Embracing Our Enemies

“You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”             Matthew 5:9 (The Message)

“As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbor against those who have hurt us. Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours. Amen.”                                             (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

Making Peace is Frickin Hard!

Peacemaking is not the easiest of tasks. It involves taking two sides (maybe more) who are estranged, and making it so reconciliation can take place. It is not, as Miroslov Volf points out in his book Exclusion and Embrace, merely moving the oppressed out from under their oppressor, and exacting justice on those oppressors. This, he warns, very often leads to the oppressed becoming oppressors themselves, which means that oppression has been allowed to continue, just in a different name. Such “peacemaking” is better understood as retaliation. “They did it to us, so we will do it to them.” This is also called warfare. 

Volf, being Croatian, does not write about reconciliation and peacemaking from inside a bubble, as I would. I can point to history books, and documentaries, all while living comfortably in my little rural town in North Carolina. Volf saw his country torn apart by civil war. He saw two sides gather in the name of God, and pillage, rape, and kill each other with genocidal viger. The things I saw on tv as a teenager, happened in his backyard, so to speak. So whenever he speaks about reconciling enemies, he doesn’t mean two sides that just don’t get along,  he means enemies. 

Enemies Are Relative

Of course, if we’re talking about peacemaking and embracing our enemies, it’s helpful to know who our enemies are. I’d also venture that it’s helpful to know if they are an actual enemy, or nothing more than a perceived enemy. For instance, in my younger, more brash days, any Christian who didn’t share my specific beliefs — within an undefined perameter, mind you — I considered a heretic! (Sorry, Rob Bell.) To borrow from On Distant Shores by Five Iron Frenzy, “And off of the blocks, I was headstrong and proud. At the front of the line of the card carrying high brows. With both eyes fastened tight, yet unscarred from the fight. Running at full tilt, my sword pulled from its hilt…Casting first stones, killing my own.” 

But  if experience is any kind of teacher, I’ve come to find that “enemy” is a relative term. (Once again, if that enemy is an actual enemy.) We don’t get to choose our enemies. Nor do we know if and when we’ve met one. But they are relative nonetheless. For some, an enemy is someone who simply makes life a little more challenging. These enemies don’t pose a threat to anyone; however, they are just harder to love than most. And frustratingly, folks who have these types of enemies, are the ones who just love to quote Jesus at people. “Well Brother, I hate that that’s happening, but Jesus said to love and pray for our enemies.” (Yeah, easy for you, buddy. The only thing you’re dealing with is hiding your frustration. Meanwhile, I was just abused by my pastor.) I remember posting a status about this once, and a missionary buddy of mine commented, “Yeah, while some people are dealing with bruised egos, I walk passed corrupt local police who are dressed like soldiers, complete with automatic weapons. Loving them is not simple.” 

Thankfully, there are people throughout history who have endured far more than said bruised egos. Volf, as I mentioned above, if not personally, saw it in his countrymen. Likewise, there is Corrie ten Boom, who was a Holocaust survivor. She once said, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.” And lest it be said that that was easy for her to say post concentration camp, she once told a story of meeting one of the officers responsible for her daily nightmares, years later, and with much internal struggle, still managed to forgive. 

Why Say All This?

What’s the point? Well isn’t it obvious?!? Particularly in the United States, we are living in a time of absolute lunacy. Forgiveness is a foreign language, and at this point, may even be banned as a threat to the country! But forgive we must! Especially if you claim the Name of the Divine Interupter, who forgave and gave his life for the very people who unjustly arrested and murdered him. On a Roman cross no less! 

We are living in a time when all one has to do is say one criticism of their opponent, and that opponent flies off the comment section handle, and projects every form of vitriol they can conjur. Conservatives are more guilty of this than liberals these days; but liberals, you’re guilty all the same. 

The Big Idea of Forgiveness

Whether we are conservative or liberal, climate deniers or protectors, Christian or Muslim, we are all human. We are interdependent of one another. Conservatives don’t have all the answers. Liberals don’t have all the answers. Christians (being one myself I can say with utmost certainty) don’t have all the answers. And Muslims are tired of being blamed for every little bump in the night. 

Conservatives, you don’t get to call every opponent a liberal snowflake just because they challenged your thinking. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work with liberals to make this world better. 

Liberals, you don’t get to write off all conservatives as brainless morons because they deny climate change. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work together. 

