Count Your Blessings

In 2003 psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough did a ground-breaking study on gratitude. At the heart of the study was asking a group of participants in the "gratitude condition" to "count their blessings" each day for 21 days.

Their instructions were these:
There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.
Some of the things the participants wrote during the study were “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “to God for giving me determination,” “for wonderful parents,” and “to the Lord for just another day."

Overall, after 21 days of the cheapest therapy you'll ever find--simply counting your blessings each day--the research found this:
We found that random assignment to the gratitude condition resulted in greater levels of positive affect, more sleep, better sleep quality, and greater optimism and a sense of connectedness to others.
Hope you get a chance to count your blessings today.

(You can read more about this study and about the science and psychology of gratitude in Robert Emmons' book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.)

Giving a Friend a Lift

I've come to think that the #1 diagnostic indicator that you are successfully making friends across the socioeconomic spectrum is this:

Are you giving people rides?

Because if you are forming relationships across the economic spectrum you'll be giving your friends a ride.

The reason is obvious. Most middle to upper class people own cars. Others do not. Those without cars rely on public transportation. Consequently, especially in a town like mine which isn't a pedestrian-oriented city and where the public transportation is sparse, many people must rely upon friends and acquaintances for car rides. To get back home. To visit the doctor. To get to work. To go shopping. For all sorts of reasons.

It took me a while to realize this. As I spent more and more time at Freedom Fellowship, our church plant that reaches out to people across the economic spectrum, I found more and more people in my car. I was always giving rides. Now every time I go to church I look forward to taking Robert, Henry, Josh and Maria home. During the week I take Kristi to places where she needs to go. Last week I took her shopping for sandals. The week before that I took her to Walmart to return some jeans. Being blind and in a wheelchair it's tough for Kristi to take the bus. It's so much easier for her to give me a call. In my car I can get her where she needs to go.

All Kristi needed was a friend who was willing to share his or her car.

All of this has led me to the conclusion I gave above.

What's the simplest way to tell if you are forming friendships across the socioeconomic spectrum?

I think it's this:

Do you regularly have people in your car?

Friends without cars will need a ride from time to time. A lot of the time, actually.

Are you giving your friends a lift?

Honor the Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chastises the members of the Corinthian church for taking each other to court. Suing each other was one of the many ways that church expressed and experienced disunity.

We don't know why the members of the Corinthian church were taking each other to court. But scholars are relatively confident that the lawsuits were being brought by the wealthier members of the church against the poorer members.

Given the power structure at play in Corinthian society the legal system "worked" for the wealthy and disadvantaged the poor and less privileged. Thus, lawsuits could be used by the wealthy to get their way.

In his book Conflict & Community in Corinth Ben Witherington describes the situation and its relevance for the problems Paul calls out in 1 Corinthians 6:
From at least the time of Augustus certain people--fathers, patrons, magistrates, and men of standing--were basically immune from prosecution for fraud by some kinds of other people--children, freedmen, private citizens, and men of low rank. Only if the lower status person had a powerful patron was there a likelihood that he or she could bring suit against someone higher up the social ladder...

To the wealthy, well-born, and well-connected went the chief rewards of the legal system, along with many of the other benefits available in society. There was a strongly aristocratic bias to the whole culture. Justice during the empire was far from blind and was often looking over its shoulder.

The importance for this for 1 Corinthians 6 is that at the very least one or both of the Christians going to court were probably well-to-do and hoping to exploit the judicial system to their advantage.
I'm bringing attention to the situation in 1 Corinthian 6 as I think it is relevant to how the White and Black communities are and will be responding to the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Derran Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Specifically, and eerily similar to the situation in Corinth, the church is being split by how it judges the fairness and integrity of the legal system.

Similar to how the wealthy and powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Whites in the US view the American legal system as "working." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to advantage privileged groups. Then and now.

By contrast, and similar to how the poor and less powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Blacks in the US view the American legal system as "broken." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to stack the deck against disadvantaged groups. Justice isn't blind but biased. To say nothing of how legal systems are often straightforwardly antagonistic and hostile toward disadvantaged group, tools of injustice and oppression.

Thus we have two groups of believers--the rich and the poor in Corinth and Whites and Blacks in America--with divergent views of the legal system resulting in disunity within the church.

For White America the justice system "works." Consequently, the grand jury decision not to indict Derran Wilson is trustworthy. The system did its job so we should abide by the decision. Justice has been done.

For Black America the justice system is and has been "broken." Consequently, there is no reason to trust the grand jury decision. The system is rigged. Always has been. No way justice was going to be done in this instance.

I want to be clear. From an evidential and legal standpoint I cannot say if the decision to not indict Derran Wilson was appropriate. I wasn't on the grand jury.

What I am talking about are the perceptions of trust Whites and Blacks have of the US legal system and how those perceptions affect the unity of the church in light of how we are responding to the news coming out of Ferguson. I especially want to draw attention to how many White Christians will harshly judge and condemn the outrage within the Black community regarding the grand jury decision. Many White Christians will ask, Why all the anger and outrage? The rule of law was followed, the grand jury did its job, the system worked.

But this easy confidence that the system "worked" is a luxury of the privileged. It is the same easy confidence that allowed the wealthy members of the Corinthian church to expect justice to break in their favor when they took their brothers and sisters to court.

The Corinthian church experienced division and disunity because its members had very different opinions about the degree to which the legal system was trustworthy versus broken, the degree to which the system was biased for or against them. The privileged and powerful trusted the system because it worked for them. And the same holds true for White America today. And you abide by decisions you trust.

But the less privileged and powerful in Corinth distrusted the system because it worked against them. And the same holds true for Black America today. And it is difficult to abide by decisions you deeply distrust.

And as these opinions divided the Corinthian church they divide the American church today.

So what's the solution?

I think one answer in moving toward greater unity is the same one Paul gives later in the book in 1 Corinthians 12. In that chapter Paul succinctly says, "But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body."

Unity is achieved by giving greater honor to the members of the church that lack it.

Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status.

And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage.

Agree or disagree, you honor and show care for the outrage.

Taking Notes While Listening to Walter Brueggemann

Last spring at the Pepperdine Lectures I sat, listened and took notes across two sessions taught by Walter Brueggemann.

Walter is, perhaps, the most quotable teacher/speaker I've ever listened to. I kid you not, it seems like every sentence he speaks is a theological bombshell. I strive for one good memorable line per talk. Walter just drops them all over the place.

I bring this up as I was furiously taking notes during these sessions, trying to keep up and get them down verbatim. I was looking back over those notes the other day and felt I should share a few with you. Here were some of the things Walter said:
"Rest is an act of defiance."

"The business of the church is poetry."

"People on the inside write memos. People on the outside write poetry."

Prophecy is "a narrative that summons alternative ways of life."

