but they were detested as enemies.  The comparison between how Jews saw Samaritans and how Christians see Muslims today is an apt one, in my opinion.  Just as there were similar religious beliefs between Jews and Samaritans, there are similarities between Christianity and Muslims.  But the differences are considered irreconcilable, and so the "other" is considered a dangerous foe.

But when Jesus is asked "who is my neighbor?", he deliberately chose an icon that would be seen as dangerous and religiously "other" by his audience.  He did this to challenge his audience's priorities.  He did this in order to raise the question: what's more important - your customs, or how you treat other people?

3. The Woman at the Well
In John 4:1-42, there is a scene where Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at a well.  There is so much that could be said about this scene - things like how Jesus challenged the cultural views of his day about women and how evangelism ought to work - but I want to focus on one interesting piece of the conversation between Jesus and this woman.  

But first, we need a little background.  In the first book of Kings in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is split due to irreconcilable differences after King Solomon's death.  The two nations were then called Israel and Judah.  Judah contained the city of Jerusalem, where the temple was built.  The Samaritans were part of the area that had been known as Israel - the area that did not contain Jerusalem and the temple.  So, the Samaritans had taken up the custom of worshiping at Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem.  This had caused a bit of animosity between them and what was now the Jews in Jesus' time.  The Jews considered the Samaritans' worship to be illegitimate because of their refusal to come to the temple.  

With this background in mind, we find that Jesus makes a curious statement during his conversation with the Samaritan woman - in verse 21, he says:
...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
And then, a little further along in verse 23, he expounds on this idea:
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.
Jesus is indicating that a time is coming when the place of worship will not matter - it is the attitude of the heart that indicates true worship.  

Earlier in this gospel, in John 2:19 Jesus had already alluded to the concept that a body can be a temple when he had said: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."  This was a foreshadowing of Jesus' own death and resurrection, as the reader finds at the end of the book.  The apostle Paul picks up on this concept of the temple when he says in I Cor. 3:16:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?
The idea Jesus presents is that a place is not holy because of its location - any location can be holy: it is the people in the location that make this place holy!  And it is the attitude of their hearts that make these people holy!  So a person who worships the Father "in spirit and truth" can be in the presence of God anywhere and everywhere they go!

4. The Last Supper
The "Last Supper" gave birth to one of the great Christian sacraments - the Eucharist.  The scene of this last supper is set in a celebration of the Passover.  The history of the Passover is set in the Exodus story of Israel - the story goes that even after 9 plagues, the Pharaoh of Egypt still would not release the Israelites from slavery.  So Moses had instructed the Israelites to smear lamb's blood on their doorposts, and an angel of death would "pass over" them as it went around the land of Egypt killing first born sons.  

Jesus takes this symbol and re-frames it in the scene of the Last Supper.  He breaks a loaf of bread and says "this is my body which is given for you."  And then he passes around a cup of wine and says that it is "the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." (Lk. 22:20)  What he is essentially saying is that the days of scapegoating and killing other life in order to save yourself are over - God Himself has willingly given His life and blood to end this cycle, establishing a new covenant.  Jesus tells us to do this in remembrance of him - and all around the world Christians eat bread and drink wine (or grape juice) in order to remember that night.  But what if there was supposed to be more?  What if, along with accepting the free gift of the nourishment that God gives through bread and wine (which come from His good creation), we are supposed to go out into the world and give ourselves sacrificially to others just as Jesus did?  What if we are supposed to look for the cycles of violence and the victims of those cycles, and stand in the gap in order to break those cycles?  What if this is the deeper meaning behind "do this in remembrance of me?"

In Brian McLaren's book "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World", he writes of a "table of reconciliation and fellowship" understanding of the Eucharist, rather than an alter based understanding where God demands blood before his anger can be satiated:
[I]n a table-centered eucharistic understanding, atoning or appeasing sacrifices are simply unnecessary.  Nothing need be done to appease a hostile God, because through Christ, God has self-revealed as inherently gracious and kind , seeking reconciliation; not hostile and vengeful, needing appeasement. If we need to speak of sacrifice at all, we speak of it in its root meaning: sacred gift. So as we gather around the eucharistic table, we bond to a meaning very different from that of the conventional eucharistic altar; we bond to the sacred self-giving of a gracious God.  As we remember Jesus, from incarnation to crucifixion (and beyond), we see God’s self-giving to the whole world in Christ. Christ himself is God’s sacred love-gift to the world.  At the communion table, then, we manifest God’s self-giving in Christ.
This understanding frames the Christian mission to be one of friendship to the world, where we invite others to dine with us and to talk out our problems - where we sacrificially give of ourselves in order to solve the problems of the world.  This dramatically alters the sacrifice demanding God so many have to the God of Isaiah 1:18, who says "Come now, let us reason together."  At the table of reconciliation and fellowship, God is not demanding payment - he is inviting us to talk through our issues over supper with a glass of wine.