There really are bigger, badder, more wicked threats out there than bruised egos. And while we’re busy calling each other names on social media (yes, I do it too!), those threats are rolling on. People’s rights are being stolen for no other reason than their sexual orientation, or that their skin color is different than their lawmakers’ (here’s looking at you North Carolina General Assembly!) 

There is a scene in the Outlander Series where Jamie Fraser, who earlier on had been brutalized by his enemy Black Jack Randall, and as he (Jamie) is helping his own daughter forgive her enemy, he comes to his own realization, Black Jack is only a man. Yes, he did terrible, terrible things. But he was only a mortal man. Not only that, but forgiveness is not a one time event, but rather many events over time. 

Whoever your enemy is, no matter what they’ve done, they are only mortal. Life is worth far more than spending it hunkered down in bitter hatred because someone doesn’t agree with you. 

Forgive as if humanity depended on it. 

More to come on this very difficult subject later.

Engaging Without Becoming: A Christian Perspective on Politics

One thing that I’ve noticed in my recent posts is the amount of political content in them. Which is actually really funny to me, because I’ve never actually considered myself a political person. Sure, I would cast my vote, and would hope for my candidate to win. But after the election, I would do what I’m sure most do after an election, “Now that that is over with, let’s get back to regular life.” I would disengage until the next election. 

But one thing that I’ve noticed, looking back, is that I was either a single-issue voter, or I would blindly trust that my candidate of choice would do what they said, even if I was completely ignorant of what they said. So, for example, I wasn’t old enough to vote in the 2000 Election, but I wanted Ole Dubya to win because 1) he was a Christian and 2) he was a pro-life candidate. So when he took office, I paid attention long enough to see him take measures against abortion, and then I just thanked God for a Christian in the White House. Literally the only other things I can say Bush did during his Presidency were start the War on Terror, invade both Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11; fall woefully short in humanitarian aid in the aftermath of Katrina; and build several hundred miles of fence on the Mexican boarder. I can’t tell you a single policy plan, promised or accomplished. 

Due to the fact that so many of my pastors and Christian leaders taught me that the GOP is “God’s Party,” I took this same blind devotion into the ’08 election, despite thinking that John McCain was not really what I was looking for in a candidate. Obviously, Obama won that election. And once again, I paid attention long enough to see him take his own actions with abortion (I use that term very loosely, because I’ve started to learn that saying that being pro-choice means that you’re pro-abortion is to completely oversimplify what it means to be pro-choice), and then I waited for the next election, as usual. But by the time 2012 came around, I had completely disengaged with politics altogether. After all, both parties still take my money, and use it for things that I’ll never condone. 

And then, as I’ve said, the 2016 Election and Donald Trump happened. It still doesn’t seem real! Like at this point, with all that’s gone on, I keep expecting him to say, “This was all just one big prank, folks. Come on out Ashton Kutcher, and tell America they’ve been punked, so we can elect someone who is actually qualified for the job! Electing me is a DISASTER for this country. Very bad hombres voted for me. And they mean for bad things to happen. And they use the bad finger. And they use bad words. And that’s bigly bad. But before I go, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, you’re fired!”  And then our educational system would then set about teaching people logic and reason, and how to do research and fact check. And we would see a reawakening of what our system of government was designed for. And American Utopia would be achieved!

But my political engagement actually started a little before that, with the passing of HB 2 here in North Carolina. What got me engaged was not the politics of it, but the morality of it! Christians (both local and celebrity) came out and said that HB 2 was honorable before God, because God calls homosexuality a sin, and we don’t want men pretending to be transgender so they can sexually assault women and children in public restrooms. It was “common sense.” So I began to speak up, Facebook style! Because, like being pro-choice, being transgender is not “common sense.” Common sense is what you would call catching on fire next to a lake, and jumping in the lake instead of calling the fire department to put you out. To be transgender is a very complex thing. To be transgender does not mean that a man or woman is gay. It means that a man or woman identifies themselves as a woman or a man. (And even that is to oversimplify it!) And to say that this bill was good and right because God says homosexuality is a sin, is to refuse to understand what it means to be transgender. 