"The church meets to imagine what our lives can be like if the gospel were true."

Scripture Tells Us That We Shall Not Oppress a Stranger



"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too."
     --Barack Obama (full transcript of speech here)

To summarize the President's executive action:

1. The US has never had a plan to deport all 11 million undocumented persons currently residing in the US.

2. Congress has given enough funding to deport about 400,000 persons annually. The Obama administration has been faithfully doing that work and will continue to do so. In fact, the Obama administration does this work so well leading immigration activists have called Obama "Deporter in Chief" as his administration is deporting at a higher rate than what was seen under George W. Bush.

3. Obama's executive action is a plan to move away from random deportation to a selective deportation in order to not break up families. It's not a "how many?" will be deported but a "whom shall be deported?".

4. Per the discretionary power of the Executive branch, it is perfectly legal for the US President to decide which 400,000 will be deported annually, the priority now focused upon recent immigrants, those with criminal histories and those who pose national security risks.

Search Term Friday: Ade Bethune and The Works of Mercy

Last week the search terms "ade bethune works of mercy" brought someone to the blog.

If you subscribe to or know the history of The Catholic Worker you're familiar with Ade Bethune's artwork.

In its early years The Catholic Worker paper lacked a good visual aesthetic. Seeing this, and impressed with the work of Dorothy Day, in 1935 Ade, a 19 year old art student, provided The Catholic Worker some artwork for the paper's banner, Christ embracing two workers, one black and one white. In 1985 Ade updated the banner, replacing one of the men with a woman.

Beyond the banner Ade contributed many woodcuts of working saints to the paper, setting the aesthetic look for the paper, one that continues to this day.

Among my favorites of Ade's work is her series depicting the Works of Mercy. There are six works of mercy listed in Matthew 25.31-46. In some series a seventh work--burying the dead--is added based upon Tobit 1.16-17.

The Works of Mercy

Feeding the Hungry
Giving Drink to the Thirsty
Sheltering the Homeless
Clothing the Naked
Visiting the Prisoner
Visiting the Sick
Burying the Dead

When God Became the Devil

I've been reading Adam Kotsko's The Politics of Redemption. One of the interesting observations he makes in the book is how penal substitutionary atonement, which began with Anselm, turned God into the Devil.

Prior to Anselm, the main atonement theory used by the church was Christus Victor. Specifically, humanity was being held captive by the Devil and Christ died to free us from this slavery. The Harrowing of Hell icons in the Orthodox church, which are their Easter icons, depict this. In the Harrowing of Hell icons you see the gates of hell broken down and Satan being bound while Christ reaches out to a captive humanity with Adam and Eve first in line.

The thing to be noted here is that the evil, violent and diabolical aspect of salvation history was external to God. The problem was the Devil. Humanity was being rescued from an evil that was external to God's character and nature.

But with Anselm a change happened, a theological twist still alive today. Worried as he was about the role of the Devil in Christus Victor schemes Anselm shifted the problem away from the Devil and toward the character of God. The drama of salvation was no longer an external conflict between God and the Devil but an internal conflict within God's own heart, a conflict between God's wrath and God's love.

In short, the problem to be overcome in the atonement was no longer external to God's character. The problem--the evil, violent and diabolical forces arrayed against us--had been internalized, absorbed into God's character. The Devil was no longer the problem to be overcome in the drama of salvation. Having absorbed and internalized the diabolical aspects of the drama the problem became God's newly conflicted character.

We are no longer saved from the Devil. We are saved from God.

With penal substitutionary atonement God had become the Devil.

Hallowing the Man

In the debates about faith and belief I don't know if I have anything particularly interesting or helpful to say.

All I can say for myself is that I find the stories about Jesus to be the most profound and captivating thing I have ever encountered. This is not to say I understand everything in the gospels or that there aren't things I find troubling or perplexing in them, even things about Jesus. But there are moments--teachings and actions of Jesus--that defy my ability to describe how they affect me, in the vision they cast and inspire and provoke within me. Having searched far and wide, I've encountered nothing like Jesus. Nothing in the history of philosophy. Nothing in the other world religions, admirable and profound as they are. I experience Jesus as a singularity. Unprecedented. Unreplicated.

And so I hallow the man. I take off my shoes. I consider him to be holy, sacred ground. The location where heaven meets earth. Where the human and the divine intersect.

And in hallowing the man I seek to steep myself in the story that shaped him. I don't understand a lot of the Old Testament. Much of it seems exceedingly problematic and very much unlike Jesus. And yet, this was the story that shaped his imagination and transcribed the trajectory of his life and vocation. Jesus hallowed that story. And if he hallowed it, I'll hallow it. Even if I don't understand it.

And I hallow the tradition--the church and its bible, the New Testament--that is devoted to hallowing Jesus. Through the worship and rituals of the church Jesus is hallowed and remembered and lifted up. And in hallowing Jesus the way I do I want to endure in this, to participate in the tradition that is devoted to this singular task. The Christian church is the tradition that hallows Jesus. So that's exactly where I want to be.

Convention Against Torture Protest

In case you missed this news from the week, US representatives at the United Nations defended our compliance (or lack thereof) with our agreement to comply with the Conventions Against Torture (CAT). Every four years signatories of CAT must report before the UN regarding their compliance.

The questions the US delegation faced ranged from allegations concerning CIA rendition (sending prisoners to secret facilities), the failure to prosecute US officials who ordered torture, the conditions at Guantanamo Bay, the practices of domestic prisons in the US and police militarization and brutality.

As noted by Newsweek, this review was noteworthy in how it focused on CAT compliance in regards to various domestic issues. Regarding the situation in US prisons Newsweek writes:
The review also delved into domestic issues.

The committee brought up the U.S. prison system and inquired as to how current practices can be justified in light of the country’s CAT obligations. Among the concerns were the use of solitary confinement, the treatment of minors and those with mental health disorders in particular, the lack of accountability for prison officials who have been accused of sexual abuse, and the sentencing of those who have committed nonviolent offenses to life without parole.
The UN inquiry was also noteworthy in focusing upon the treatment of black citizens in the US, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson and Chicago.

During this testimony a youth delegation from Chicago staged a silent protest, standing with arms aloft for thirty minutes.

Many of the representatives from Ferguson in attendance to give testimony lifted their hands in solidarity with the Chicago protest.

Search Term Friday: The White Rose Martyrs

Many search terms looking for "the white rose" come to the blog.

I mentioned the White Rose in my 2013 series "On Weakness and Warfare." In that series I said that when I think of spiritual warfare I think of the White Rose.

I don't know about you, but I always get a bit depressed when I think about the lack of Christian resistance to the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the main figure who comes to mind here. But were there any others? Any other heroes of the faith? Christians who pushed even harder than Bonhoeffer?

