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Christian Living & Christian Believing

sayersDisciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching.  This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean.  Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)

To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:

  • Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
  • A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
  • Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
  • A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.

As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter.  To choose between them is to miss the mark completely.  One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims.  The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns.  This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:

To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.

This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that).  As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)

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From the 1914 minutes of the NC Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. Personal Photo.

Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case.  Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.

Hear that? Life AND doctrine.  We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.

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No One is Scared of Nonviolence

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Why are we so quick to ascribe fear to our opponents in an argument?

Disagreeing with something, finding its logic faulty, asking questions, or generally thinking something may be unwise is not tantamount to fear.  This is a silly rhetorical device designed to empower whomever is deploying it, indicative of a kind of childish fantasy: if “they” are afraid of something of which I am in favor, or of me, or something I represent, I cause fear. Ergo, I have power over them.

But of course, disagreement is not of necessity based on fear.

I have in view a recent piece by Michael Hidalgo over at Relevant titillatingly titled, “Why Are So Many Christians Scared of Nonviolence?”

The author offers this overwrought opening salvo:

“There is something that terrifies and angers many Christians even more than the threat of violence: nonviolence.”

Christians of intelligence, good will, and deep faith actually do disagree on this.

Christians of intelligence, good will, and sincere faith actually do disagree on these matters.

The author prooftexts some of the early fathers to good effect, rehashing the usual arguments from Christian pacifists.  It’s not so much an original offering as a summation.  For what it’s worth, I should note that I respect the position and appreciate much of the literature it has produced.  I went to seminary at Duke Divinity School, and many of my teachers and fellow students were (and remain) ardent advocates of nonviolence.  I took Stanley Hauerwas my first semester and wrestled with these questions for the duration of my time in seminary, and in subsequent study.  I was never convinced, though I appreciate the positions of folks like John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated Christian nonviolence for quite different reasons).

What the author of this piece fails to realize is that, potentially, what angers some interlocutors who disagree with pacifism is not the position itself but the manner in which it is espoused.  I am not “afraid” of pacifism.  This notion, if I may channel the eminent philosopher Ronald Ulysses Swanson, makes as much sense as being afraid of vegans.  But I do find the way in which pacifism is sometimes defended to be arrogant, simplistic, and dismissive towards all who disagree – much like the tone of the piece to which I am responding.

Let me describe it another way, via analogy.  A much-respected retired UMC pastor once told me that his worst experience in ministry was serving a charismatic church; many of the people in the congregation spoke in tongues and manifested other pneumatological gifts.  He said it was his worst experience in over four decades of ministry because he could not lead, or even provide spiritual care to, a congregation who viewed him as a second class Christian because he did not share their experiences of the Spirit.

In a variety of conversations and interactions, I have observed that Christian pacifists – at least those of the neo-Anabaptist variety to whom I’ve been most exposed – can often treat Christians who do not share their convictions in a similarly non-charitable manner.

(See what I did there? I critiqued people without ascribing self-aggrandizing motives.)

Seminary was a funny place. Guys would walk around in Che Guevara t-shirts or sport a good old Soviet hammer and sickle logo on their earth-friendly coffee thermos, and no one would give them a second look.  But question Yoder’s pacifism, or suggest that a military response to 9/11 was appropriate and perhaps even just? Such an egregious breach of groupthink would bring your discipleship into question.

(Note Hidalgo’s call to “look at our hearts and ask where our deepest commitment and allegiance resides.”)ad hom ref

So maybe – just maybe – some of us have a strong reaction to certain presentations of Christian nonviolence because it presents opponents as sub-Christian troglodytes. Perhaps some anger is understandable when pacifists assume themselves to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground, the true biblical witness, and the narrow way of Jesus.  Maybe we should not expect for our arguments to receive the hearing we feel they deserve if they are dripping with snark, ad hominem, and straw men.