Sadly, many Christian friends only focused on the transgender language of the bill, and not its implications. Not only did this bill allow for businesses to descrimate against the transgender community, it also made the transgender community a scapegoat for sexual assault! What was particularly frustrating about this, is that it took me all of 3 minutes to look up the statistics and myths of sexual assault. Myth #1 is that sexual assault is a crime of opportunity, and that it happens in everyday settings “where the people are.” When in fact, according to the CDC, most victims knew their perpetrator (51% reporting that they had a close relationship with that person, 41% reporting that they were at least acquainted, and 12% were family), and the assault took place in a familiar location (the home of either the victim or the perpetrator). In other words, the scary thing about those who commit sexual assault is that they usually know their victim, and they want privacy while they commit their crime. What this means in the case against HB 2, is that a man dressing up as a woman brings uneccessary attention to a would be perp, and a public bathroom provides too much risk of being caught. So the argument that this bill protected women and children against would be rapists and molesters falls flat when compared to the actual data available. Adding to that, the legislators who spearheaded this bill did not provide any evidence to justify their claim, and Governor Pat McCrory always dodged questions pertaining to this lack. This would suggest that it’s a fair assumption that they knew they didn’t have the numbers, and were banking on blind evangelical allegiance to keep this bill in place. 

So what does all that have to do with engaging in politics? Quite a lot, actually! Because like I said before, I have friends and family who ask me with bewilderment, “Shouldn’t we stand with God? Shouldn’t we call sin a sin, as he does? And if our culture embraces sin, shouldn’t we go against the tide?” Yeah! Emphatically so. But here’s the catch: If your stance for Jesus causes you to break the second greatest commandment, then you are also breaking the first; therefore, you are not actually standing for Jesus, like you think you are. Lest we forget, Romans 2 points out that if our actions don’t match our words, we are actually driving people away from Jesus, not toward him. 

Like, I’ve never had someone tell me, “Dude, you know what really made me want to follow Jesus? Being berated by Christians about my vice. I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I was on the fence about Jesus, and the deciding factor was when Christians came in and treated me like a third class citizen.” But this seems to be the common habit amongst certain Christians. It’s like they get this idea that legislation is the greatest form of evangelism. “If we can prevent people from doing _____, they will honor Jesus.” Meanwhile, all I can think is, “So let me get this straight: God himself can’t make people obey his commands, but a hypocritical politician will? And by stripping people of civil rights, at that!” Can you imagine a police check point with that kind of mentality? “Lisence, registration, and proof of insurance and heterosexuality, please.” 

But to get back to my main point, how should Christians engage with politics? Because, as Gabe Lyons points out in his book unChristian, a popular perception of Christians is that we are overly political. We don’t just engage in politics, we demand that a whole nation abide by our rules, because they’re “God’s rules.” Which is why we see certain movements like The Moral Majority in the 80s and 90s. And one group that I’m most familiar with claims, “We must occupy until he comes.” This particular group is a fun one, because it takes a single phrase from the KJV translation of the parable of the talents, and applies it to political involvement. So they take a parable that already comes with its share of interpretive struggles, and then take a single phrase from an outdated translation, and make it mean that they must create a Christian Theocratic State. (Aren’t Scriptural Gymnastics fun?!?!)

But on the other hand, pastor and author Mark Driscoll points out in his book Death by Love, that one of the ways God  uses the crucifixion to redeem the world, is through the good works and service of Christians in the world. Jesus redeems the Christian, who in turn goes about making the world a better place. 

Pastor and author Tim Keller provides a great answer to this. Some religions, he points out, have a high view of politics, and use it to enforce their religious laws. One example of this can be seen in the Islamic States in the Middle East. Another one would be England in the years following the Reformation. But you can look to history to see that this does not work out too well for opposing parties. To use England as an example, when a catholic monarch ruled, things went really well for Catholics, but really bad for Protestants. Likewise, whenever a Protestant monarch ruled, things went really bad for Catholics, and in certain cases, for certain denominations as well. Political activity wreaked havoc. 

But then, as Keller points out, there are those religions that completely disengage from politics. But what ends up happening with these groups, is that the political machine grows more and more powerful, and runs amuck. Eventually, even these religions become victims of the state. 

But Christians have this very precarious balance between those two. We don’t completely disengage from politics, and leave room for wicked rulers to come in, and enforce oppressive laws. But we also don’t want to rule in the name of our faith, and thus oppress in the name of Jesus. Instead, Christians are to be engaged in politics, without becoming political. Because morality and social justice are non-partisan. It’s not a political strategy to do good for all people, regardless of race, gender, age, religion, or socioeconomic status. It’s common sense. 