5. The Cross
I ache when I think of what so much "Christian" theology has done to the beautiful act of the cross.  Theology all too often warps this into something God wanted - as if God had kept a 10,000 year grudge from the first sin, and couldn't let go of His anger without some serious blood.  But God never demanded blood, and He never demanded that Jesus die the most gruesome and painful death we could imagine - that was us.  God doesn't demand payment for sin: we do.  So, in Jesus, God said: "you want payment?  Take me."

Jesus' whole life and ministry was about standing up for those who were marginalized by society - the rejects, the outcasts, the sick, the deformed, the poor, those of the unfavored gender, the religiously "other".  He spent his whole life sticking up for those who couldn't stick up for themselves.  And the response was that the authority structure scapegoated him - that was us, not God.  So what do we do?  We turn around and try to pin that on God, repeating the scapegoating cycle.  We can't stand to face the fact that God isn't anything like us, and that He is remarkably tolerant, and had no part in this.  So we make up some story about how God had to have some blood before He'd be satisfied that our sins had been "paid for", as if it were some sort of capitalistic transaction.  

But there are some questions this idea raises, if that is the actual scenario that occurred.  If this is what happened, then what if Jesus had actually been responded to with acceptance?  What if, instead of being rejected by the Jews in power, they had said "well, you're obviously a really cool guy - why don't you take over around here for a while?"  Would Jesus have said "wait, wait, wait...see, there's this plan - you have to reject me.  See, uh...the big guy upstairs?  He's not going to be happy unless you reject me and kill me in a really gruesome death!  So uh, let's try this again."

And if this was really how it went down, then how is it that the author of 1st John can declare that God is love? (I John 4:8, 16)  How can a being who personifies love be a worse father than most earthly fathers?  I mean, if you heard a story about a Dad who had one son that did something that made him angry, and so he turned around and killed the other so he wouldn't be angry any more, would you say "wow, what a loving father!", or "that guy is abusive and needs anger management classes"?

And if God really wanted sins to be "paid for", why did Jesus quote Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13 when he said: "But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’"?  And why would the author of Hebrews say (in 10:8): "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them"?

And the question I had always asked myself before I came to the conclusions I now have about the cross is: what was it about Jesus that made people reject him?  If he was so "meek and mild", why didn't they love him?  Why did they see him as a threat?  

We'll come back to that later.

But if we re-frame the cross in its historical background, we may find a different meaning behind it.  In "The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction", Peter Rollins writes:
For Roman citizens crucifixion was the most potent sign of someone being rejected by the cultural, political, and religious systems of the day, all of which were seen as divinely established. Those who were crucified were treated as complete outsiders. They were to die naked, alone, and in agony. But the execution meant more than torture and death; it was a sign that the one being killed stood outside of the divinely given order.

In contrast the Crucifixion of Christ today is seen as a key justification of a cultural, political, and religious matrix, a matrix that Kierkegaard called “Christendom.” It is difficult for us today to understand the extent to which this mode of execution signaled the exclusion of the victim from all systems of meaning, because it is so much a part of one for us. The Cross is so integrated into our religious, political, and cultural imagination that its reality as a mode of execution that placed the victim outside of these realms is utterly eclipsed. Instead of being a symbol of standing outside all systems of meaning, the Cross is now integrated into a system of meaning.
The cross was where Jesus became the outsider and lost all meaning.  And when he was near the point of death, he cried "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34).  Some may try to turn this into some sort of theater - like Jesus was just quoting a Psalm (Ps. 22:1) in order to fulfill a prophecy, but he didn't really think God had forsaken him (as if it were said with a wink at the camera).  But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus spoke this in Aramaic, which was his native tongue, while the verse was written in Hebrew.  Yes, I'm sure that the author of the gospel narrative meant to give a nod to the Psalm, but he deliberately did it in the wrong language, indicating that Jesus actually felt this way!  