Note the amateurish psychology of the following analysis:

“Maybe that’s why nonviolence is so threatening. It asks us to be willing to give up everything—all our wealth, power, possessions and influence that lend us a sense of self-worth and security and certainty. Maybe that’s why we get so angry at the suggestion of nonviolence; we are terrified of losing what we have worked so hard to get.”

Methinks Pastor Michael is confusing nonviolence with monastic vows.

Though he presents nonviolence as a radical way of self-denial, a costly form of discipleship, in reality there are few places in the 21st century West where this is even a possibility. As Karl Barth and others have noted, nonviolence is a commitment which lacks virtue in the absence of a military draft, or the possibility of facing actual violence; this is particularly so if one’s nonviolence is chiefly lived out among such existential threats as MacBooks and lattes.  But I digress.

Just to reiterate: I do not fear pacifists.  No one does.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid that the state of moral argument among Christians is so egregiously dire.

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Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?

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Generous Spaciousness [Review]

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“This book has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”

-Wendy VanderWall-Gritter

It is no secret that the church is consumed by debates about sexuality.  Further, it is widely known that Christians are often no better at debating sexuality than Congress is at crafting budgets, approving nominees, or making laws.  The sexuality debate, which demands our best resources, often brings out the lesser angels of our nature.

It is in that context that I greatly appreciate Wendy VanderWall-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness.  While it possesses some flaws, it is a valuable contribution to a dialogue that is too often as shallow as it is vitriolic.  Much of this has to do with the author’s own background.

VanderWall-Gritter spent many years in what is called the “Ex-Gay Movement,” a loose association of evangelical Christian parachurch organizations that sought to minister to gays and lesbians, though often in ways that were more de-humanizing than caring.  Probably the best known of such organizations is the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization notorious for its affiliates’  attempts to re-orient gay and lesbians persons.  The author began her ministry following seminary in this kind of environs, but over time began to question some basic tenets.  She eventually changed her approach, and that of the ministry (New Directions Canada) she led.

Relationship is central to her ministry, and to the approach of Generous Spaciousness.  Thus VanderWall-Gritter is at her best here when sharing the experiences and stories gleaned over a career in ministry with gay and lesbian Christians.  Many of them are gut-wrenching.  She is also not afraid to discuss taboo areas of this debate, such as reorientation (“praying away the gay” in common parlance), the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who are disgusted by LGBT sexuality but repeatedly fail to live up to their own standards, and the varied views within the gay Christian community itself (which is often taken to be, or presented as, monolithic).  She has stories to tell of gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians who live partnered, and still others who agonize over their sexuality for whole lifetimes.  For those of us – like myself – who have a dearth of experience with same-sex attracted Christians, Generous Spaciousness contains a wealth of anecdotes and personal accounts.

Indeed, this would have been a better book if the author focused on stories, which play to her experience, and set aside matters out of her depth – such as exegesis.  This would have been a stronger work if it were about 75 pages shorter, shorn of some material that was simply not interesting or outside the range of the author’s expertise.  The chapter on Scripture is especially stultifying, and I was immensely frustrated at the butchered reference to the (unnamed and, yes, so-called) Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the chapter on interpretation, which made all the classic errors one is not supposed to make using that particular hermeneutic lens.

Nevertheless, if the strengths and the weaknesses played see-saw, the weaknesses would remain far up in the sky.  I especially resonate with VanderWall-Gritter’s desire to adjust what she calls the “posture” of those who participate in this conversation.  In most corners of the church, postures about sexuality are rigid, set, and borderline hostile (regardless of which end of the conservative-progressive spectrum one identifies with).  But Generous Spaciousness calls us to a different, caritas-shaped posture, one built on respect for the other, for their story, and for our shared need for and love of Jesus Christ.

The quote above, taken from the concluding pages, is especially instructive.  While VanderWall-Gritter certainly has her own views and the book leans in a certain way, it doesn’t read like the usual echo-chamber propaganda.  Instead, it represents what is for her a very personal journey, some of which may be familiar to her readers and some not.  But who else has written a book on this white-hot topic without trying to convince the reader of a particular answer?

