Category Archives: Doing Theology

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Freedom for the word “religion”

The members of my spiritual direction cohort, by and large, love David Benner’s book Soulful Spirituality. In it he is working on reinforcing how my spiritual life is embodied –– we are also incarnations of the Holy Spirit in our unique and dependent ways. I am not as big a fan of this book as my friends, so far. I’ve been told it gets better. Even if it doesn’t, we will always have The Gift of Being Yourself, which is one of Benner’s gems.

I may have been in a mood when I was reading, but I became fixated on Benner’s binary assumptions regarding “religion” and “spirituality.” This is a common dichotomy, so I don’t know why it began to bother me. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.

For instance, at Psychology Today’s site, a contributor talked about the same issue. She wrote:

The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.

That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.

By the way, I think the author, Andrea Matthews, capitalized “Self” because her interest and writing leans into “The territory of the Self” and “differentiating between the authentic and the inauthentic” leading to a “peaceful internal home.” Psychoanalytic and Jungian people, in particular, use a capital S Self to differentiate from the false, unrealized, unintegrated, lower-case self. (Me too, sometimes.)

You don’t need to hear all my arguments about her Christless musings. I just want to offer one argument about “religion” that made me feel better.

Religion is a modern invention

I decided to find out when people in the so-called “West” started using the word “religion” in the way Benner and Matthews use it. As when Matthews starts with “the purpose of religion” and she assumes we all understand the abstraction called “religion” and can sort various groups under that definition. I had never studied it, but I had the idea that “religion” is probably a modern invention, like a lot of powerful things contributed by the Enlightenment and Europe’s project to colonize the world and remake it in its own image.

Brent Nongbri

I came up with a very interesting book that confirms my suspicion: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) by Brent Nongbri. He is now a professor at the Norwegian School of Philosophy in Oslo. But he was raised in Texas and got his doctorate at Yale.

My thought was the way Benner is talking about religion does not match the Bible’s worldview. Like so many things, the word “religion” had been redefined to fit the straight-jacket of European (and now American) thinking that posits a unifying theme and then collects like things under it. We are all being fitted into abstract categories as if that is important. I often squirm under the abstraction “identity,” which comes from the same thinking; now we all must choose an identity to become authentic. On the map we are all wrestling with the abstraction “nation,” defined by lines which cut through family systems and language groups and create endless conflict in service to a European imagination; the U.S. wall along the border with Mexico is a visual reminder.

Nongbri’s thesis is straightforward. For the past two centuries people have assumed “religion” is “a universal human phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.” This modern notion has been criticized in the last thirty, postmodern years. The main criticism comes from the fact that no ancient languages have a term that really corresponds to what modern people say when they mean “religion.” In fact, the names of supposedly old religions can be traced back to the recent past. “Hinduism” for instance, starts showing up named around 1787 and “Buddhism” in 1801.

The isolation of something called “religion” as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics and science is not a universal feature of human history. If you take a look at the Bible, no one is thinking that way. If you look at the Bible from a European Protestant lens, through which all the past looks like a projection of European thinking, then you can find the separation. But once you begin to imagine a world in which God is present in every activity and, indeed, enlivens the planet, then these abstract separations can’t be found.

James Tissot — The Tribute Money (Le denier de César), 1886-1894.

It is not in the Bible

For instance, in Matthew 22 Jesus famously said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The modern lens sees a dichotomy in the verse between the secular government and the religious establishment, or between the realm of humans and the realm of God. I find the stultifying arguments that Bible students have had my whole life over this quote pretty tiresome, much as I was finding Benner’s dichotomy between religion and spirituality. The endless arguments about abstractions are a modern imposition.

I don’t believe Jesus or the writers were seeing the world through such a corrupt lens. Nongbri notes that Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, reflected 1 Tim. 2:1-2 when he interpreted what was “owed to Caesar” were prayers on his behalf. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan understood Jesus to be encouraging people to give up their property and lead an ascetic life like he was living, free of Caesar’s things.  No one in the Bible thought Caesar’s things should be religion-free (like John Locke) or thought religious things would be threatened by secular authorities (like Roger Williams).

I don’t like being an abstraction in the lens of some powerful leader corralling me into their Eurocentric organizing principles, especially when they do it in the cause of religion or spirituality. Moreso, I like trying to walk with Jesus in the light of God’s revelation in the Savior. When I am suckered into seeing through the eyes of modern thinkers — and that is not unlikely since they made the situation we are in, I feel caught. I think Jesus is still calling us out. Paul says, in Col. 2 (and Gal. 4)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces (basic principles) of this world rather than on Christ.

I suspect Benner is going my direction and also wants me to be close to my Savior. But I would like him to tighten up his thinking. The idea of religion is a recent abstraction that has become a debilitating “basic principle.” I think people fill the idea with good meaning and use it in good faith to good ends. But I don’t want to live under it and I do want to get in touch with what the rest of the church in history taught and what many non-Europeans intuitively know.