Yes there were.

The White Rose.

The core of the White Rose were Munich college students, most of them devout Christians. Noteworthy among them were a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl.

From the Wikipedia introduction of the White Rose:
The White Rose was a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, consisting of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The group became known for an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign, lasting from June 1942 until February 1943, that called for active opposition to dictator Adolf Hitler's regime.

The six most recognized members of the German resistance group were arrested by the Gestapo, tried for treason and beheaded in 1943. The text of their sixth leaflet was smuggled by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke out of Germany through Scandinavia to the United Kingdom, and in July, 1943, copies of it were dropped over Germany by Allied planes, retitled "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich."

Another member, Hans Conrad Leipelt, who helped distribute Leaflet 6 in Hamburg, was executed on January 29, 1945, for his participation.

Today, the members of the White Rose are honoured in Germany amongst its greatest heroes, since they opposed the Third Reich in the face of almost certain death.
A selection from the famous fourth leaflet of the White Rose, the leaflet I quoted from in talking about the need for a progressive vision of spiritual warfare:
Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking maw of hell and his might is fundamentally reprobate. To be sure, one must wage the battle against National Socialism using rational means. But whoever still does not believe in the actual existence of demonic powers has not comprehended by far the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the tangible, behind that which can be perceived by the senses, behind all factual, logical considerations stands The Irrational, that is the battle against the demon, against the messengers of the Anti-Christ. Everywhere and at all times, the demons have waited in darkness for the hour in which mankind is weak; in which he voluntarily abandons the position in the world order that is based on freedom and comes from God; in which he yields to the force of the Evil One, disengaging himself from the powers of a higher order. Once he has taken the first step of his own free will, he is driven to take the second and then the third and even more with furiously increasing speed. Everywhere and at every time of greatest danger, people have risen up – prophets, saints – who are aware of their freedom, who have pointed to the One God and with His aid have exhorted the people to turn in repentance. Mankind is surely free, but he is defenseless against the Evil One without the true God. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler...

We will not keep silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!
In her cell, a few hours before her beheading, on the back of her criminal indictment for distributing leaflets Sophie Scholl wrote the word "Freiheit."


Freedom.

Do Not Fear, Greatly Beloved, You Are Safe

We were going through the book of Daniel out at the prison bible study. And as I was preparing for it I was struck by something in Daniel 10.

An angelic messenger has come to answer Daniel's prayer. And as is often the case in the bible when people are confronted with angelic messengers, Daniel is frightened and falls to the ground. And, in keeping with the script, the angelic messenger speaks reassurances.

These reassurances often fit a standard form, a simple "Do not fear, O highly favored/chosen one!"

But the reassurance given by the angel in Daniel 10.19 struck me as being particularly tender. Perhaps the most tender reassurance in all of the bible. Here it is from the KJV and the NRSV respectively:
O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

“Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!”
I just love that line: "Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe."

That has my vote for one of the most tender lines in all the the bible.

I think what strikes me is the expression of love rather than favor. It's not "fear not favored one" but "fear not one who is greatly loved."

And a quick check of some online bible search engines suggests that this salutation--to one who is "greatly loved"--may be unique to Daniel (found only in Daniel 9.23; 10.11; 10:19).

A Change That Isn't Coming

After the midterm elections a lot of my Democrat friends were demoralized. In their estimation Obama had helped America claw her way out of the pit of the Great Recession that started with the financial sector collapse in 2007 under George W. Bush. And yet, exit polls from the midterms suggested that there remains a lot of angst about the economy in America and the President's party was punished for it.

These observations have led to a lot of head-scratching. Obama saved the US economy. So why is he being punished over the economy?

Consider, by way of illustration, this letter to the editor shared by Andrew Sullivan written by a Canadian and published in a Detroit paper:
Many of us Canadians are confused by the U.S. midterm elections. Consider, right now in America, corporate profits are at record highs, the country’s adding 200,000 jobs per month, unemployment is below 6%, U.S. gross national product growth is the best of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The dollar is at its strongest levels in years, the stock market is near record highs, gasoline prices are falling, there’s no inflation, interest rates are the lowest in 30 years, U.S. oil imports are declining, U.S. oil production is rapidly increasing, the deficit is rapidly declining, and the wealthy are still making astonishing amounts of money.

America is leading the world once again and respected internationally — in sharp contrast to the Bush years. Obama brought soldiers home from Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden.

So, Americans vote for the party that got you into the mess that Obama just dug you out of? This defies reason. When you are done with Obama, could you send him our way?
America seems confused. As another example, consider how many states last week voted for Republican representation while on the same evening voting for minimum wage increases for their state!

That's just really, really weird. So what's going on?

Let's look back at the letter above from the Canadian observer. Yes, many metrics show that the economy is growing. But look at the metrics that are mentioned: Record high corporate profits, growing GDP, stock market near record highs, and low interest rates all culminating in the fact that "the wealthy are still making astonishing amounts of money."

And that's the problem. The wealthy have bounced back from the Great Recession. But the middle and lower classes?

Not so much.

Both income and wealth inequalities continue to plague America. For example, a recent study has found that wealth inequality in America is the worst it has been since the Great Depression.

Ponder that. Since the Great Depression.

From the Christian Science Monitor article summarizing the study:
Recent economic growth in the US appears to be positive and steady. The latest jobs report for October saw unemployment drop to a six-year low and the economy add 214,000 jobs. But while more people appear to be working, America's overall wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

According to an analysis of data sourced through 2012 – including detailed data on personal income taxes and property tax – Professors Saez and Zucman found that the richest 0.1 percent of Americans have as much of the country's wealth as the poorest 90 percent...

An even closer look at their data has shown that while the growth of the American middle class has been restricted by modest income growth and soaring debt – thanks in large part to the 2008 mortgage crisis – the super-rich have been making significant gains in income and wealth.

While the bottom 90 percent of Americans and the top 0.1 percent control about 22 percent of the country's wealth each, the top 0.01 percent of Americans now control 11.2 percent of total wealth. That share of the wealth held by the country's richest 0.01 percent – a group of roughly 16,000 families with an average net worth of $371 million – is the largest share they've had since 1916, the highest on record...
This is the problem noted above. Yes, there are metrics of increasing economic success. But that success is not being shared. It is being increasingly concentrated among the upper 1% and .1%. 

That's wealth inequality. Problems also exist when we turn to wages and income.

For example, since the 1970s wages have been increasingly divorced from productivity (the growth of the output of goods and services per hour worked). While productivity has continued to increase wages have basically flatlined:


As summarized by the EPI article regarding this graph:
This divergence of pay and productivity has meant that many workers were not benefitting from productivity growth—the economy could afford higher pay but it was not providing it. 
I think all this goes a fair way in explaining America's confused electorate.