If this is book is widely read, as I believe it should be, then I believe the church can move a long way towards a better posture regarding her LGBT children, and a better discussion along the way.  Sexuality is a complex and powerful reality, and confronting it demands our best efforts and resources.  Generous Spaciousness is one such resource.  I’ll let some of the author’s concluding words finish this review:

“I believe it to be crucial that…we focus our hearts on Christ, on his desire that a unified church would be a witness to the world of his reconciling love, and on being the extension of that love to all our neighbors. I believe that hospitality is central to the heart and ministry of Jesus and that to the extent we fail to extend this hospitality to gay people, the church will fail to walk in the way of Jesus.”

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Do Pacifist Christians “Love the Sinner, but Hate the Sin”?

by Drew 5 Comments
Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.

Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.

Today is Veterans Day in the United States.  We remember and celebrate women and men who have served in our armed forces, whether in peacetime or war.  I wonder if a pacifist Christian can celebrate today?

Let me explain.  I recently preached a sermon questioning the commonly used phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  For a number of reasons, many of which are spelled out by my friend and fellow Methoblogger Ben Gosden here, I do not think this is a phrase Christians should be quick to use.  Other good explorations of this phrase, which comes perhaps from Augustine but likely Gandhi (but certainly not Scripture), include reflections from Ken Collins and Micah Murray.  I especially agree with Murray that Christians tend to only use this in talking about sexuality.  For whatever reason, it is largely progressive Christians who have had an issue with this phrase (and in this case I happen to agree with them).  But in some recent reading a question was raised for me: do pacifist Christians display this exact attitude when dealing with the military?  Pacifists, in my experience, will go to great pains to proclaim their love for military personnel, though they disagree with the soldier’s vocation.  They “love the soldier” but “hate the war.”

Andrew Todd, at the conclusion of an excellent volume he edited exploring military chaplaincy, argues that churches who send chaplains should be sure that they can support the (limited) use of force in certain situations.  His rationale is that

“…if chaplains need to be committed to the military mission, as a corollary of their Christian mission, then the same must be true of the churches. That means that in the interests of supporting the moral role of chaplains discussed here, the ‘sending churches’ must also be supportive of the use of lethal force by an appropriately authorized military in support of peace and justice and must believe that serving the military can be a Christian vocation. Otherwise the chaplain is at risk of discovering that in seeking to live out the gospel within the military community they have become isolated from their faith community.” (168)

In other words, for chaplains to exercise their role effectively and legitimately, the ‘sending’ churches need to approve of their vocation, and that of the Christian soldiers under their care.  The chaplain cannot adequately show Christ’s love to the soldier if the church that has endorsed that ministry believes both the soldier and the chaplain to possess fundamentally flawed notions of discipleship.

As analysis of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” has shown, in practice it is very difficult to separate a person from their actions.  I would argue that the soldier’s vocation is about who they are, about identity, rather then simply actions which they are trained to do on the battlefield.  It is not merely another job that can easily be separated from one’s personality; in part, this is because the military is perhaps the most effective contemporary institution when it comes to formation.  Just try and tell someone who is or who has been a soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine that that identity is not especially important to them.  Thus, to condemn the actions of military personnel while claiming to still love and respect them as persons is to divide their identity from their vocation in way that simply does not make sense.

So, can pacifist Christians legitimately claim to love soldiers and veterans while simultaneously declaring their vocation illegitimate in the eyes of God?  And if so, is this not just another form of “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

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We Are Not Animals: On Living and Dying With Dignity

by Drew 5 Comments
Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

-Mark Twain

People are not animals; we have conscience and consciousness, a level of self-awareness and self-agency that gives us greater ability to be both more glorious and diabolical than other living things.  In an increasingly secular age, however, the modern West’s materialism – which recognizes nothing particularly important about the spiritual realm, if at all acknowledged – lends itself to a “blurring of the lines” (pun intended, see below) in regards to the differences between humans and animals.  This has struck me recently for two reasons.