Jesus' whole message up to this point had been that God doesn't reject anyone - and here he is doubting that in the moment of his torment.  And at the point of Jesus' complete loss, something remarkable happened - in Matthew 27:51 (paralleled in Mk. 15:38), it says that the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

To understand the significance of this, we need to understand what this curtain was - it was a thick, heavy curtain that separated the "Holy of Holies" - the area of the temple that the Jews believed God physically resided in - from the rest of the temple.  This area was so revered, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only at certain times of the year.  And this curtain was torn.

Many theologians have tried to turn this into a symbol that God was saying "now everyone can have access to me - now that I've gotten my blood that I wanted."  But what if it were indicating something else?  What if the Jewish audience would have realized that this indicated that God was not there.  There was no man behind the curtain - just an empty space.  Where was God?  Out there on that hill, dying from the wounds that the Priestly class had demanded be inflicted on Him, doubting Himself and His own faith. 

And instead of accepting how this challenges the paradigm of insiders and outsiders, we turn it into a new system of elites and rejects.  We turn it into a new religion, and we invent this silly thing called the "sinner's prayer" that's some kind of magical incantation that gets you in (see Chess Move #7 in my series, Checkmate For Hell).

But everything Jesus had done up to this point demonstrated the truth that the apostle Paul speaks of when he says that "God does not show favoritism." (Rom. 2:11)  Jesus' whole life demonstrates the truth of the author of James' claim that:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
(James 1:27)
And what is "the world" that this author speaks of?  It is the authority structures that create systems of insiders and outsiders!  This is what Jesus stood against throughout his whole ministry!  And what do we do?  We turn Jesus into another system of insiders and outsiders!

I asked, earlier, why someone who was "meek and mild" would be rejected and killed so violently.  I asked what could have enraged people so much that they would do this.  If you've been reading my post and it made you upset, I think you have your answer.  We like our systems of insiders and outsiders - we like to think of ourselves as being favored/elite/inside/special while others are rejected/despised/outside/cursed.  And when someone threatens those systems, it upsets us - we don't want to give up our privilege in order to reach out to our scapegoats.  We don't want to face up to the fact that we have hurt others unjustly.  We want to be thought of as righteous and holy while those we have cast out are evil and dirty.  We don't want to give up our reasons for making other people outcasts - we want those reasons vindicated.  And when someone calls on us to reconsider these paradigms, it makes us uncomfortable.  We don't want to think of ourselves as intolerant, so we crucify the prophetic voices calling us to extend God's radically tolerant love to the outcasts.

So we bicker over doctrine and ritual.  But the mark of one who follows Jesus is not that they believe the right doctrine or observe the right rituals - it's that they love (see John 13:35).  I John 4:7-8 says:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

The religion of Christ calls us to cast off all our privilege and status - to reject categories and religions that separate one human from another - and to simply love our fellow man. The religion of Christ calls us to see Him in others who love - even if they don't call themselves Christians.

Next: Finding the Balance Between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Choosing A Church Community Is Like Dating

I wanted to write about how choosing a church is kind of like dating.  But before I talk about that, I think I have to talk a little bit about what church is.  Or rather, what I think it is supposed to be.  Because I think there is a very common misconception of what that is.  You see, it seems to be a very common perception that church is a building you go to on a certain day of the week where you sing spiritual songs and pray and listen to a message.  And really, picking a church in this paradigm is all about whether or not the style of music/liturgy/sermons are appealing to you.

But what's interesting about the topic of "Church" is that the original word used by Paul was ekklesia. What's interesting about this word is that it is sometimes translated as "assembly", and when you look into the period of history that Paul lived during, you find that the governmental body of Rome that is somewhat like America's senate was called the assembly.  And the assembly of Rome was often referred to as the body of Rome, much like the Church is supposed to be the body of Christ. So the Church, really, is supposed to be the governmental body of Christ with Christ as head, just as Caesar was the head of the assembly of Rome. All this to say that the church is not just supposed to be about singing nice songs and praying, but is supposed to bring about the kingdom of God on earth much as the Roman assembly would enact the decrees that bring about the kingdom of Caesar.

But it's about more than just that, even. Jesus modeled for us a life of love that embraced all who came into contact with him - even his enemies (he even said, while hanging on the cross - "Father, forgive them, for then know not what they do."). You can't live a life of love alone. So assembling into congregations is really supposed to be about fellowship, and learning how to love. It's about learning how to disagree peacefully, and grow in the process. It's about iron sharpening iron - smoothing out our rough edges. It's about relationship. You can't do this alone - you need other people to learn how to be patient, and gentle, and kind.

