Missions | Ego

Life is changing drastically for me in the next few weeks. I will be joining my fiancé in Swaziland doing work with a church in the town she lives and works. I was speaking to a gentleman at church this past Sunday saying that in the life of discipleship, we don’t chart our own course, but the way is well worth it. Perhaps there is a way for me to be useful; maybe my passions will meet opportunities to help others in ways I wouldn’t expect. Whatever the case may be, isn’t it the drama of life to “wait and see”?

I am a student of history. In 2012, during my last semester at George Mason University, I read Orthodoxy by Chesterton and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Cone. That was the turning point for me which has led to who I am today, more or less. As I’ve been preparing to enter a new world in a different part of the world, I am drawn to the history of the place and the practices. In “world history time,” South Africa just got out of apartheid; affectively, that means the effects, memories, scars, and hopes from that time are more fresh than, say, those from Jim Crow segregation (in some ways. Unlike America, South Africa doesn’t have a doctrine of exceptionalism/manifest destiny which precludes an honest view of national history).

There is also a history of mission work in Africa generally, and in Southern Africa specifically. I was born and raised in Kenya before my family and I immigrated to the States; basically my whole family is in Kenya. My parents have shared with me stories from the days when the missionary and colonizer were two sides of the same coin, and the deep wounds my ancestors bore in the name of “religion” and “civilization.” One fruitful aspect of missiology studies which I was fortunate to encounter at seminary is the coming to terms with the duplicitous nature of global missions particularly in the “age of discovery” as well as the age of revolution during the twentieth century. Such is not a moral claim but rather a descriptive one: non-Western missions has a troubled past.

What I have noticed is that although the colonizer spirit is by and large extinct from the ethos of missions, both academically and among the laity, there still persists a spirit of paternalism towards Africa especially. Africa remains the perpetual hungry child in need of a meal, shoes, a bible, and a book. I was teased all the way from middle school to my college days about being a compassion child. Africa is still “backward” in many respects. It is still an exotic land that is ripe for the saving. These dispositions are dangerous even if the effects may be positive, e.g. schools, healthcare, churches and training resources, etc. It is true that pastors and churches are in need of resources, materials, and money; but let it be said that the continent of Africa does not need–or want–to become like America.

Paternalism is a condescending attitude, and truthfully, is a motivating attitude in mission work. The facetious “missionary Barbie” is a caricature of that attitude. The people who wander on short term missions just to take photos with black babies with no respect to their personhood. The person who thinks that missions “out there” is worth more than the hungry man in their city because people live in “huts” out there. In short, there is glory in paternalism. There is a savior in the paternalistic ego.

I am going to help the church in Swaziland the best I can. I am entering missions with a dialogical perspective, where I and thou are transformed by our mutual encounter with each other.

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Who Can Stand It?

In John 6, Jesus calls himself the bread of life, which is commonplace to Christians today on this side of the resurrection, but back then it caused quite a stir. Actually, the way Jesus described himself often times drew “we have to put an end to this guy permanently”-level criticism. Think of it: scribes and religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus–to kill him!–because of what he was saying and doing. That isn’t run-of-the-mill agitation; that’s disrupting the socio-religious order in the most drastic way. To say one is the bread from heaven that will satisfy a person’s hunger for life is to make a claim to divinity of an audacious kind. And to say one has to eat him, that’s adding absurdity to audacity.

Then he’s asked an important question by his disciples: “this is a hard teaching, who can stand it?” And it says that many left him and no longer followed him. After this Jesus turns to his twelve and asks, “What about you? Will you leave me, too?” to which Peter responds dramatically, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This is dramatic stuff. But the upshot is that to follow Jesus often is a lesson in believing in spite of everything we know and hold dear. Truly, he says a short while above in this episode: “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he sent.” I believe these words were also a testimony about the twelve and was validated by Peter’s response. Even now, in the wake of Jesus’ audacious claims about himself, the disciples are at a loss–but have nowhere else to go, because they’ve come to believe in something–someone–indescribable.

For us today, the command to love one’s neighbor, to love one another, is a hard teaching. Who can stand it? The command to turn the other cheek is a hard teaching, who can stand it? Who can stand the call of God to proclaim the kingdom of God when it means denouncing the spirit of the world? White supremacy is a demon that not only threatens the people of God, but has found a stable home inside our walls and halls, and our hearts. It is a part of our daily bread and devotion. Who can stand the teachings of Jesus when it demands sacrifice and death to the air we breathe, the faith we hold in false ideology–even though this is the way to resurrection and new life?

The kingdom of God is in our midst, and many have been invited; many, though, have responded, “Wait, Lord, I will follow you when I am ready. Give me time to figure out how to serve two masters…” He has sent invitations to those on the streets, in the countryside, in the crack house, the brothel, the prison cell, the graveyard–and they are willing to say yes. The kingdom of God, so unlike the kingdoms of this world–who can stand to love it? To desire it? To cherish it? To fight for it? To die for it? Who will call out the white supremacist and racist evil lurking beneath the surface of our churches?

At the end of the day, who will say, “Here I am, Lord, send me into the furnace?” Perhaps we would find that inside the flames of hate and injustice, “in the presence of our enemies”… “a fourth like the son of the gods” resides there. To whom shall we go? Lord, send me!

 

 

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.