Charlottesville

Today is a difficult day for Virginia, and for the country–yes, my country. As my friend Jack Holloway writes, “Recently, it has felt very difficult to proclaim hope over the world, let alone believe in this talk of coming glory and freedom. Ours, it seems unavoidable to say, is a dark time…. Our world, more and more, seems hopeless, godless, and meaningless.” I look at my dark hands and wonder, “when, oh Lord? How else can I speak the truth so that it is heard? How else can I love so that others may see you are working in my life?” As I reflect on my feelings, I am reminded of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “turn to them the other cheek also.” Perhaps for me, to turn the other cheek is to speak a word of hope in the midst of violence, hatred, and evil. A Psalm 22 word of hope which first cries, ““Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”

I find this first word in this poem by Langston Hughes, which might as well be a prayer and a sermon.

I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.

I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!

Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?

We’ll see.

The question, “Who but the Lord can protect me?” resonates with the Psalmist’s prayers not only of deliverance but also of the desperation and despondency that bespeak the reality of being surrounded by enemies and stomped underfoot by those who wield power unjustly. A Christian hope is not some timeless truth that can be plucked from the air willy-nilly; it is a concrete word that speaks to ME and to YOU in the here and now. “Who but the Lord?” is speaking a word in “the August-12-2017-here-and-now.” Who but the Lord will defend us today and fight for us against the white nationalists and their spirit of hate that seek to destroy the imago Dei?

Who but the Lord can save us from the greedy men and women that rule the world? Who but the Lord can save us from the evil men and women who deface and defile God’s beautiful black, brown, and red creation? Who but the Lord can save us from the fear that is being stirred day and night by those who lust for power, control, and domination? Who but the Lord can comfort us? Who but the Lord can vindicate us? Who but the Lord can avenge us? Who but the Lord can strengthen us to stand up for righteousness? Who but the Lord can surprise us saying, “I dwell among you, in the flesh!” “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly, I will praise you….For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22) Oh Lord, “lead us not into the temptation” to strike back with hate; “but deliver us from the evil” that we are facing today in the United States in an unrelenting way. Surely, we are not alone! “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Weak Argument*

Yesterday, this article caused something of a stir on twitter. The author is a black evangelical who has reached his limit: he’s had enough of the BS and is calling it quits on the SBC, the largest evangelical denomination in the country. Of interest to me is one response in particular that surfaced on my feed. One responder focused on some of the author’s last words in the article, “I love the church. But I love black people more.” Her response to this statement went something to the effect, “I’m glad Paul did not feel the same way about his own people. Heartbreaking.” For lack of additional information, I will infer at least that what is heartbreaking is the author’s prioritizing his ethnic heritage over the church. I want to show how this is weak logic.

  1. False equivalence/dichotomy
    1. Comparing a black man in America’s love for kinship with Paul in the first century is a false equivalence/dichotomy. For one reason, Paul was a Jew, which was a religious identity, whereas a black man is a part of a racial group (for lack of a better word).
    2. Further, it is erroneous to infer a modern understanding of one’s ethnic group in the past, for, unlike Paul and the Jews, the modern invention of race is indeed novel.
    3. Another reason which is significant is that Paul was talking to Jews. That is, although ethnic heritage was a common denominator, the Jews were also a religious group. And at least rhetorically, Paul expresses the level to which he loves his own people, even to the point of being willing to give up his own salvation for their sake.
  2. Red Herring
    1. By making this kind of equivalence, the argument in the article remains unanswered, and therefore still stands. The SBC is not off the hook, but our attention has been instead directed elsewhere. It is perhaps heartbreaking that one has to come to a point where he must choose between his allegiance to his people and the church. But that is not a priority for discussion until the argument about the particular institution is resolved.
    2. Lastly, this strategy of laying the burden of proof on black people is very common. That is to say, by pointing to the black author’s attitude and decision, it becomes a situation where the author, and not the SBC, has to explain himself.Rhetorically, to return to the example of Paul, the burden of proof was on the Jews, not himself or Christians. But there are a number of difficulties with making this equivalence because so many variables have to line up, and he would have to have the burden of proof. Again, here, black folk are the ones who “don’t get it.”

Ultimately, I refer to the tweet as an argument* because it really isn’t an argument, because there’s no space to make one. I am inferring the argument embedded in the text, and I could be wrong, but I am willing to stick to my intuition and invite dialogue.

Strange Worlds

I was in a retail store this afternoon doing my part to keep the economy strong and was met with a scenario which caught me off-guard. It is a delicate topic and therefore I withhold the details, but nevertheless, it had to do with identity formation, the existential quest for Who am I? and Who do I see myself to be?