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!

Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

Western Culture has slowly been taken over by the ascendant features of our left brains. The left hemisphere is the powerful home of language and so analytic thought and so science. The sometimes-maligned “right brain” is the brain’s home for the “big picture” as well as the “right now;” it is also, apparently, where our music, empathy and religion are generated.

The Culture War we are in has a lot of wacky features, often personified by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But  the “red” side may have more substance to it, all over the world, than it is usually credited in my “bluer” territory. Science is great, but people feel pushed around by science. Language is the essence of human connection, but when it is forced into the service of making boundaries and punishing people for saying (or thinking) the wrong thing, it does the opposite of connecting. My clients who don’t want to be vaccinated because they don’t trust science or any of the authorities trying to talk them into it (like their therapist!) are often characterized as ignorant fools. I think they may be throwing out their health baby with their rebellious bathwater, but there is a lot of dirty bathwater to consider. They have a feeling that more is behind what is going on than meets the eye.

Is there more going on than meets they eye?

The book I am slowly reading, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is doing a great job of convincing me that my own unease with the way my betters have presented knowledge and have made laws in service to only half our brains. [Click pic for summary]. There is, indeed, more going on than the left brain can see, when it is left alone to dominate.

I want to engage the other half of my brain, the fundamental right half, which has generally been sublimated for the sake of human, materialist achievement. My clients of color and all those lovely, impoverished people I have visited all over the world, even the ones who made it clear I represented “The Great Satan” of the United States (which I did not!), operate in a much less one-side-of-the-brain fashion. They rarely make superb weapons, but they are more in touch with what it means to be human and, as a result, more accessible to God. Do you also feel that you are having endless arguments with people instead of relating? Are you tired of pastors telling you to “Get out of your head and into your heart” even as they make a careful analysis of scripture?

Albert Einstein said there is more than meets the eye of science — and rationality, in general:

“The supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance, and this Einfühling [literally, empathy or ‘feeling one’s way in’] is developed by experience.” *

Einstein accepted his left-brain task of logical deduction and discovered things scientists are still unpacking. He never told anyone how to make an atomic bomb, but his famous equation E=mc2 explained how the energy could be released in one. Sure enough, an atom bomb became the logical extension of his brilliance in our left-brain-boundaried world. This happened even though the revered Einstein led people to see beyond the limits of science and to feel their way back into the  intuition and other wonders that mainly reside in the right-hemisphere of each of our brains.

The Bible had this argument before we needed to argue about it again

Ian Gilchrist, the author of The Master and His Emissary, spends a lot of time piling up the science that demonstrates how a system enclosed within the structure of the left brain might get trapped into thinking it was complete in itself. Try on this quote:

“The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. ** Language in itself (to this extent the post-modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, “unpack” the premises it starts with. But there can be no evidence within reason that yields the premises from which reason must begin, or that validates the process of reasoning itself – those premises, and the leap of faith in favour of reason, have to come from behind and beyond, from intuition or experience.“

Political “progressives,” like those with whom I travel, are often just making a left-brain argument in honor of Jesus. They are just moral agents within the domination system of rationality.

But their justice-loving Bible clearly says:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21)….”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

That is a splendidly intuitive, right-brain piece of poetry debunking the wisdom systems of the world (like modern science) whenever they masquerade as ends in themselves.

You can hear Paul undermining the primacy of language, as well, whenever it creates a closed system. As he says above, his “foolish” message about God’s work in Jesus can hardly find a place to rest in known lexicons! Later on, in Chapter 14, he teaches about speaking in tongues, the language that is “out of the left brain’s mind,” a right brain expression in direct connection with God which short circuits the left-brain control system and logic making.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (1 Cor 14:14-15).

When my “conservative” brothers and sisters want to stick to the letter of the Bible, they are really just surrendering to the worldly project of Europeans who got caught up in themselves and decided they were the central feature of the world, armed with their arguments (and weaponry) to subdue the earth according to their godless logic, describing everything in black and white, including people.

I just wanted to give you a taste of the education Gilchrist is giving me.  I suspect as you read his book you would also feel like your gut feelings were being verified. After all, you studied the Bible, experienced things unseen by human wisdom and may have spoken in tongues! The church is all about music, art, poetry and experiencing all the wonders the right brain is organized to facilitate.

Life in Christ is being squeezed from within the church and without. When Hildegard of Bingen was doing her science, art and philosophy in about 1133 — and leading as a brilliant woman, it was a right-brain outburst that almost got her thrown out of the patriarchal church, which was just starting to get a rationalistic ball rolling. That ball barreled right through the pious Rene Descartes who concluded “I think, therefore I am,” and it rolled right down to the very religious Joe Biden who quickly hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office when he got there to signal that science would guide him. I think a lot of people, many of whom are Jesus followers, feel they’ve been run over quite a few times, themselves.