With these ideas in mind, I submit to you that finding a church is somewhat like dating.  As in dating, we enter into the relationship questioning whether or not we are compatible for the long haul.  Often, we look for "things in common" - points of resonance.  But a relationship doesn't work if all you've got are common interests - just as there would be nothing fun about a dating relationship if the person were dating were exactly like you in every way, there is no purpose to church if everyone you're doing church with is exactly like you.  A relationship needs something to make it interesting - relationships grow because two people find their differences to be fascinating and they seek to explore and understand those differences.  As dating is really about finding out of two people are "compatible" - as in, could a more long term relationship survive and thrive between these people - so finding a church is about exploring the possibility of a more long term relationship between oneself and a larger community.

So I'd like to submit the idea that finding a church is not about finding the "perfect" church, just like you will never find "the perfect person for me" (believe me: that search will never end, and if this is the way you go about it, you're the one with the problem, not them).  Just as in a dating relationship, when seeking a church I believe there comes a point where you "take the plunge" - where you decide to take the church as it is, flaws and all.  So the question really becomes: if I enter into a long term relationship with this church, will it be a healthy relationship, or an unhealthy relationship?  And so I'd like to explore a few ways of discerning the answer to this question.

1. Is the congregation homogenous?
This is - consciously or subconsciously - the first thing that would tip me off that the relationship would be unhealthy.  If everyone in the church seems to be one certain type of personality, dresses a certain way, talks a certain way, and likes the same things, I would run.  Because this would be an immediate indicator to me that this community can't accept diversity - they want to either assimilate those who enter their community (changing *them* to be just like *us*), or cast them out.  Homogeneity would indicate to me a rigid adherence to a system of purity codes.  And I don't care if I entered a church and found that everyone there had tattoos and piercings, either - if that were the case, it's just a different kind of purity code where the entrance fee is to look like us and act like us and talk like us.  For me, the number one thing I would look for in a church congregation is a place that is comfortable with diversity - and not just in the ways people dress and act, but also diversity in views.  This shows a security in the church's collective identity that does not feel a need to destroy individuality, but is willing to engage differences and seek understanding.  Because I think the world needs all kinds of people - we need people who are different to challenge us and make us stronger, and we need to find ways to make room for those who are different so that we can go through this process of growing together.

2. Does the church have good dreams and goals that go outside of itself?
When you date someone, you probably want to know what their goals are - do they have a plan for their life, and do they want to go someplace and do great things, and is there room within that plan for you?  And it would be a warning bell - or it should be - to find out that those goals are egotistical and narcissistic.  Likewise, I would look for a church community that has goals that go outside of itself.  That is to say - if the church's only goal is to improve its own status (more people, bigger buildings, better sound equipment, recognition in the world, etc.), then this is probably not going to be a healthy relationship.  Rather, I'd look for a church community that is concerned with how to be a part of the outside community in a healthy way - a church community that is interested in having a positive effect on the outside world, rather than being so narcissistic and egotistical as to only be concerned with having a positive effect within the church community and to hell with anyone outside.  If a church community does not feel concern for what's going on outside, it's not really going to do a good job of ministering to those inside either.

3. Does the church put too much emphasis on the peripherals?
There are some things that are important, and some things that are not important - the latter category being what I have referred to as "peripherals".  When I was still a single man, I once went on a date with someone who had won a rather prominent beauty pageant.  I was thrilled to be able to brag to my friends about this...but I very quickly figured out that a relationship with this person would never work out.  The reason I came to this conclusion is because I discovered that she was very passionate about clothing, and shampoo, and really general topics that I honestly had absolutely no interest whatsoever.  And the funny thing is that I have had great friendships with people who were interested in things that I was not very interested in, but when this is all someone wants to talk about, it's never going to work.  It's fine with me if a friend has an interest in shampoo and clothing, and they can even talk about it in my presence...up to a point.  Once they get past that point, I'm going to tune out and start thinking about how to make my exit, to be quite honest.  In the same way, it's nice to find a church that likes the same kind of music in their worship service that I like, and is filled with people who embrace casual dress (well, I like a jeans and t-shirt church, but it's fine if you don't).  But if that's their number one defining factor that separates them from other churches?  You might have a shallow relationship on your hands.  I've been in churches that dogmatically held to the idea that no proper church would sing from anything but a hymnal during their churches, and that bothered me because I thought hymns were an extremely boring form of music.  But what I really should have been bothered about is that the music style was so important to these churches that it trumped relationship.  But likewise, if the only selling point for finding a church is that they have contemporary worship, that's going to be a shallow and unfulfilling relationship as well.