On the one hand the economy seems to be doing well. But these successes have been largely concentrated among the very wealthy. The middle and lower classes are still struggling. Thus the paradoxical voting. Voting for a change in current leadership (i.e., for the Republicans) while voting for minimum wage increases, a policy Republicans tend to be against.

Basically, the midterms were a cry for help. A confused cry, perhaps, but a cry of help nonetheless.

And here's the sad thing about all this. The pain is only going to get worse. Neither party has good policy recommendations to address the relevant dynamics at a deep structural level.

For example, Republicans have no political resources or incentives to address wealth and income inequality. The only fiscal policy Republicans tend to bring to the table is tax reform. And taxes, we know, are close to historical lows. There isn't a whole lot to be done on that score. Regardless, "cutting taxes" for the rich or for corporations isn't going to fix the wage/productivity divergence.

And yet, Democrats don't have any good ideas either. As Josh Marshall writes at TMP:
Democrats have toyed (and I use that term advisedly) with the issue of rising inequality for the last two elections. But let me suggest that as a political matter inequality is a loser. What is driving the politics of the country to a mammoth degree is that the vast majority of people in the country no longer have a rising standard of living. And Democrats don't have a policy prescription to make that change.
Why? Because, Marshall notes, taxing the rich and voting to increase the minimum wage--the two main policy recommendations offered by Democrats--only tinker with the extremes and do not address what Marshall contends to be the root problem: the aforementioned gap between wages and productivity.

And until the two parties put forward lasting and structural fixes for these problems the pain and outrage are only going to intensify. And as the pain grows the American electorate will continue to lash out blindly and schizophrenically, alternately punishing the party in power and hoping for a change that isn't coming.

It Would Be Easier

Words from a sermon given by Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:
Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…

Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance. My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you...
Love is a teacher, but it is difficult to acquire. Love must be dearly bought. For even a wicked man can love by chance.

So learn to be more gracious, even to the birds. Learn to love men and women in their sin. Love every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light.

For if by hard labor you become more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, it would be easier.

Easier for the birds. For the children. For broken men and women. For all of creation.

Drop by drop, it would be easier if you came to love and forgive them all.

My Magic To Take Me Through the Dark Places

One of my favorite Johnny Cash albums is My Mother's Hymn Book. Recorded late in his life, Cash sat down with his guitar and flipped through his mother's old hymn book recording some 20-25 songs in a single session, fifteen of which made it onto this album. The production is spare, just Cash's voice and his guitar.

These songs are also the songs of my hymn book, the songs I grew up with. "I'll Fly Away." "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder." "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies." "In the Sweet By and By." "Softly and Tenderly." "Just As I Am."

In the liner notes of the album Cash says that My Mother's Hymn Book was his favorite album. And in describing the songs he selected he says this:
They're powerful songs, my magic to take me through the dark places.
I can bear witness. These songs have been my magic as well.

Search Term Friday: Gustavo Gutiérrez on Job (and More Reflections on Progressive Christians and Spiritual Warfare)

Someone recently came to the blog searching for "gustavo gutiérrez on job."

As you may or may not know, Gustavo Gutiérrez is considered to be the seminal figure in what is called liberation theology, and in 2013 I wrote a few posts discussing  Gutiérrez's book On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

One of the things I wrote about is how, in this book, Gutiérrez discusses the relationship between prophecy and worship. This gets to what Thomas Merton has called the contemplative core of Christian activism.

For example, in recent weeks I've written about how progressive Christians, who orient toward political activism, have tended to eschew language of spiritual warfare and have often failed to articulate a vision of spiritual bondage as a part of their appeals to Christus Victor theology. When I make those observations and criticisms I have Gutiérrez in mind, the father of liberation theology discussing the need for doxology. When I critique progressives about Christus Victor theology or spiritual warfare what I'm speaking to is the point Gutiérrez makes, the role of doxology in the writing, activism and personal spiritual lives of progressive Christians.

To start, as the subtitle of his book indicates, Gutiérrez is looking for ways to properly speak about God in the face of human suffering.

Unsurprisingly, as the father of liberation theology, Gutiérrez argues that our language about suffering must be prophetic in nature. Our language should be in solidarity with those who are suffering and align with God's preferential option for the poor and victimized in the world.

In the book Gutiérrez shows that Job himself makes this journey. Though Job is suffering himself as the book continues Job begins to reflect less on his own suffering and more upon the sufferings of others, the poor in particular. Even in the midst of his own pain Job's theology becomes other-oriented, focused on the suffering of others. You can see this focus in a passage where Job offers up what is, perhaps, the most stinging prophetic rebuke in the bible of those who exploit the poor:
Job 24.2-14
Evil people steal land by moving the boundary markers.
They steal livestock and put them in their own pastures.
They take the orphan’s donkey
and demand the widow’s ox as security for a loan.
The poor are pushed off the path;
the needy must hide together for safety.
Like wild donkeys in the wilderness,
the poor must spend all their time looking for food,
searching even in the desert for food for their children.
They harvest a field they do not own,
and they glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
All night they lie naked in the cold,
without clothing or covering.
They are soaked by mountain showers,
and they huddle against the rocks for want of a home.

“The wicked snatch a widow’s child from her breast,
taking the baby as security for a loan.
The poor must go about naked, without any clothing.
They harvest food for others while they themselves are starving.
They press out olive oil without being allowed to taste it,
and they tread in the winepress as they suffer from thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the wounded cry for help,
yet God ignores their moaning.

“Wicked people rebel against the light.
They refuse to acknowledge its ways
or stay in its paths.
The murderer rises in the early dawn
to kill the poor and needy;
at night he is a thief.
The indictment of the rich here is searing. This speech is as harsh if not harsher than anything we find the prophets. And in this we see how Job's speech about God--his theology, his God-talk--finds its way forward by becoming properly prophetic, aligned with the plight of the poor and those who are suffering.

That much you'd expect from a liberation theologian. But Gutiérrez goes on to say--and this is the part that interests me when I criticize progressive Christian activism--that prophetic speech is not enough. The language of justice is unable to capture all that needs to be captured when we talk about God.

What else is needed?

Gutiérrez argues that we also need the language of contemplation, mystery and worship. We see this in Job at the end of the book when Job, after his encounter with God, moves from prophetic speech to worship. This movement is important as Gutiérrez suggests that the language of justice, if left by itself, becomes vulnerable as speech about God. For two reasons in particular.

First, if left alone the language of justice can slip back into the theology of retribution that Job has been rejecting throughout the dialogues with his friends. To be clear, we need to be careful here. We do want justice. But we need to be careful lest we reduce the Kingdom of God to the bringing of punishment upon evil-doers. Justice alone provides no room for grace, love, and mercy.