First, we define ourselves as animals with impulses that we cannot and need not control.  I do not get angry at my dog for barking at the UPS man because she’s doing what a protective breed of dog (the boxer) is supposed to do.  Animals have nothing to go on but instinct.  As Chris Rock once said of the unnecessary shock that was expressed when Siegfried and Roy were attacked by one of their tigers, “That tiger didn’t go crazy – that tiger went tiger!”  But a new Maroon 5 song suggests not merely that people are animals, but that predatory behavior should be expected and even glorified:

Baby I’m preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals
Animals
Like animals

When Johnny Cash sang about “The Beast in Me,” he at least knew to cage the beast, not celebrate it.  While Adam Levine has received criticism for the song and the uber-creepy video – in which his own wife is quite literally likened to a piece of meat – not everyone has been so concerned.  PETA suggested Levine’s “art” did not go far enough, and that, since we’re all “animals,” we should be compassionate animals and be vegan.  All in all, it is quite a feat for a song to make Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” sound like a sweet croon.

If one consequence  of the blurred line between human and animal is treating others like beasts to be preyed upon, another is treating ourselves like animals to be put down.  A young woman in Oregon is receiving a lot of attention for her public plan to die with the assistance of state-approved drugs on November 1st.  Brittany Maynard’s story is certainly moving; she essentially has the worst form of brain cancer possible, and wants to choose the time and place of her death rather than endure the extreme suffering that her disease will inevitably entail.

As a pastor, I’ve sat with dying and suffering people more than most.  And we should have compassion for folks who must face such a terrible prognosis.  But I find it difficult to see assisted suicide as it is touted: as a choice for dignity.  It says much about our society, so riven by moral chaos, that the only thing on which we can agree as a moral good is greater and increasing choice – even if that choice is to treat ourselves like animals.

But animals we are not.  We are humans, made in the image of God, flesh and spirit, sinew and soul.  That some Westerners are beginning to take the logic of denying our particular nature and calling to its conclusion is troubling, though not surprising.  But we are humans, and we all should resist the normalization of language and practices that treat us more as animals than people.  This is especially true for Christians, who confess that humans are created “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) in the image of our Creator, with a special vocation to care for creation, including one another, as God’s precious gift.

We are not prey to be hunted or sick dogs to be put down.  We are humans, uniquely equipped to know the good and to do it.  The fastest path away from both of those, however, is to deny who, what, and Whose we are.

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Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

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Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

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Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation

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Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death.  Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others.  With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.

Martyrdom is Not Sought Out

Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it.  The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out.  Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”

This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him.  Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.

Heroism is a Communal Achievement

‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse.  We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails.  Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate.  A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:

“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”

In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno  seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche.  Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):

“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero.  The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts.  Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)

The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.

Naming the Silence

Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death.  I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy.  Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:

: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret

We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them.  An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed.  For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks.  How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?

I’m reminded of a movie scene.  At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died.  In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”

I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived.  From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served.  That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.

My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones.  May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless.  I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)

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Review: Seeing Black and White in a Gray World by Bill Arnold

by Drew 3 Comments

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I recently finished Dr. Bill Arnold’s new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin: Seedbed 2014).  Dr. Arnold, a professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written this book in response to Adam Hamilton’s popular book (of a similar name) Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.  Professor Arnold is going to be one of my conversation partners at an upcoming forum in New York, and I thought reading his recent book would be helpful preparation for that discussion.