4. Does the church welcome questions and challenging ideas, or does it try to control the truth?
This could really fall under the first topic, but I wanted to flesh that idea out a bit more.  Because I think that if you find a rigid authority structure that responds to questions and challenges in a hostile way, this should be an immediate warning sign.  Just as you might run the other direction if you discovered that the person you were dating would fly off the handle when they are challenged, finding that the authority structure within your church responds in this manner would be a warning sign that you are in an abusive relationship.  The leaders of your church should not be uncomfortable with challenges and questions - they ought to be secure enough to know their own reasoning and still be comfortable if you do not share their opinions.  Augustine once said:

The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.

5. How does the church talk about those that are not part of its community?
This point is really building off of 1, 2, and 4, but I wanted to flesh out the idea a little bit.  So does the church you are in talk about those that are not part of its community as if they were enemies?  Does the church have an "us vs. them" mentality?  Or do they see everyone as a potential friend?  I would look for the latter.  If a church sees itself as part of a holy crusade to defeat everyone that does not adhere to its purity code, you're going to find an abusive environment within.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul says in Rom. 12:17: "
never pay back evil with more evil."  Later on, in verse 21 he says: "Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good."  The point is, sure, it's possible that the people your church is talking about are working towards evil.  But you're never going to overcome evil with more evil.  So look for a church that does overcomes evil with good.
I hope you found these ideas to be thought provoking and interesting, and I sincerely hope that all of my readers are able to find some sort of community within which they have many meaningful and long-term relationships.

Friday, November 15, 2013

False Humility vs. True Humility

I recently wrote about the lack of humility in the Western Church, and of how cultivating empathy is a way to bring about this humility.  But I think it's important to understand that there is a false humility that often masquerades as true humility.  I think Charles Dickens paints a very vivid picture of what false humility looks like in "David Copperfield" with the character of Uriah Heep.  Uriah Heep is a character who is so creepy as to resemble a snake more than a human being.  Uriah Heep uses his false humility as a way to manipulate people into giving him things and doing favors for him - his humility is a bargaining chip to be used towards his ambitions.  He climbs the ladder by emphasizing to everyone how low he is on it, and as you watch him climbing you realize the very little value he places on everyone else.  You really to believe as you're introduced to this character that he is filled with self loathing, but it is because of this that he destroys others around him with little to no remorse.  Heep's main weapon is guilt: he even plans to use guilt to manipulate a woman - Agnes Wickfield - into marrying him!  So as the story unfolds, the reader gets a very clear picture that Uriah Heep is not really humble at all - in actuality, his spirit has been so poisoned that his false humility is really a form of hatred.

I think this picture is a profound window into the difference between false humility and true humility.  Because true humility is not born from self-loathing - as Uriah Heep's false humility was.  True humility is not born from devaluing life, but from bestowing such high value on life as to respect it above your own.  True humility is born from love - that which values the life of the beloved more than one's own desires and ambitions.

Far too many churches have sought to cultivate humility through guilt - they hold their audiences captive every Sunday morning and tell them everything they are doing wrong.  The fill their pews with shame and fear, and they call that humility.  But true humility is not born this way.

Often those who possess true humility may look as if they are very proud, because they refuse to back down in their causes.  They boldly stride towards the goal of the benefit of their beloved without any fear for their own well-being, and the world will speak of their pride.  A good example of such a man would be the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King had a goal - a dream that "one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."  Dr. King sought the benefit of all, and saw that for this to happen, white men could no longer impose their dehumanizing power over black men.  Because Dr. King realized that this not only dehumanized those being oppressed, but it also dehumanized the oppressors.  And so Dr. King fought valiently for this dream, and it may have looked like pride - indeed it was a form of pride in the value of life itself!  U2 even wrote a song about MLK's "Pride", in which Bono sings that they took Dr. King's life, but they could not take his pride - and this is true.  But Dr. King was a very humble man as well.  We know this because Dr. King refused to strike back at those who opposed his dream. 