And this relates to the second concern about the naked language of justice. Namely, the preferential option for the poor isn't rooted in the virtue of the poor. The poor aren't preferred because they are Righteous Angels of Light. The poor are preferred because of God's love. If this is forgotten the oppressed and their allies (e.g., progressive Christians) can come to see themselves as God's divine agents and, in seeking justice and redress, the victims and their allies can become the perpetrators.

And yet, we need to be careful here because if the language of worship--the language of God's grace and love--becomes disconnected from the language of prophecy and justice, disconnected from the suffering of others, it becomes ineffectual, pietistic, idolatrous and irrelevant.

So what we have here is a dialectic, with the language of worship keeping the language of prophecy rooted in God's grace and love and the language of prophecy keeping the language of worship connected to the suffering of others. When I speak of the need for a vision of spiritual warfare among progressive Christians I'm talking about this dialectic, the need for doxology with its vision of God's love for all people as the spiritual struggle against the dark temptations of activism in tension with the prophetic call to justice as the spiritual battle against the principalities and powers.

Gutiérrez writes:
This new awareness in turn showed [Job] that solidarity with the poor was required by his faith in a God who has a special love for the disinherited, the exploited in human history. This preferential love is the basis for what I have been calling the prophetic way of speaking about God.

But the prophetic way is not the only way of drawing near to the mystery of God, nor is it sufficient by itself. Job has just experienced a second shift [after his encounter with God]: from a penal view of history to the world of grace that completely enfolds him and permeates him...[But] in this second stage the issue is not to discover gratuitousness and forget the demands of justice, but to situate justice within the framework of God's gratuitous love...

The world of retribution--and not of temporal retribution only--is not where God dwells; at most God visits it...

The poet's insight continues to be value for us: the gratuitousness of God's love is the framework within which the requirement of practicing justice is to be located.

The World Is Made Holy Through Thanks

Gratitude is an important theme in my book The Slavery of Death. As I argue it, when life is treated as a possession that can be taken from us, damaged or lost our lives become infused with fear causing us to cling, protect, hoard, defend and aggress.

The antidote to this fear is gratitude, viewing life--the whole of life--not as a possession to be defended but as a gift to be shared.

Treating the whole of life as gift has become an important spiritual insight for me. Consequently, I was struck by Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Timothy 4.4-5 in his book Gratitude.

The text:
1 Timothy 4.4-5
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
This seems like a pretty bland and straightforward text. Be thankful. Got it.

But there is an idea at the heart of this text that is very profound if you let the implications sink in. And the idea is this:

Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy.

Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn't entangle us? In a way that isn't sinful?

Receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude--thankfulness--marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

Ponder that. Thankfulness marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

In the Slavery of Death I argue that gratitude accomplishes this because the object in question--which includes not just possessions but also things like your time, attention, status and your very life--is relocated in the mind by thankfulness, making us able to "lose" and "let go" of the object as we live for and share with others. Thankfulness sanctifies the world because thankfulness creates the capacity to use things--by letting them go or sharing them--in holy ways.

Here is Peter's commentary from Gratitude about this text, linking thankfulness with the priestly use of the world:
[This is the logic behind] Paul's claim that everything is "sanctified" by thanksgiving. Since all things are good and all are to be received with thanks, all things are gifts from the Creator. By giving thanks for all that comes to hand, the Christian correctly identifies the character of created things as created gifts. For Paul, thanksgiving has a performative effect on the things received. Receiving God's gifts with thanks does not merely identify them as gifts but also sanctifies them, consecrates them as holy things. The world is sanctified, made holy, through thanks. To say that created things are "made holy" by thanks is to say that created things, already God's by virtue of creation, become specifically his possession by the prayers of the people. Given Paul's regular identification of believers as "holy ones" the logic seems to be this: Christians are holy ones, indwelt and anointed by the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus, priests to God and to Christ. As such, they ought only to touch, eat and use holy things. If they receive any thing that is is impure, their priesthood will be defiled by it. Purity and holiness "taboos" continue to operate in the New Testament. Holy people must have holy things. But for Paul no elaborate rite of sanctification is required: only the giving of thanks. Once consecrated by thanks, a thing may only be used for God's purposes. Holy food could be only eaten by priests in the Old Testament, holy implements could only be used in the sanctuary, holy incense could be used only on the altar. If Christians consecrate whatever they receive by thanks, they are not only claiming it as God's own but also obligating themselves to use it in a particular way, to use it with thanks. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living. It is the continuous sacrifice that Christians offer. Gratitude to God is the continuous sanctification of the world.

Be Baptized

There are a lot of Baptists and evangelicals in my town. Because of that you often find yourself at various Church-related activities or events listening to the standard evangelical appeal to respond to the gospel.

Specifically, if you want to "accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior" you need to say a prayer "accepting Jesus into your heart."

I always find this language jarring. Especially from conservative and evangelical Christians who value the bible so highly.

Because where, ever, in the whole of the bible does anyone, ever, ask someone to say a prayer "accepting Jesus into your heart"?

It's just nowhere to be found the bible. So why do bible-thumping people keep saying it?

Biblically, the proper response to the gospel is baptism. Over and over in the book of Acts that's what people do in responding to the gospel.

It's there right at the beginning on the day of Pentecost:
Acts 2.37-38
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
It's there in Acts 8, the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch:
Acts 8.34-38
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
How about in the next chapter, the conversion of Saul/Paul?
Acts 9.17-18
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.
Let's keep it rolling. What about the conversion of Cornelius and the first Gentile converts?
Acts 10.44-48
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
A final example, the conversion of Lydia:
Acts 16.14-15
One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.
Like I said, biblically-speaking the proper response to the gospel is baptism. Baptism is what you are supposed to do when you want to "accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior." Never once does Peter, James, John, Paul or anyone else in the New Testament ask people to bow their heads to say a prayer accepting Jesus into their hearts. 

Biblically, things could not be more clear. If you want people to respond to the gospel you say, "Repent. Believe the Good News. Confess Jesus as Lord. And be baptized."

To be very clear, lest I be misunderstood, I'm working here with an evangelical frame regarding the necessity of being "born again," which is the framework of my faith tradition. I'm not trying to adjudicate here between infant baptism or believer's baptism. Nor am I saying that if you aren't baptized that you haven't accepted Jesus as Lord, which I take to be the decisive issue. What I am talking about is how weird and unbiblical--in both word and ritual--is "the Sinner's prayer."

The proclamation of the gospel is an apocalyptic event. The gospel isn't a sales pitch. The gospel is news. In Jesus something happened. The gospel is a revelation. A revelation--an apocalypse--that a new reality has broken upon us in a way that breaks us, a new reality--that the  Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in the person of Jesus--that interrupts and disrupts everything that we thought we knew about ourselves, our world and the cosmos.