If any of you resonated with any of this, what do you think and feel? This might not be the best place for a dialogue, but we certainly need one.

______

* Planck, M. Where is Science Going? (with a preface by Albert Einstein), trans. J. Murphy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1933.

** Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that are concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. Wikipedia

Wrestling for the blessing and becoming one

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (2012), Edward Knippers

One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:

So Jacob was left alone.

You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.

What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.

Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 

Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.

When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.

Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]

So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”

The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,

“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’

I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?” 
He answered, “Jacob.” 
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.

Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”

He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.

Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.

Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!

Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.

“In Christ” is where I find a Jesus lens

At the Partner Summit of the Jesus Collective we were sent off into Zoom groups (God save us!) to practice “community discernment.” Nothing could be more countercultural and more appropriate. We did not have the capacity and environment to do it (it was Zoom, people) but we did have the audacity to try it! We zeroed in on what it means to see the Bible and the whole world with a “Jesus lens.” This is a primary characteristic of the Jesus Collective movement – not just seeing through the lens of theology, politics or personality, but seeing our way to life as the living Jesus show us, alive in our midst. Sounds like the Bible and sounds unlikely, right? I was glad to be there.

Searching for a Jesus lens

I thought many people provided good, left-brain, conceptual arguments for their views on the Bible. Others came with other views, so we had quite a few views. We were mostly practicing discernment. It is not that easy! We were not assigned to come up with a definitive piece of theological and relational understanding via Zoom. But I imagine most people were as stimulated as I was.

After all the input, I came away thinking a Jesus lens is not going to be much use unless it is derived from being born again into Christ, living in Christ, and seeing the whole world encompassed by the love in Christ. Here is a key verse for me.

In Christ Jesus
you are all children of God through faith,
for all of you who were baptized
into Christ
have clothed yourselves
with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one
in Christ Jesus.”  — Galatians 3:26-28

I think the common, simple New Testament phrase “in Christ” is a forgotten starting point for mutual understanding. In the portion above, Paul is speaking to the Christians in Galatia, reminding them of their new identity since they placed their faith in Jesus Christ. To be “baptized into Christ” means that they are identified with Christ, since they left their false selves and are putting on their true selves in Christ. When we respond to the Holy Spirit’s drawing we are baptized us into the family of God — “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).

I think many people with whom I travel are often missing their sense of identity “in Christ.” They aspire to go there, but it is not where they come from. They conceptualize it, but they are suspicious of feeling it. They love Christ in the Bible, but don’t seem to have the Bible’s sense of loving Christ in the here and now. The New Testament is filled with references describing Jesus followers “in Christ:” 1 Peter 5:14Philippians 1:1Romans 8:1. NT Wright can tell you a bit more

Now is the time to live in Christ

I am talking about a theme that interested me in a Zoom discussion, not making a report on data. So don’t think I am coloring the Jesus Collective, please. I just think many of the people to whom I was listening may have struggled with finding a common Jesus lens because we could not agree where Christ is outside of ourselves, individually, from “my personal point of view” or “in my opinion.” I think most of the group were sincerely coming from a place where Christ is, in them.

In this age, most of us practice identity politics by habit, even though the idea didn’t really enter our societal imagination until the 1980s. So we present ourselves according to our sense of identity, usually based on our place in society: gay, Black, white, Canadian, Goth, engineer, etc. Nowadays the idea of identity is refined by the academics until no one feels safe until everyone has tagged themselves as a “cis white male he him his,” or whatever labels you.

It is easy to apply such hyperindvidualism to the Bible. You could read it this way:

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature
in Christ. — Col. 1:27-8

Many people see one important thing in Paul’s statement: Christ in me is my hope of glory (that is, my hope of sharing God’s life and eternity). Meanwhile, the “mystery” Paul is talking about was made known to a group, not just me. What’s more, Paul is teaching “everyone.” And the goal is maturity “in Christ” not Christ maturing in me. I am not the mystery even though my right brain, at least, is organized to receive it.

I’m making one of those binary distinctions: is it Christ in me or is it me in Christ? It is both. But I think the mystery that was revealed is that we are welcomed to live in Christ. If you are tracking with me, I hope we are meditating on living in Christ together, so we can see with a Jesus lens and create environments where Jesus is known, not just thought about or turned into morality that looks like our present set of principles.

What is being in Christ?

The immediate “mystery” Paul was talking about in the previous passage is this: the Gentiles are also included as fellow heirs of God with the Jews. The ultimate mystery is this:  everyone living in Christ experiences hope as life wells up in us. (More from Pete Enns on mystery)

One could read the following portion individually: “Christ dwelling in me is the mystery revealed to me.” But, more accurately, we could read, “Me living in Christ is the mystery.”