In short, I found much to appreciate in Arnold’s work. His purpose is fairly straightforward.  As he describes in the preface, Arnold read Hamilton’s book in advance of his service as a delegate to the (now infamous) 2012 General Conference in Tampa.  His initial description hints at many of the critiques he develops later in the book:

“I was not disappointed in Adam’s honest and straightforward book seeking a ‘third way’ through and beyond the controversies confronting the church today. I was disappointed, however by other features of the book.  I was surprised by the number of unsupported assumptions, errors of reasoning, and flawed arguments running throughout the book.  I also had questions about some of the theological assumptions, and Adam’s reliance on pragmatism, sometimes at the expense of theology.” (xv-xvi)

If you’ve never before studied logic, you are in for a crash-course. Arnold offers a helpful introduction to logical fallacies at the outset.  When reading, it is critical to catch these as he describes them because Arnold refers to them throughout.  Especially helpful is Dr. Arnold’s discussion of Scripture from a Wesleyan point of view, including his critique of the rampant misappropriation of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the need for a canonical reading of the Bible (what Wesley referred to as the “whole tenor” of Scripture).

Furthermore, I found Arnold’s discussion of the “myths” (as he calls them) that hinder our debate about same-sex relationships in the church quite helpful; these include “orientation” as determinative, liberation as a desired telos, and civil rights as an analogy for the current church struggles over same-sex relationships.  For my own part, I would grant that these would have a great deal more purchase on questions our society faces vis-a-vis civil unions and rights of visitation, inheritance, etc., but they are not adequately theological categories to ground discussion within the church.

There are some difficulties in consistency with Arnold’s work.  He accuses Adam Hamilton of the fallacy of “false dilemma” for asking, “Are John Shelby Spong and Jerry Falwell our only options?” but then goes on to hammer the extent to which (using a Yogi Berra quote) questions about same-sex practice leave us two paths.  “Sometimes we simply stand at a fork in the road. There is no sense complaining or crying over it. We have only two choices before us.” (86)

Similarly, he frequently disparages the search for a middle way (and of course I take this a bit personally), but yet approvingly observes in the preface that the current UM position already is a third or middle way:

“The current UMC approach is already a balanced and healthy third-way alternative…between those who simply accept and celebrate same-sex practices on the one hand, and those who condemn both the practices and the people who experience same-sex attraction on the other.” (xvii)

Later, Arnold will also stringently critique Adam and others like him who seek a compromise or middle way between any two alternatives for falling to a logical fallacy called begging the question: “Instead of asking whether or not such a middle way is possible, this time Adam has failed to consider whether such a middle way is preferable.” (97)  It appears, though, as if middle ways are preferable when he likes them, or can picture them, but to be avoided when he cannot envision them.

This is important because Arnold is not always accurate when deciding which questions are black and white (“fork-in-the-road”) or when compromises are possible.  For instance, he discusses Adam’s reflections on just war and Christian pacifism, concluding: “His is no gray area position. He has effectively taken a position on the side of justifiable warfare.” (166)  This overlooks that Just War is itself a middle or alternative way between the extremes of pacifism and realism, and that there are many construals of Just War theory, some of which would agree with Hamilton’s position (supporting the first Gulf War but not the second), and some of which would not.  Of course, this could be something overlooked by Hamilton as much as Arnold.

It’s worth pointing out, and it is to his credit, that Dr. Arnold is very complimentary of Adam Hamilton and says he counts him as a friend (though he seems to be making a cottage industry of critiquing Church of the Resurrection’s pastor).  By and large his reading of Hamilton is thorough and when he is critical, he is fair.  I wonder, though, about Hamilton as the conversation partner for this particular book.  It is not often that books are written that so directly refute another book, and in this case we have a very odd dichotomy: Arnold, an Old Testament scholar who was heretofore not written much at all in the popular vein (as he admits from the outset), taking on a popular and successful pastor whose work is more practical than scholarly.  Moreover, while Arnold says (on xvi) that he is only “using Adam’s book as representative of others in the same vein,” he never names who those others might be.