And in the face of that apocalypse we adjust ourselves to this new reality, renouncing former allegiances to declare Jesus as King. Everything has changed. Baptism is the ritual of this adjustment.

Baptism is the ritual that signifies the apocalyptic rupture in our lives.

Día de Muertos and Allhallowtide

I love visiting local cemeteries in Abilene after Allhallowtide, the Christian triduum comprising All Hallows' Eve (October 31), All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Soul's Day (November 2).

I like visiting the local cemeteries because you can experience the way Allhallowtide is commemorated among our local Hispanic population with their unique cultural expression--Día de Muertos, the "Day of the Dead."

The Day of the Dead celebration involves remembering family and friends (and even pets!) who have died. It is a festive time of remembrance. If you have Hispanic or Mexican neighbors in your city you've likely seen the festively colored and decorated skeletons and skulls that are a part of the Day of the Death celebrations. These decorated skulls--especially in candy form--are sort of the "Easter eggs" for the Day of the Dead.

Personally, I adore these festive skulls and skeletons. It's one of my favorite things about Allhallowtide in Texas where we have a lot of Hispanic friends and neighbors.

At the Beck house in our "living" room we have a few Día de Muertos skulls set out as year-round decorations that peek out at you. If you look for them.

As a part of the Day of the Dead remembrances Hispanic families will go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and to leave gifts for their departed loved ones. Which is why I love Texas cemeteries this time of year. How colorful they are.

Well, colorful in the Hispanic sections. It's quite a contrast. After Allhallowtide the White parts of the cemetery look the same as they always do, very little decoration or flowers. But the Hispanic parts of our cemeteries? They bursting with color during the three days of Allhallowtide.

And, truth be told, this color a year round thing. Cemetery visitation and decoration is a rich part of Hispanic culture. Not so much with us White folks.

Here's one of my favorite examples of this. This is my favorite spot in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery.

In the Hispanic part of the cemetery there is a small wood-framed and stuccoed tomb. That in itself is unique as the family, I'm assuming, didn't have enough money to build a stone tomb. I've never seen a wood-framed tomb in city cemetery. But the stucco has the unique advantage in that it can be painted and decorated.

All around this tomb are bright paintings of Hispanic Catholic spirituality. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Madonna and Child. The Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Man of Sorrows. St. Joachim and St. Anne.

The tomb is one huge icon.

So here, in the wake of Allhallowtide, are some pictures I took of the tomb for you to enjoy:





Talking With The Dead

ACU Honor's Chapel, All Hallows Eve, 2007

///

I like talking to dead people.

The trouble is, in today’s world the dead aren’t around much. It’s hard to find them.

This is why I visit cemeteries. I enjoy visiting cemeteries because I feel like I need to converse with the dead. I find it an important part of my spiritual life. The dead tell you things the living do not.

My favorites cemeteries are the Cities of the Dead I saw in Uruguay and Argentina. I got to visit them a few years ago on an ACU-sponsored trip. In South America, for those who can afford it, the dead are put in “houses” along streets. Over time the houses accumulate and what is produced is a whole above-ground city with street after street of houses for the dead.

These cemeteries were great places to find the dead. But in modern America it is harder and harder to find the dead.

Why is this? Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.

But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.

But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”

And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.

And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.

But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.

For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.

Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.

To invite the dead I'll decorate my frontyard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage, capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.

Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.

And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.

I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.

I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.

And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.

The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.

Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.

Happy Halloween.

Search Term Friday: Halloween, Death and Monsters

I always get huge traffic this time of year with Halloween-oriented search terms.

Halloween, vampires, monsters. You name it, those search terms bring all sorts of people to this blog.

Why? Because of all the Halloween-themed and monster-focused meditations I've written over the years.

And much of that material has ended up in my three books, what I like to call my "death trilogy."

I hope you have a blessed and Happy Halloween. A collection of reflections for the day:

You Kiss What You Love

The number of people whom I regularly kiss is pretty small.

Jana, obviously, and my two sons, Brenden and Aidan. Plus my Mom and Dad. My siblings and their boys. And that's about it.

One of my fondest memories is of when the boys were small. After tucking them in at night we would give each other a peck on the lips to kiss goodnight. They were too small to be embarrassed about that. But as they grew older that tradition stopped.

But the other night I was walking by Brenden who was sitting in the living room studying. Brenden is seventeen. I hadn't kissed him a long time. But this night I bent over, lifted his bangs and kissed his forehead.

"You're never too old for your father to kiss you," I said.

He smiled back, "I know."

You kiss what you love.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair and kissed them... (Luke 7.37-38)

The picture above is Pope Francis kissing the feet of elderly and disabled persons during Holy Week.

Rarely have I kissed women in church. But I have done it once or twice. In the midst of pain or suffering I've kissed a sister, often with tears, on the forehead. Those have been sacred moments.

I've actually kissed more men at church than women. When I visited South America it took me some time, as an American, to get used to the way the men greeted each other. You greeted not with a handshake but with an embrace and two quick kisses on each cheek.

You can imagine how much kissing there was on a Sunday morning at church in South America. It felt like I kissed everyone in attendance, every woman and every man.

It was at church in South America where I glimpsed the mystery and beauty of St. Peter's command (1 Peter 5.14): "Greet each other with a kiss of love." And while I cherish the passing of the peace in liturgical churches those handshakes don't live up to the kisses I shared in South America.

Because you kiss what you love.

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. (Acts 20.36-37)

I remember the first time I attended an Orthodox worship service. I was surprised to see before, during and after the service how everyone kissed the icons. Kissing the image of Jesus. Kissing Mary. Kissing the saints.

Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. (1 Thessalonians 5.26)

That was many years ago, that first service with the Orthodox. I have many of those same icons hanging in my office, along with a crucifix, above a prayer kneeler in my office. Upon rising from prayer I'll often kiss an icon of Jesus or kiss his feet on the crucifix. During Lent sometimes I'll kiss the five wounds of Jesus.

One kiss on his feet. A kiss each for his hands. A kiss on his side.

And then a final kiss, like with Brenden, upon his head, bleeding and encircled with thorns.

And sometimes, during the day, I'll lift the crucifix around my neck and kiss it.

That kiss is a wordless prayer.

I can't recall kissing being mentioned in any book I've ever read on theology, church or spiritual formation.

I think that's strange.

Because you kiss what you love.

And you come to love what you kiss.

The Metric of a Prophet

Out at the prison bible study we've been working through the entire bible. This night we started the book of Ezekiel. After discussing Ezekiel's vision in Chapter 1 we turned to Ezekiel's prophetic commissioning in Chapters 2 and 3:
Ezekiel 2.1-7, 3.7-9
He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.”

As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious..."

"But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” 
The people Ezekiel is being sent to are described, over and over, as rebels. They are obstinate and stubborn. They are hard-headed. And living among them is like living with thorns and scorpions.