For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love,
may have power,
together with all the Lord’s holy people, 
to grasp
how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,
 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19

  • Being in Christ is being restored to one’s place in the family of God, the Creator of familiness.
  • Being in Christ is sending down roots into love, the humus of reality that grows humans.
  • Being in Christ is being one of God’s people as a primary identity
  • Being in Christ is entering the spacious environment of grace that is beyond human understanding

I need to kneel, I need to be strengthened in my inner being, I need power to grasp the gift I have been given, I need to be filled to my fullness. But none of this happens unless I am in Christ. Christ is in me because I am in Christ. That is the mystery of my remaking.

The parable of the man saved by trash

Thank God it is no longer February! That was a hard one. But it is still Lent; it is a pandemic. Despair in is the air, in the country and in the church.  If you think you are drowning or barely keeping your nose above water, I have a little story for you after a few paragraphs.

Despair threaded its way through my feelings last week, too. A further reason, as if I needed one, was this: I kept encountering Christians hemmed in by the trash theology to which they were committed. I mean the kind of thinking that invited Trump, the unbeliever, to lead much of the Evangelical church as if he were Cyrus the Great now freeing Christian exiles. I mean the principle-based thinking that consigns devoted people to understanding the Bible as the end of faith when it is just the beginning. I mean the hierarchical thinking that constrains people to makes excuses for the church leaders who do them wrong, to the point where they can’t even feel their own loss or trauma without feeling guilty for having any and for not following the spin the leadership puts on their power plays.

Pollution in the ocean of grace

Maybe I am just despairing because I never seem to keep my mouth shut about these things and feel displeasing, as a result. I was in a class in which our teacher was giving a very effective presentation about being aware of power in a spiritual direction relationship. During the subsequent dialogue her students were sincerely self-aware of all the ways they might be at fault. They were ready to learn of any way they might cross a line that would diminish someone’s autonomy or impede their free choice. I thought controlling our little dyad with a commitment to “freedom” might be too small a context, reducing it down to something I could control might be a bit grandiose; it might betray some unprocessed philosophy. So I had to get in my two cents worth, as well, appearing a bit too passionate, I’m afraid (as passionate as one can get in a Zoom session, at least). I said something like, “Our teacher got interested in power because Jean Vanier was exposed for taking sexual advantage of his directees, among others. What’s more, an authoritarian president unleashed a wave of threat in the country and a return to unveiled white supremacy!”

My righteous anger kept simmering until I read a little news story that became a parable of hope for me. Even less-than-complete thinking might be a means of salvation for our miracle-working God — Lord knows I am not complete! So I want to share the story with you, along with my interpretation. You are probably clinging to some bit of trash theology in a sea of confusion, threat and chaos yourself. And I think we all probably feel very small in a very big ocean every day, even when there is no virus to fear.

Here’s the story

Before I start, let me remind you.  While the legislatures rush to spend time on restricting rampant voter participation, the Pacific Ocean is quickly filling up with plastic. In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Pacific Ocean was “crying out in despair.” Scientists warn the pollution crisis could leave more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Those two more cents being offered, here’s the parable.

Pitcairn Island

According to the Washington Post, a supply ship called the Silver Supporter left New Zealand on Feb. 8 for the 3,000 mile trip to the Pitcairn Islands (famously settled by mutineers from the Bounty in 1789). About seven days later, the crew discovered they were one member short. Their chief engineer was missing.

Around 4 am, during his watch on the night shift, Vidam Perevertilov from Lithuania felt hot and dizzy. He went out on the deck for some fresh air. Apparently, he fainted and fell overboard into the dark waters without a life jacket. He had trouble keeping his head above water as the sleeping ship steadily moved away. But he summoned enough energy to swim over a mile to a black object he could see on the horizon. The object turned out to be a detached buoy, a big piece of sea rubbish.

He was gone for six hours before someone sounded the alarm. The crew members studied Perevertilov’s work logs to try to pinpoint the coordinates of where he was last certified as on board. Distress calls were made to surrounding ships, and the French navy assisted in the hunt. A French meteorological service mapped a possible drift path. The ship’s captain continued to hunt for the missing crew member by steering the ship back and running various search patterns.

Despite his determination to pull through, as the hours slowly passed Perevertilov began to lose hope of ever being found. For sixteen hours he bobbed up and down in the cold and dark and then in the searing heat of the morning. He found himself using his final moments to reflect on his life.

Weak with dehydration, skin burning, and giving up hope, he was shocked to spot the Silver Supporter in the distance. He waved his arm and yelled for help. A passenger on board heard his cry, describing it as a “weak, human shout.” Everyone thought it was incredible someone heard a voice. The man’s ecstatic family thought the whole rescue operation was almost impossible to believe.