In Birmingham, Alabama on September 28th, 1962, Dr. King was giving the closing speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC).  During his speech, a man named Roy James was present, and his anger had been growing within him during this speech.  When he could take it no more, he sprung from his seat and rushed the stage, striking Dr. King with such force that it knocked him backwards.  James then began repeatedly striking Dr. King with such force and fervor that Dr. King was unable to even raise his arms in defense.  The audience screamed in horror, and a few rushed the stage to come to Dr. King's aid, but there was a brief moment when the attacker paused to rest from his fierce attack.  And in that moment, Dr. King stood tall and faced James eye to eye with what one might describe as the strength of pride.  This surprised James so much that he did not continue his attack, and as three of the audience members approached to remove James from the stage, Dr. King shouted out: "don't touch him!  Don't touch him, we have to pray for him!"  And Dr. King and the audience proceeded to do so, and afterwards the Reverend took Roy James into a private room and spoke with him calmly while they waited for the police.  Dr. King refused to press charges, though James was still fined and faced 30 days in jail.

This situation exemplifies the true nature of humility, in my opinion.  And this kind of humility is not the opposite of pride, nor is it a form of weakness - but rather, it strengthens us and gives us purpose.  Because true humility grows from placing such high value on life that one is willing and able to face the most frightening of situations without fear, and to even hold back oneself from giving in to anger and acting upon it.  True humility is not burdened by guilt or fear, but is so consumed with love for others that selfish desires, fear, guilt, and anger cannot keep us from striving for the good of the beloved.  There is no true humility without love - so beware of the preacher who tries to dress shame up and call it humility.  True humility leads to love for others, and false humility leads to self loathing, which leads to fear and anger and hate.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cultivating Empathy

In my last post, I spoke of how I believe the main problem in the church to be a lack of humility - or to put it another way: pride.  Now of course I do not believe that this applies to all churches in America, I just believe this is the number one threat to Western Christianity, generally speaking.  But one might ask me: how do we go about solving such a problem?  What is the game plan?

I think that what the church should do is to focus on cultivating empathy.  Empathy is the way by which we take the focus off of ourselves and put it on the suffering of others.  Empathy is the way that we observe the suffering of others and in some sense feel that suffering ourselves.  Empathy is what drives us to then seek solutions for this suffering.

In Romans 12:15, the Apostle Paul instructs us to "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."  We are not to invalidate those who mourn - empathy does not look at those who mourn and say to them: "you big baby!  Toughen up!"  No, empathy seeks to understand the sorrow of the other and to feel it with them.  When we are only thinking of ourselves and our own importance, we are unable to truly understand the sorrow of others, and as a result we will belittle them.  So, to counter this, we must seek to understand those around us and to understand their sorrow.  

Philippians 2:3 says:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

By placing significant value on others, we can learn to empathize with them.  When I became a father for the first time, I had a striking revelation when I realized that I cared so deeply for my son that if anything were to happen to him, it would hurt me far more deeply than if anything were to happen to me.  This was because I valued him more deeply than I valued myself.  I considered his well-being to be my responsibility, and I considered my own well-being to be a secondary responsibility to this.  In order to cultivate empathy for others, we must do the same: we must put their well-being ahead of our own.

Jesus gives us another very important clue for cultivating empathy:

Matthew 7:12
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

In order to cultivate empathy for others, we must learn to see ourselves in their position and seek to understand what our desires would be within their position.  We must "walk a mile in their shoes", as the old saying goes.  In order to love others, we must understand them!  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers:

In Buddhism we learn that understanding is the very foundation of love. If understanding is not there, no matter how hard you try, you cannot love. If you say, “I have to try to love him,” this is nonsense. You have to understand him and by doing so you will love him. One of the things I have learned from the teaching of the Buddha is that without understanding, love is not possible. If a husband and wife do not understand each other, they cannot love each other. If a father and son do not understand each other, they will make each other suffer. So understanding is the key that unlocks the door to love.

This is difficult for us, because we spend so much time drawing caricatures of those we disagree with.  We set up straw man arguments that paint those we disagree with as ridiculous, and then we mock them using these false images.  We dehumanize those we disagree with when we do this, and we make it easier to view them with hostility in the process.  If we see them as human, and we see their viewpoints as being reasonable and valid given the evidence they have seen, we cannot remain hostile towards them.  And this is dangerous to our system of views, because in the process of understanding those we disagree with, we may change.  But this is the dangerous nature of love - love seeks the best for all, even if this comes at the cost of "me". 

I John 4:7-8 says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

If we wish to know God, we must start with cultivating empathy for those around us.  We must see through their eyes, and feel their sorrows.  We must turn our enemies into friends through the power of love, for this is the only way to understand the heart of God - because the very nature of God is love itself!