What puzzled me is not something new, but the reality today that a person determines not only who they are but also regulates others’ perceptions of their self–this caught me off-guard in a new way because I haven’t reflected on it in a while. What was interesting, also, is that although I was caught off-guard, I wasn’t surprised or startled. Two weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I reflected on the danger of living in America–for people of color, Natives, women, sexual minorities, etc.–today I was reminded of the strangeness of America. America, my home, is a strange world.

Karl Barth once wrote an essay on the “strange world of the Bible.” That is, the Bible, though dictated, recorded, and assembled through human language, is nevertheless a “strange world” which interrupts, interrogates, and (sometimes) dislocates us when we read it/encounter it. It is so because it is God’s word, and because it is the word of God (logos theou) it cannot truly be contained. Further, because it is the word of God, it is a divine word, and as such, it is a word that confronts the person who seeks after it. And also because it is a divine word, it is a word–and a world(view)–human beings have difficulty understanding. That is why it is strange because it does not go “according to plan.”

The incomprehensible God of the universe, eternal, all in all, has created a world and creatures within that world whom he wants to enter into a relationship with, and when it turns south, he chooses not to destroy and start over but rather becomes one of the creatures he created to make a way for us to be saved. Retribution is a logical, rational narrative; yet condescension and reconciliation comprise the refrain! Who would’ve thought?

The strangeness of the Bible is one in which we are invited to enter into from our world in order that we can return to our world with a divine word for our times. Escapism is born of a contempt for the world as it is and seeks to confine the divine word for itself. It is a greedy philosophy which selfishly gorges itself on (what it thinks is) revelation for its own sake, while the world around it is “left to its own devices.” But Jesus himself prayed that we would return to the world in the power of the Spirit, armed with the sword of truth to “bring the good news.”

And there is a divine word for the strange world of America today. This strangeness is one which coaxes us in, rather than invites us. It is deceptive, for it doesn’t truly or fully understand itself. This strangeness does not bring with it a divine word, but a human word of pride, sovereignty, death-disguised-as-life. It is to this world, though, that the church (the body of Christ) utters through the power of the Spirit, “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” “[Christ] is our peace…who has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.” “Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds because of your evil actions. But now He has reconciled you.” “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.”

The strange word of the Bible says that it is inside the deception of the world that the good news shines forth; it is within the confusion and mayhem that comfort, peace, and rest are found; it is in a broken world that the kingdom of God shines, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 

Love: A Very Beautiful Ugliness*

I watched “Bear With Me” by Propaganda and it reminded me of a poem by Tite Kubo in Volume 20 of the Bleach manga. It’s one of my favorite by him in the manga:

Those who do not know what love is
liken it to beauty.
Those who claim to know what love is
liken it to ugliness.

In the context of Prop’s song, the poem bespeaks romantic love. In a romantic relationship, love is tested; it is a daily commitment to put the other person before oneself prior to any interaction with one’s partner. Therefore, love is a disposition; it is an ethics. (It’s only natural for me to reflect on the subject of love as disposition [is it natural?], I’m engaged to be married very soon!) The decision to love prior to the ethical encounter (i.e. encountering another human being, in this case, a lover) is how I read the audacity of love: “I love you in spite of whatever you’re about to do in this moment.” The disposition of love is not concerned with its safety. It’s a fearless ethics.

Not much, however, is different in this regard with romantic love and neighborly love, i.e. agape. For too long, romantic love gets too much love at the expense of neighborly love, so that no one knows how to love, even those in romantic relationships. Eros is set over against agape, in an either/or struggle for supremacy. This dynamic makes love to be a farce, a shadow of its true beauty, and its true ugliness.

The ugliness of this fearless ethics is its willingness to suffer and to die for the sake of the other person. My father once said to me, “If one person is willing to die [to themselves, presumably], the relationship will always work.” The beauty of love is its unrelenting pursuit of satisfaction and completion in relationship; the ugliness is in the uncertain ways and forms this completion takes. Compromise. Arguments. Tears. Confusion. Forgiveness. Frustration. The death of the self in love is a slow, painful one.

But love is ultimately beautiful because that which willingly enters the ground will be raised up. The seed planted must die before it becomes the tree that brings shade to those under its branches. But the tree cannot become without the death of the seed. And so with love: it is always beautiful, and because it knows its true nature, it is not afraid of dying. In any and every relationship, love is strong enough to survive the honeymoon, rosy-colored phase and get into–and past–the funk, the ugliness. Love is willing to die slowly and painfully–because it knows it will be brought back to life. Are we willing?

*Disclaimer: this reflection in no way espouses “redemptive suffering” in the context of relational abuse of any kind. To abuse the love which is given by someone is hateful, antichrist, and a sign of a degenerate human being. There is (sadly) a praxis in Christian circles of blaming women for the abuse they experience in their marriages, which sadistically exhorts them to “submit to your husband and love him until he changes.” Nein! The devil is a liar; whether in marriage, friendship, family, anyone who abuses the other is evil, and the one(s) who are aware of such are as guilty. 