Hearing these descriptions the inmates perked up. The bible was describing their life.

These men knew what it was like to live with scorpions.

Consequently, they needed to be tough. Like Ezekiel needed to be tough. If the people are stubborn the prophet must be even more stubborn. If the people are hard-headed the prophet's head must be harder still.

"I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them."

When you live among scorpions you gotta be tough.

And what about the mission of the prophet? How will the prophet measure success?

In a world where the church is increasingly taken with corporate metrics of growth and success what is the metric of the prophet?

Of course, we always pray for revival. The men in the prison always pray for revival. As they should. But revival isn't what Ezekiel is promised.

Ezekiel is promised an outcome. There is one metric of success to be found in the text above.

Did you notice it?

It's found in 2.4-5:
The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 
They may listen. They may not listen. But the one thing they will know is this:

A prophet lived among them.

That's the metric of success. That a people would remember that a prophet had lived among them.

So that's what I told the men out at the prison.

This, I said, is the only thing you can control. That when people look back at their lives they remember your words and life. They remember, perhaps from a long time ago, that they once knew a person who spoke truth to them. In a world full of thorns and scorpions they once knew a child of God. A man or a woman who spoke words of judgment and words of grace.

They remember a prophet once lived among them.

The Politics of Exalting the Humble

Thanks to Alastair Roberts for inviting me to be a part of The Politics of Scripture series at the Political Theology blog where contributors share theological and political reflections based upon the week's lectionary readings.

This week the gospel reading was Matthew 23.1-12 and my post--"The Politics of Exalting the Humble"--starts off this way:
In 2003 Dacher Keltner, Deborah Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson shared the results of unpublished study done by two psychologists (Keltner was one of the researchers) in what has been dubbed “the cookie experiment.”

The experiment was about power and about how power affects entitlement.

In the cookie experiment three same-sex participants were asked to discuss various political issues and make policy recommendations. One of the three participants was given the role of “judge” and asked to assign points rating the quality of the recommendations made by the other two participants. This placed the judge in a “high power” position relative to the other two.

About thirty minutes into the discussion the experimenter brought the three participants five cookies on a plate. And the number of cookies was carefully chosen.

Five cookies. Three people.

Someone isn’t getting a second cookie. Who would that be?
You can read the rest of the reflection here at the Political Theology blog.

The Weakness of God and Sin: A Theological Sketch

In my recent podcast with Luke Norsworthy we were discussing the weakness of God--that God is love rather than a coercive force in the world--and how that relates to spiritual warfare.

The point I made in the podcast and in the series of posts where I wrestled with these questions (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar) is that if the power of God is "weakness"--the cruciform love of Jesus on the cross--then love is always "in a battle" with the forces antithetical to love in the world. Love has to struggle to assert and insert itself. That is, since love doesn't control the world with coercive, top-down power love is always intruding and inserting itself from below. Spiritual warfare in this view is guerrilla warfare, the tactical interruption of the world with love.

As St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love." That is spiritual warfare, putting love where there is no love.

But back to the podcast. My description of spiritual warfare is all well and good, but I struggled with the origins of sin and evil in my "On Weakness and Warfare" series and that issue came up again briefly in the podcast. Where does evil come from? Especially if God is weakness?

Because as Luke mentioned very briefly in the podcast, reflections along these lines can tend toward dualism. That is, if you start to take evil as a "given," as the background into which love must insert itself, that "givenness" can drift toward "pre-existent" or "co-existent" with the good. Which is dualism. Good and bad, side-by-side for eternity.

One way to deal with the origins of evil, and this is where Greg Boyd came up in the podcast (see his book God at War), is to posit free will. Free will introduces sin and evil into creation.

That has been a classic move in these discussions, but I come at the issue a bit differently given my starting point with the "weakness of God."

So, how do I understand the origins of sin and evil given my emphasis upon the weakness of God?

To start, and taking a cue from theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, we don't posit a creation ex nihilo with a big flashy display of power. What we posit, rather, is a divine withdrawal. God withdraws to make room and space for creation.

Consequently, creation is characterized, to a large extent, by God's absence.

So that is Act One, divine withdrawal making room for creation.

Act Two is God's re-entry into creation, God's movement back toward creation. This is the Spirit hovering over the formlessness left behind in the wake of God's withdrawal. God's re-entry is characterized by the insertion of order, beauty and goodness into the chaos. Creation, as described in the first lines of Genesis, is the Spirit of God (re)introducing order and goodness. That is the primal signature of God's working in the world, the ordering of chaos and making it good.

God's action in the world is as that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that brings goodness out of the chaos. God is that nurturing, nourishing and loving force that is present at all times and all places, ever attempting to enter more fully into creation so that the Spirit of God can indwell and fill all of creation.

Thus the drama of the biblical story, the constant movement of God toward us. The movement to bring the "Kingdom of God" to earth.

Importantly, God doesn't re-enter creation or bring the Kingdom to earth forcibly and coercively. God re-enters creation and brings the Kingdom through weakness. God enters the world through cruciformity, through the love Jesus displayed on the cross. God re-enters the world from the bottom up, in the midst of the least of these.

Sin enters the world when we fail to trust God, fail to trust that love is the "the grain of universe" and that those carrying crosses move with that grain. Sin rips the loving fabric of shalom. Sin is violence, in all its various guises.
[Since writing this post I read something from Robert Jenson that gives a different spin on all this.

Specifically, what God creates is history. What God creates is a Story. And in this Story Love alone is pre-existent. Sin and evil enter the Story as a falling away from Love, away from the primordial condition. Thus, what runs beneath the Story/Creation isn't conflict--a war between good and evil--but Love. Love, to use a musical metaphor, is the Cantus Firmus of Creation. Sin and evil come into existence when play dissonant notes, when we "fall away" from the Melody of Love. Behaviorally, the life of Jesus functions as our "tuning fork," the way we locate the right notes in finding our way back to the Cantus Firmus. Salvation, then, is returning to the harmony and melody of Creation. Salvation, to return to the literary metaphor, is narrating our stories back into Love's original plot line.]  
The vision here is less about agents with free will making choices than it is about the harm caused by the exercise of power and dominion over others and creation. The contrast is between actions that move with the grain of the cross versus actions that move against that grain, actions that rip the fabric of the Kingdom of God. Anxious about our own survival we do not trust God. We rebel against and reject cruciformity. We attempt to use force to violently secure our well-being.

The call of faith, then, begins with the call to repentance. We are called to enter the Kingdom, to trust that the grain of the universe is demonstrated, enacted and incarnated in Jesus, the image of the invisible God. The gospel proclamation--the Good News--is that the Kingdom of God--where God reigns and where God's Spirit has re-entered and re-filled creation--has been inaugurated in Jesus and in the midst of communities who celebrate him as Lord.