His son said his father’s will to survive was strong; even at 52, he was fit and healthy. When asked about the piece of trash he found, Perevertilov said he left the fishing buoy exactly where he had found it — just in case it was ever needed to save someone else.

Not a real island

I forget that God does a lot of good with “trash”

Don’t forget that he left the trash as he found it when he was found.

This story changed my mind about all the poor believers I lamented. Perhaps they had been overboard a long time and were about to give up. They swam toward some promising trash theology that kept them afloat. (I won’t go in to how relative my judgment of “trash” may be). They got spiritually dehydrated and often got burned, but it was better than drowning. In fact, the trash saved them until the big ship came and rescued them, brought them on board for healing and took them home. I can hear the Apostle Paul saying to me, “Would you despise the trash that saved your brother? Isn’t your sister’s life worth more than your estimation of goodness?” Well, no, I wouldn’t and yes, it is. Jesus is made known by a leaf in the forest, a small voice on a mountain or a Presbyterian sermon. A fine acquaintance from my youth started his journey of faith by pausing for a televangelist while flipping around the channels. God’s love is unrestrained.

I decided, once again, that I can afford to be a lot less critical of the dangerous debris floating around on the ocean of the collective unconscious. A lot of people have a will to live and not even trash Christianity can keep them from meeting God and growing into their fullness. I may be right to point out that the ocean of God’s grace is crying out in despair because it is polluted with a huge gyre of plastic, unnourishing, detrimental religious thinking.

But listen, there are all sorts of faint voices crying out and waving their hands for help. God sees. I should open my eyes, and my heart, as well.

Jesus on the narrow way through the power struggle

What do you think? Is it a problem when one is praying about love and a scene from “The Crown” and other fragments of pop culture come to mind? I suspect appropriate fragments of the Bible should come to mind! But that is how it was. I have been struggling with love in the midst of the painful binary arguments that fragment both church and society these days as both find it hard to listen to the Holy Spirit. As it turns out, the media is also struggling.

Love is not THE answer

My first fragment was England Dan & John Ford Coley singing “Love is the Answer.” I first heard the song in 1979 when my first son was born. Now you can’t get away from it in the supermarket. Ronald Reagan was running for president. Margret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain. Ayn Rand lost her husband.

When the guys sing “Light of the world shine on me,” it makes their song sound very Christian. That’s how I took it. But, according to Todd Rundgren, the songwriter, it is was just written to be Christianesque:

“From a lyrical standpoint, it’s part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love. I’m not a Christian, but it’s called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it’s still a subject” (Rolling Stone).

You may be a bit Christianesque like that yourself. Dan Seals and John Coley were Bahai at the time. Coley later returned to Jesus. Regardless, love is not THE answer, even if it is a good answer to almost everything. Jesus is the answer and healing, reuniting love becomes possible as an outgrowth of our relationship with God. Abstracted Jesus love is just an argument.

It is odd that we are still arguing about what this song purports. Is love the answer? Donald Trump is a walking poster representing the man for whom love is not the answer. He’s the bad boy from the Margaret Thatcher/Paul Ryan side of the societal binary argument about how to relate. He is selfish. The only thing that matters to him is the deal [see this Atlantic article about The Art of the Deal]. He purports to be a self-made man. He’s a personified argument ready to be the reason for whatever  happens.

Reason is not THE answer, either

That brings up another fragment. I am watching The Crown and it is getting into history I personally remember. The other night Queen Elizabeth was arguing with Margaret Thatcher about the common good, loving one’s neighbor and being the keeper of one’s brother. Elizabeth is not “keen” on how her prime minister is retraining England. Thatcher is famous for saying,

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

There is another unspoken voice in the conversation between Thatcher and the Queen. Thatcher’s sense that there is “no society” comes straight from the Ayn Rand critique of Western Democracy. As Paul Ryan said, we are in a fight between individualism and collectivism; and now we know that is a fight right down to whether you should wear a mask in South Dakota during a pandemic.

Ayn Rand’s influence in the church and in society (whether Thatcher thinks that exists or not) is probably way underestimated. In 2008-9, Atlas Shrugged sold 1 million copies! That’s one million of the seven that had been sold during the 50 years since the novel was published in 1957. Here’s a bio of Ayn Rand.  She was a Russian Jew whose family was ruined by totalitarianism. After they fled to the U.S. in 1926 she soon saw the New Deal providing all sorts of new social benefits and saw big government getting bigger. She began to write, and invented a philosophy she called “objectivism.” It values its definition of selfishness, rejects altruism as slavery, and advocates unfettered, free market capitalism. Here is a tortured rationalization for how the Ayn Rand Institute could justify living off the “altruism” of the welfare state’s PPE funds this year while purporting to expose the distribution of those funds as evil: clip from their site. They insist that altruist, statist, collectivist principles are destroying the country.