The [Real] Enemy of the [Nostalgic] State

I happened across the news today on a channel whose name escapes me now. I was on the stationary bike today, and because the gym now is a convenient extension of mass media consumption, I had no choice: I could only stare at my sweat for so long.

For a good while, the headline was on Otto Warmbier, the American student who allegedly contracted botulism while serving 15 months hard labor in North Korea, who died today after being returned to the States in a coma. It is an absolute tragedy; the family is grieving the loss of their son amidst the inconsolable anguish that comes with the need for answers, justice, compensation, and healing–and also revenge. The headline, however, was not focused on the family’s grief and condition, but rather on 45’s comments on the tragedy.

As I was taking in a multitude of distractions and unenthusiastic and uninspiring pontification, my mind turned to the tragedies of the Philandro Castile saga, Nabra Hassanen, and Helen Harrion. These are the names which were readily summoned because they’re the ones I’ve engaged most recently, and what I pondered was the contrast between 45’s [lack of] interest in the aforementioned tragedies and that of our dear brother Otto Warmbier. (Let it be said, this is not a comparison of tragedies, as though one is more important or has more cash/social/ethical value than the other.)

Much of social media (in my case, Twitter) has been buzzing with the disparity between 45’s duplicity and apparent preferential treatment for some tragedies over others, and it hit me as I was on le bike stationarie: 45 is subtly advancing his “Make America Great Again” narrative by consistently showing remorse for American losses that occur at the hands of other nation-states. The narrative of this brand of nostalgia politics is that the real threat to the Union is external; the real threat is “them” on an international level. 45 has no need to engage the union within because his followers do that for him because they believe in him because he is fighting for their America.

This brand of nostalgia points to one of the basic priorities of the nation-state, and that is its own survival. And it is compelling; it’s a cause worth grinding it out for. 45 need only believe it–and continue to do so. His tenacity and endurance only confirm for his constituents that he really believes what he says and that it must be a worthy cause. In order to understand how to engage this kind of discourse, the run-of-the-mill pointing out inconsistencies won’t be enough–he doesn’t have to make sense. He doesn’t need people of color in his photo ops. He can keep his nonsense to 140 characters all day long. He knows that; his people know that; now it’s just a matter of taking the hits until the bell sounds to end the round–in 2020. Because that’s what’s bound to happen: if it isn’t recognized, acknowledged, and strategized for, 2020 will roll around and the question will be, “How did he make it four years? Surely he can’t go another four, right?”

Dark Side of Christianity

There is only one side: the cross!

It is customary to warn believers, new and old, of the “dark side” of discipleship, namely, suffering. Whether it presents itself in persecution and the threat of one’s life for the sake of Christ; intolerance for one’s religious views and their public manifestations; exclusion from the public square–whatever one’s impending struggle is, at least here in America where I’ve lived in my formative years, that struggle is categorized as “the dark side.” But is it?

Jesus says in the gospels to “carry your cross daily. The one who does not do so cannot be my disciple.” For Christ, there was only the cross. That is discipleship. But it is not understood in the modern binary of good and bad–it simply is what it says it is. (It’s interesting the kind of warning label that some evangelical Christians put on discipleship as a cautionary tale, and yet, for example, marriage deserves just as much of a warning label [judging by the rising popularity in divorce], and yet the latter is like an amusement park that everyone is chomping at the bit to enter into–despite the ever-present challenges, difficulties, struggles, disappointments, and pain. Why is it easier to see past all of that for marriage but not for discipleship? Is it because we can’t have sex with each other as disciples?)

To suggest that there is a dark side of discipleship that we should be wary of is to implicitly put forth a prosperity theology whose premise is: shy away as far away as possible from pain, discomfort, and anything that would hinder the individual from “realizing” their dreams. It is true, however, that Jesus also said, “count the cost.” He offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill, but before he puts his hands forward for the young catechumen to choose, he reminds him, “Ain’t no turning back, son! Choose wisely! If you want to follow me, there is only one way, and that is the path which I myself take. There is nothing else.”

This is not a pessimistic or cynical assertion, though. Jesus was “anointed with the oil of joy more than his companions.” The life lived for Christ is one which is filled with incredible joy; with unsurpassed peace and fellowship with God and with other people. As Bonhoeffer says at one point: “The ethical basic-relations that were severed in the corpus peccati [body of sin] (Bernard) are renewed by the Holy Spirit…I and You face each other no longer essentially in a demanding, but in a giving way, revealing their hearts that have been conquered by God’s will” (DBWE 1:189). This means that, in Christ, we are dead to sin, and can discover anew our relation to God and to each other in love, not in sin, through the Holy Spirit’s power. That is a life worth living. A life whose success, vibrancy and tenacity are in God’s hands.

That is discipleship. To follow Jesus into life, into freedom, by way of the cross. There is no dark side. There is only the cross!