Eschatology is the vision of the Kingdom coming in its fullness, the goal and direction we are loving our way toward. Eschatology imagines that future where God's Spirit infuses all of creation bringing wholeness and shalom. Eschatology is the vision of God's Spirit filling the whole of creation as prefigured in God's Spirit filling the Temple. Eschatology is the Kingdom having come upon earth as it is in heaven, the completion of Act Two.

Judgment is the future vision of the Kingdom apocalyptically intruding upon the present moment in the prophetic pronouncement of blessings and woes. Judgment is the moral verdict the future Kingdom pronounces upon the Now.

Pronouncement of blessing--"Blessed are the..."--names and makes salient those locations in the world where the Kingdom of God intrudes and is celebrated, even when it is as tiny as a mustard seed and is as small as cup of cold water.

Woe and pronouncements of damnation are prophetic judgments naming and making salient the forces of darkness in the world, the forces that are antithetical to love and valorize coercive violence and the domination of others and creation.

These three things remain, faith, hope and love.

Faith is covenantally trusting in God and in God's Kingdom as inaugurated in Jesus. Faith is covenantally trusting that God is love and that cruciform love is indeed the grain of the universe.

Hope is the fully imagined future of the Kingdom of God, the vision we are journeying toward, the vision that guides, orients, directs and judges us.

Love is walking as Jesus walked, taking up the cross and following the Lamb wherever he goes.

Search Term Friday: Sinning In Your Heart

I often get people coming to the blog searching for answers to the question "can you sin in your heart?"

Those queries link to some old posts of mine that summarized some psychological research regarding how Jewish and Christian persons differ in how they moralize mental states and how that research prompted some of my own students to investigate the snarly issue of "sinning in your heart."

Remember the famous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter? In that interview Carter caused some controversy by confessing that he had "lusted after women in my heart many times."

Most Christians would sympathize with President Carter as many Christians believe that you can "sin in your heart," that thoughts have moral status. This belief is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother ]will be subject to judgment."

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
This phenomena of "sinning in your heart" is illuminated by an interesting study conducted by psychologists Adam Cohen and Paul Rozin (Cohen & Rozin, 2001. "Religion and the morality of mentality." JPSP, 81, 697-710).

In this study, Cohen and Rozin compared Jewish and Christian participants on the degree to which they moralize mental events. In the study, Cohen and Rozin found that Jewish participants did not moralize mental events. Only choices leading to behaviors appeared to have moral status (i.e., be designated "right" versus "wrong").

By contrast, Christian participants did moralize mental events. That is, even if a person made proper moral choices and acted in an ethical manner they could still "sin in their hearts," and, as a result, be a "bad" person.

Why this difference in how mental events are or are not moralized?

One answer is that the rabbinic tradition posits a different moral psychology than what most Christians subscribe to. Specifically, the Jewish rabbis have distinguished between two fundamental human inclinations which clash in the human psyche. There is an evil impulse, the "yezer ha-ra," which struggles against our good impulse, the "yezer ha-tov." Psychologists call this kind of theory a "folk psychology," a psychological theory about how the mind functions that is culturally posited or phenomenologically derived. Most cultures have a "folk psychology," common assumptions about how the mind works.

What is interesting is that this rabbinic folk psychology, positing an internal conflict between the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov, creates a situation where mental events are not moralized as was observed by Cohen and Rozin. How so? Well, given the constant presence of the evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, thoughts of lust or hate or envy are, in principle, present in all moral choices. Thus, it is no "sin" to have such thoughts. It is just a part of human psychology (from the Jewish perspective). A person cannot rid themselves of the yezer-ha ra, one can only choose not to obey it. And, thus, it is the choice that has moral status, not the thoughts of the yezer ha-ra.

By contrast, Christians don't have a folk psychology to help them sort out how any given thought is a temptation versus a sin. For Jewish persons the situation is straightforward, all thoughts are temptations, only behaviors have moral status. Christians, by contrast, believing they can sin in their hearts, can't rely on a behavior/thought distinction. Christians have to sort between the thoughts themselves. Which is tougher to do and creates a lot of neurotic, paranoid, and confused Christians.

When does a thought become a sin?

Many years ago some of my students investigated this question.

Specifically, these students asked, How might a typical Christian decide when a particular thought becomes a sin?

For example, let's say, borrowing a stimulus from Cohen and Rozin's study, a married man works with a sexually attractive co-worker. Due to her attractiveness he finds, fairly regularly, sexual thoughts drifting through his mind. Is this man, per Jimmy Carter, committing infidelity in his heart?

Maybe, but we'd like some more details. What do we mean by "sexual thoughts"? And when might such thoughts move from temptation to sin?

My students came up with two related ideas that might be guiding how Christians judge these questions for themselves.

First, maybe a thought becomes a sin if the thought starts moving toward "obsession." That is, if the man in the example above thought about having sex with this co-worker for much of the day Christians would be increasingly likely to label those thoughts as sin.

Second, maybe it is not the amount of thought that matters but how the person responds to and resists the thoughts. Going back to the example, when the sexual thought emerges does the man try to shoo the thought away? Or does he entertain the thought, allowing it to sit in his mind for a time?

Clearly, these two things are correlated--degree of contemplation and resistance to the thought--but they are distinct features. That is, although resisting "tempting" thoughts should reduce their frequency, there are many cases where there is both high thought frequency and resistance. The struggling addict comes to mind.

To test how these dynamics might affect judgments of "sinning in your heart," my students borrowed the experimental protocol of Cohen and Rozin and tweaked it to manipulate the degree of contemplation and resistance displayed by the people described in the scenarios (like the one discussed above). And among a group of Christian participants my students found that assessments of sinfulness were based upon degree of resistance. No effect was found for degree of contemplation.

What these results suggest is that, at least for the sample we studied, Christians appear to view "sinning in your heart" as a sin of omission rather than one of comission.

Specifically, a lustful or hateful thought can erupt in your mind at any time. Further, these can even be very frequent thoughts. But that, according to our research, doesn't make the thought a sin. What is critical, morally speaking, is what happens next. If what happens next is a cognitive attempt to shut down the thought, then the thought is judged to be a temptation and not a sin. And you might be tempted a lot, over and over. But if you keep shutting down or fighting the thought that's okay.

But if, however, the thought is entertained, courted, and elaborated the mental events are increasing judged as being sinful, examples of lust, envy and hate.

Summarizing the findings, the sin isn't in the experience, even the frequent experience, of the thought--a sin of comission. Sinning in your heart is a sin of omission, failing to "do battle" with the thoughts, no matter how frequently or infrequently they occur.

This, at least in the sample we studied, is a part of the "folk psychology" guiding how Christians judge thoughts as being temptations versus sins.