This leads to perhaps my most significant question about Arnold’s work: he has few conversation partners, to judge from the footnotes, who would disagree with him.  That is, a large number of his interlocutors are folks of similar conviction: names like Billy Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Joy Moore, and Maxie Dunnam come up regularly, but critics from the other end of the spectrum, or even from the middle, are largely absent – though Richard Hays might be a noticeable exception.  All that to say, it seems a somewhat problematic to write a book about the virtues of “seeing black and white” if the footnotes indicate one mostly only consulted those who already agree from the outset.   Arriving at the promised land of “black and white” is a cheap victory if it is done by not engaging opposing voices.

Lastly, I am not as convinced as Arnold in his conclusion that, “the problem with the church today isn’t that there is too much black and white, but not enough.  What we really need is less gray, not more.” (198)  Many things, even great and central matters of the faith, are not all that “black and white.”  At our best, Wesleyans, similar to the Christian East, have not shied away from mystery when it comes to the things of God.  The two foundational doctrines of the church’s faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are mysteries at their very heart.  Moreover, in a few short days Christians will observe Good Friday, and remember the affliction of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity; the Fathers of the Church would remind us, however, that somehow he suffered “impassibly.”  Finally, the Eucharist is described in our own liturgy as a “holy mystery,” which harkens back to the Wesleys, who had little interest in delving into the quagmire of sacramental mechanics that occupied previous generations.  Thus Charles, showing a distinct lack of concern for “black and white” understandings of Chris’s presence at the Table, would have us sing,

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown…

(Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, #57)

Gray, it turns out, is not something from which God’s people should flee.  In fact, it is impossible.  Nevertheless, Professor Arnold’s new book has given us some helpful paths forward and named some of the major problems with how we are going about our most pressing conversations.  I am not convinced that dialogue is dead, mostly because we have not been doing dialogue well at all.  Bill Arnold’s book, if read and received by many across the ideological divides in the UMC, would help us all be more charitable, clear, and effective conversationalists.

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The Oddly Subversive Nature of Red Dawn

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A Propaganda Poster from the Occupying Forces in ‘Red Dawn’

Finally got around to watching the remake of Red Dawn, the classic Cold War movie brought back to life as the story of an insurgency against China North Korea.  It was a bit surreal to realize I was watching a war movie and pulling for the insurgents.  For the uninitiated, Red Dawn is the story of a North Korean invasion (with help from other international belligerents) and the subsequent resistance by a group of young rebels in a small Pacific Northwest town. Not long into the movie, you realize that you are in the odd position, as an American, of finding it your patriotic duty to support the insurgency.  The movie is not heavy-handed about this – I don’t think it’s trying to make a ‘statement’ in the way that a film like In Time does – but still, it makes you think.

This gets us to the nebulous character of a war on “terrorism.”  Terrorism is, of course, a tactic.  Sometimes it is employed by insurgencies and sometimes not.  It is a tactic, not an enemy – a tactic of the weak,to be sure – but not the cowardly.  In the film, the rebel “Wolverines” are forced to fight with few weapons and resources, but, in the words of their leader Chris Hemsworth (aka Thor), even a small flea can annoy a big dog.  Hemsworth plays a former Marine who saw action in Iraq.  The only nod to the subversive nature of the film is by his character: in Iraq, he says, we were the good guys, and we were there to enforce order, but now we are “agents of chaos.”

That, of course, is precisely how asymmetrical warfare is fought.  Insurgencies go on based on the premise that they do not have to win, the just have to not give up.  The onus is always on the occupying force (that is more a geographical statement than a moral one) to maintain the will to fight, as they are usually far from home, fighting for land that isn’t theirs, often at the edges of supply lines.

Interestingly enough, Edwin Friedman applies a similar observation to leadership.  Leaders do not have to win every battle to be effective, they just have to not give up.

It seems that amazing thoughts can come from a simple popcorn flick.

Hope you had an excellent sabbath.  May you fight the battles in your own life that need fighting, and tenaciously stay in the fray until the enemy retreats.  Peace to you.

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