When I was in high school, I read some Ayn Rand, most of her novels and The Virtue of Selfishness. When she threw off God, society and anything but Donald Trump’s gut instincts, I deserted her. She’s not all wrong, philosophically, but since she is an atheist, I’m not sure why Christians follow her. Here’s a sample from the Virtue of Selfishness.

Selfishness, however, does not mean “doing whatever you please.” Moral principles are not a matter of personal opinion — they are based in the facts of reality, in man’s nature as a rational being, who must think and act successfully in order to live and be happy. Morality’s task is to identify the kinds of action that in fact benefit oneself. These virtues (productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride) are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality.

Rand’s moral ideal is a life of reason, purpose and self-esteem. But reason is obviously not THE answer, since Kellyanne Conway just used it to construct a set of “alternative facts.” Reason is not the answer, Jesus is the answer. Our relationship with God gives reason a chance to flourish.

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Expressing dignity on the Bethlehem side of the wall.

Jesus doesn’t need to win the argument

One of my favorite proverbs says, “Truth without love kills and love without truth lies.” One side thinks the truth about freedom is worth a few lives. The other side thinks loving the marginalized justifies whatever it takes to defeat oppressors. And on the fight goes, even in the church. In Jesus we have seen the glory of God, full of grace and truth, love and reason. Jesus is the both/and of the binary. He is the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. He’s the end of the endless struggle between polarities.

Ayn Rand has been winning the argument with the baby boomers for their entire adult lives, in the church and out. Now it seems reasonable to be selfish in a good way and seems logical to let unfettered capitalism run over everyone who can’t exercise their “God-given freedom” fast enough or well enough to keep up with the economy. You can see how this argument goes round and round, as Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas, said he was willing to sacrifice his life to the virus if he could save the economy for his grandchildren. It seems that love was his answer, but the economy had a reason of its own. Rand would not approve of him sacrificing his life for anyone, but she might approve of surrendering to the  “fact” of the virus and letting the weak (or “losers” in the Donald’s parlance) die their death.

What started all this was an old song squeezing into my meditation. As it turns out, love is not the answer, but love is sure my problem. I don’t want to give it up just because I live in the middle of a constant argument — potentially despised by one side and deserted by another. I am trying to learn the Jesus, third-way love, walking a narrow path right down the middle of the binary arguments of the world which just go on and on. For some, that endless argument seems to pass for eternal life, whether anyone wants to live it or not, or just a feature of a pluralist society, whether a society exists or not.  I am grateful that Jesus promises and demonstrates an eternity worth living in a community worth building.

A few words from Bruxy Cavey on the basis for the Jesus Collective

Bruxy Cavey was excited the other day when the pioneers of the Jesus Collective met for their monthly “hub” meeting. He rushed into the zoom room to meet us direct from recording the audiobook for his rewritten and repurposed best seller, The End of Religion. I’m the rep to the Jesus Collective for Circle of Hope, so I got to listen to him riff on the themes of his writing. He’s great at giving voice to what moves churches from around the world to form the Jesus Collective. Many of us are hungry for a Jesus-centered life together.

On my first trip to the meeting house

Bruxy is the main teacher from one of the few Anabaptist  megachurches: the Meeting House in the Toronto area. He is onto what we, as the Circle of Hope and others who read this, have been onto for decades, only he says it better and sometimes bolder.

I want to share some of what he said last week. I won’t try to quote him (I was just in a zoom, after all), and I will expand a bit, but I want to offer you the gist. Here are some examples of his teaching that I think will get your spiritual juices flowing.