Right now, in my experience, Christians are easy targets for politicians. Just say the right words, take the right position, and you’ve bought them hook, line, and sinker. This is what we saw with Donald Trump. The man is a moral nightmare, but James Dobson and Franklin Graham, because they have so limited their scope of faith, excused everything he said and did because he was “a baby Christian.” 

But imagine if Christians were the hardest to appease! I long for the day when I hear a politician say, “Ya know, we try to reach these Christians, but they always surprise us. They want to end abortion as birth control, but instead of just making it illegal, like we used to talk about, they want us to provide better healthcare for women, and other services for unplanned pregnancies. They want it so that pregnant women are so cared for, that abortion isn’t even an option. These guys fight crime, by making society a better place, so that people don’t want or need to turn to crime in the first place! Do you remember when all we would need to do is say, ‘I’m a Christian, I’m pro-life, and I’m pro-traditional marriage?’ Why can’t it be that easy again?”

Anybody else with me?

Looking Beyond Mere Letters

“Doom to you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land yourselves – evicting the old owners, posting No Trespassing signs, taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless.” Isaiah 5:8

What does this look like today? 

Gentrification. The real estate market. Monopolies. CEOs who are paid multi millions, while their employees barely scrape by. Indian reservations. Black neighborhoods and schools. Wall Street. Agesm, where the elder looks down upon the younger. Certain denominations (like the PCA) requiring their ministers to have an M.div, knowing full well that people of color rarely have the financial means to pursue such a degree (especially when it comes to the seminaries that these denominations trust, such as RTS,  where financial aid is not available). Lawmakers who make $180,000+ a year, and limit programs for those who make $25,000 or less, and tell them, “This is America, the Land of Opportunity.”  Corporate lobbyists. Apple, Walmart, and the like getting massive tax breaks despite being billion dollar companies. 

We must learn to look beyond the mere letter of the text, and grasp the heart and spirit of its meaning. Jesus was the MASTER of this!!! “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” 

Because Isaiah’s text continues later: 

“Doom to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness in place of light and light in place of darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Doom to you who think you’re so smart, who hold such a high opinion of yourselves! All you’re good at is drinking – champion boozers who collect trophies from drinking bouts. And then line your pockets with bribes from the guilty while you violate the rights of the innocent.” Isaiah 5:20-23

I’ve seen verse 20 used a lot by Christians who want to accuse other Christians of backsliding. “You want homosexuals to have civil liberties? That’s calling evil good!”

Is it? 

Meanwhile, these same folks vote for legislators who steal civil rights from people just because they can. My current home state of North Carolina is so ethnically gerrymandered, it got national attention! “This is unconstitutional!” was met by “Obama is such a divisive President!” What the what?!?

I’ve heard the argument that socialism leads to laziness.

Does it?

Isn’t that more of a smokescreen to cover up the real reason you don’t like universal healthcare and college tuition? It’s “your” money? Never mind the fact that you send your kids to public schools, have a bank account, or have insurance (all of which utilize a form of socialism). 

It’s easy to use this verse to remove the speck of dust from your brother’s eye, when there’s a whole blanking building sitting in yours. All because “sin” has become “bad stuff,” like murder and theft, and not also “good stuff” done for the wrong reasons.

Just this week, on two separate occasions, I’ve heard Christians defend their love of God, by propping up all the things they do for him. “I have been a minister for 25 years!” “I’ve been in prison ministry!””I do biker ministry!” Propping up their own resumes as if God is giving them a standing ovation! Not once taking into account that Jesus and the prophets more often than not throw resumes in the garbage, because they see right through them!!! “You didn’t do that for Yahweh! You did that for you! Your heart is far from me!” Which is promptly met by a, “How dare you judge me! You can’t say things like that! I am FILLED with the love of God!” It happened to the prophets. It happened to Jesus. It still happens today. 

I always want to respond, actions speak louder than words! I have yet to meet a well respected Christian who had to reassure people of their love for Jesus. It tends to go without saying. 

Challenge for the day: What are you propping up to appease your conscience, and appear good? What do you hope people will pay more attention to, so that they’ll take you at your word, rather than your lifestyle? What do you call good – in yourself, in the church, in the culture – when, if you do some research, is pure evil?