  • You can’t bolt the Old covenant on to the New. Paul clearly teaches that the Law is a tutor for life in Christ. But plenty of church people apply the whole Bible as if nothing ever developed both in the history recorded in the Bible or since the book took shape. As a result, they use Old Testament ethics and examples like Moses or David to justify violence, patriarchy and all sorts of things that undermine the message of Jesus. In Jesus God birthed something new from the old, just like he is doing in us as individuals and a church. We need to move with that new birth.
  • The previous mentality noted is an example of what Cavey calls a “religious spirit.” He says having a religious spirit is like spiritual hoarding. Perhaps most people are not threatened by what is new – they just never let go of the old. They ponder an old worship style like a hoarder ponders a stained piece of Tupperware the cleanup crew wants to clear out. Risking change is not easy, but it is much easier when we live in relationship with a loving God who personally guarantees the future. We should boldly imagine the end of what we are doing now so we fight the temptation to perfect what is passing away, or fight yesterday’s battles when new foes demand our love and courage.
  • The Anabaptists were the radical reformers when many Europeans wanted to get out from under the corruption and warped theology of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. These radicals were good examples of letting go of the old and grasping the new. The main Reformers wanted to always be reforming. But as it turned out, they freeze-dried and shrink-wrapped their faith around statements and catechisms written in the 15 and 1600’s. Unlike them, the Anabaptists were organic and Spirit led. The scriptures were a beginning point for them, not an end point, because they were following the risen Jesus and doing the word. Over the years Anabaptists, like our Amish friends in Lancaster Co., lost their change-the-world passion and spent their energy trying not to engage it. They preserved compassion, simplicity and peacemaking, but they also became preserved as sort of a curiosity. Every movement has a shelf life. It cools off like lava flowing into new territory and hardening into something quite permanent. Bruxy wants us to break open tradition and let reformation flow.
  • Early radicals believed the risen Jesus spoke to the church in the scripture and in the lives of their covenant partners. Their “community hermeneutic” made the voice of Jesus clearer and louder — when individual Spirit-receptors come together they amplify revelation. They weren’t looking to go beyond the Bible. But the Bible says: I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I am leaving; for if I do not leave, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). There is more access to God now that Jesus is not walking in a body with us and the Holy Spirit multiplies ways to connect to God. A few hundred could follow the man; thousands could, now billions can follow the Spirit.

I’m excited to be part of a movement that wants to get out from under the hardened lava of Eurocentric/Roman Empire Christianity. Not that I don’t deeply admire all the wonderful people of Europe and North America who have followed Jesus with abandon — they are the salt of the earth right now, too. But the Jesus Collective, including Bruxy Cavey, represents what is coming next.

On December 10 I will represent Circle of Hope at a brief ceremony inducting the first partner churches who will form the Jesus Collective. Some of you reading will be there from around the world. I am honored to be a part. I know there is always something new to grasp. Even Circle of Hope, which was designed for flexibility and change, has ways that can get solid. We could lose our fire and stop flowing. But Jesus has sent us the Helper and I doubt we’ll ever get hardened enough to be impervious to her persistent grace.

Doing theology about the upcoming election: Eleven takeaways

People who identify as Americans entered the July 4 weekend humiliated as almost never before. They had one collective project this year and that was to crush Covid-19, and they failed. Confronted with a crisis, most couldn’t even put on a mask.

The Day - 'It's broken': Fears grow about patchwork US election ...
A voter (right) checks in with an election worker ion Philadelphia on June 2

America the wounded electorate

Last Wednesday, the U.S. had about 50,000 new positive tests, a record. Other nations are beating the disease while the U.S. infection graph shoots upward as sharply as it did in March. This failure is leading to other problems. A third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to the Census Bureau. Suspected drug overdose deaths surged by 42 percent in May. Small businesses, colleges and community hubs are collapsing.

Most Americans are not in denial about the last three months of turmoil. According to a Pew survey, 71% are angry about the state of the country right now and 66% are fearful. Only 17% are proud.

Even better than not being in denial, many Americans are reacting to the turmoil in two positive ways. There are unforeseen shifts in attitudes toward race. Roughly 60% of Americans now believe African-Americans and other people of color face a great deal or a lot of discrimination and live under the threat of random police brutality. People have been waiting for a white backlash since the riots, or since the statues started toppling. There isn’t much if any evidence of a backlash. There’s evidence of a fore-lash.

Second, Americans have decided to get rid of Donald Trump and much of the world is breathing a sigh of relief. His mishandling of Covid-19 hurt his re-election chances among seniors. His racist catcalls in a time of racial reckoning have damaged him among all groups. His asinine July 4 celebration of maskless thousands worshiping at a shrine to white supremacy at Mt. Rushmore will, if God answers my prayers, be the last time we witness that.

What’s the core problem with Americans? We’ve been preaching about it for 25 years, now. Damon Linker identified a piece of the problem in  his article: “It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.” For many people, Linker’s insight amounts to a revelation Covid-19 delivered – even to Jesus followers whose Savior calls them to love as he loves!

You can add a lot more core problems, of course. Just read the Constitution. I’d add autonomy,  preoccupation with identity, capitalism as a way of life, acceptance of the fruit of Empire, militarism, economic slavery, and selfishness touted in Congress as a virtue. They all  lead to a gnawing sense of inauthenticity – it is so deep people project it on each other all day. In 1970, in a moment like our own (It was wild; I was 16), Irving Kristol wrote, “[People] cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.” David Brooks said last week, “A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country — how Black Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work — and none of it makes sense. None of it inspires faith, confidence. In none of it do they feel a part.”

Our thoughts on the upcoming election

Since I became a Christian in the 70’s, I think it is safe to say that at the end of every year of knowing Jesus, the United States has made even less sense. At this point I won’t even call myself an American. None of it inspires faith or confidence. In none of it do I feel a part. I am at home in my alternative society led by Jesus. That mentality was central to the convictions I brought to the recent dialogue we had about the upcoming elections. We were trying to contribute some theology to what people need to think about when they face November. Do we have (or need to have) a definitive view on elections?

I hesitate to sum it up, since it was a rich, generous discussion, even on Zoom. So even though people rarely use my blog to dialogue, maybe they will add some things this time. What I will try to do is bullet some “takeaways” from doing theology. These are my takeaways, if not mostly my thoughts – this is not a report on what everyone said. You heard my point of view, already, and I think it is a New Testament one. Most people were in my ballpark, so I want to follow that theme as a way to help you look at participating in the election with the Americans.

  • In 2016, we took communion on election night to remind ourselves that Jesus is our true leader. (We also collected some theology related to that election). We were acting along with the spirit of Dr. King, who says the church is not meant to be the servant of the state or the master of the state… the church is meant to be the conscience of the state.
  • Participating in politics is not as easy as being for or against. We have a responsibility for others that does not allow us to “wash our hands” like Pilate. We should suffer, not hunker down in an ideology and give up wrestling. We cannot make a law and give up the messiness of grace. We must not moralize instead of accepting the winding road everyone is on toward their destiny.
  • Politics is an endless, inconclusive, mostly redundant process. The church is a big tent. Put those facts together and it makes sense to have provisional opinions and flexible actions. We have people in the church who feel the fear Trump elicits. We have people in the church calling out people for not being true believers in their liberation movement. Everyone should be invited into the safety of God’s love so they can check their own motivation and be in dialogue even about an election. Our videos on how to discern might be a good place keep pondering these things.
  • We should not feel a great burden about being integrous in relation to a corrupt system. It would be nice if we lived by a rule and whatever candidate we offered looked like Jesus so we could give an actual alternative. (This would be a “rule” as a “way,” not a standard or authority). National elections tend to rob us of our awareness of local connections – the media undermines our conversation as a church and with our neighbors. Maybe we should make sure to prompt all our cells to have some real dialogue so they are not dominated by the media powers.
  • We have misgivings about appearing “partisan” but also about abandoning duty to speak plainly about matters of consequence. We are committed to the truth even to the point where we would hope to be willing to die for it if necessary. But we don’t want to steamroll people who are also trying to figure things out the best they can — sometimes in good faith, sometimes not.
  • When we guide each other about voting, we want the guidance generated up, not down. We don’t need a guide distributed by the “authorities;” we all need to actively discern the spirits together. We would more likely come up with something like a Yelp review of candidates. The Poor People’s Campaign might be a good example of a group who has a way to assess what’s important.
  • It is a privilege to vote. What about voter suppression? We could help solve the issues of voting. Maybe a compassion team could organize for this. We spent some time admiring how we let teams form to do what inspires them. We should pray for our compassion teams so their attempts to lead and inspire us actually work as part of the body, not just their interest group.
  • Why do we participate in elections? Do we do it to get power or to influence the powers? One person said, “If I got the power I might be just as screwed up!” We would like people who help us influence to do it with prophetic imagination — imagine newness. (Here is Bruggerman on On Being). We want to breed a new way of thinking in line with our alternative way of life. Kendra Brooks is a nice local example of coming up with another way.
  • Love is always central. If what we do will feel polarizing, we need to be loving in our presentation and follow up with people who feel injured. Try to win the right to be heard. We should try to know what people think or might think and let them know we acknowledge that and care — we will listen, not just talk. We don’t want to lose people to Jesus by seeming “too political.” We should honor their process if they are not where we think Jesus is going yet.
  • The book Exclusion and Embrace could help people relate across boundaries. An embrace does not dissolve the individual; it is an object in itself. The embrace is where goodness happens. We should be obsessed with getting to the hearts of people. That’s our tier one. Until we get there, we may need to change some behaviors on tier two. People get killed by corrupt government. The train might run over them and we might need to lay on the tracks, embracing the experience of the victimized.
  • Solzhenitzyn’s advice for living under dictatorship was “Just never say anything that isn’t true.” As we think about our involvement in politics, it is helpful to distinguish between influence and integrity as two possible ways we can act morally. They are both ways to think about “doing good.” Influence is about the use of power. It is the coinage of the democratic political process: organizing yourself into a bloc in order to increase your power and leverage that power in order to bring about the (ostensibly good) outcome that you want. Integrity measures our actions not by what is accomplished but only by what is good or true — speak the truth because it is the truth, not because it is going to influence a political process. The distinction between the two is a matter of the soul. We can learn to have integrity — even unto death — or we can learn to have influence. If our integrity influences, that is great, but we don’t count on that. The disorder we feel when talking about politics is because we have gotten sucked into a way of seeing the world that is informed by power and influence rather than integrity.