Social justice has been on my mind a lot lately, as I'm sure it's been on the minds of many. For some, especially those who are older or from very conservative backgrounds, their ears just perked up. This idea of "social justice" still has connotations carried over from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the gospel of Jesus Christ was distilled down merely to its justice component. In the social gospel, Jesus's life was rightly put on a pedestal as an example for our own lives, but it wrongfully deposed the work of his death and resurrection. Jesus's life became largely an example for us in our world - a motivational speech to move us out to be nice and do good. This social gospel devoid of the divine is not the social justice I'm talking about.
It is amazing how my view of myself has changed so drastically in the past six years or so. It began when I started working on our diaconate, it progressed as I saw my political idolatry and consequentialism, and now it is broken wide open as I see my lack of humility with brothers and sisters of color. I always identified with God in his anger at Israel's rebellion, I identified with the prophet Hosea rather than with his adulterous wife, and I identified with Jesus and the disciples who I imagined were shaking their heads at the rich young ruler (although that's not what the text says they did, but it's what I always did). But I have begun to see that I and my community are most often intended to identify with the wayward Israel in need of mercy, with the unfaithful prostitute, and with the rich young ruler in need of humility and transformation. The following, then, is a reimagining of the rich young ruler story as told in Luke 18, with me and my community standing in for the man who proved his unbelief through his inability to act in love.
“The Politics of Jesus” has been one of the most influential books in my life. While I could glean ten different life lessons from it to discuss right now, one in particular has surfaced in my mind as of late. In the book, John Howard Yoder, the author, points out several aspects of what it means to bear our cross. Two of these observations had never crossed my mind before. First, Yoder tells us that bearing our cross is not a random event or hardship in our lives, like cancer or a difficult boss. Instead, cross is what is borne as a direct result of the lives we lead as lived in Christ, like moving to a leper colony to serve and contracting leprosy or having your boss fire you for refusing to alter information in a report. Cross is first and foremost something borne as a direct result of living a life directed towards Calvary.
Christians, like any other group of humans, have their pet peeves. For me and my group of Christians, one of those pet peeves is the objectification of others. We recognizes that the objectification of others leads to deeper and more numerous sins, and therefore, we call it out as evil. When we elevate individualism to godhood and diminish a baby in the womb to the status of non-human - when we objectify babies - a baby who gets in our way can be killed. When sexuality and pleasure is elevated to godhood and another's body becomes a mere tool - when we objectify fellow humans for sexual gratification - then we end up with the highly exploitative and damaging pornography, sex worker, and sex-trafficking industries. Christians rightly identify Jesus's teaching that objectification is at the heart of much evil in the world. In Jesus's famous Sermon on the Mount, he declares that it isn't only murder and adultery which are evil, but the objectification of others in our hatred, anger, and lust - the latter vices being the seeds of the former. Jesus is a wise man, and we are wise to follow in his footsteps.
But just as Christians have pet peeves, we also have our pet sins. One of those pet sins is, rather coincidentally, objectifying others. Whereas my group has somehow managed not to buy into the overt acceptance and overlooking of the pleasure/sex pantheon of our culture, a different, perhaps more insidious form of idolatrous objectification has crept its way into our lives. Prosperity. Perhaps Jesus should have warned us a bit more about wealth and prosperity. Maybe he should have called it out directly or told some harsh stories about it. Maybe he should have given us some foreshadowing and foundation for the problem of prosperity in the Old Testament. Maybe he should have exiled Israel for their actions stemming from prosperous indulgence at the expense of justice towards others. Maybe if Ezekiel or some other prophet would have told us that the sin of Sodom was being guilty of idolizing prosperity - maybe that would have been enough for us not to make greed a pet sin and prosperity an idol. And perhaps if Paul had excoriated the greedy more than just a few times in the epistles, or if James, the brother of Jesus would have condemned opulence and unjust labor practices, everything would all be so clear to us now. But alas!
The Old Testament prophets have grown on me over the past few years. This isn't because I sense the impending doom of all the wicked unbelievers in the nation around me, as I mournfully identify myself and the church with the irate prophets of old. No, the prophets have grown on me because many of their words, levied at the hearts of God's very own people two millennia ago, can still be levied at God's people today.
For years I have heard the Religious Right bemoan (and have myself been found bemoaning) the culture around us, and I now see Evangelicals expectantly wondering if God will bring revival to this corrupted world through the current pandemic. While I can resonate with the sorrow over the world's sin and a desire to see souls come to God for the first time, I have begun to wonder why we Christians seem to lack brokenness for our own sins, and why we focus so little on the conformation of our own souls to the Divine. We seem to think that we have arrived at holiness, or at least commendable acceptability, and that others really don't need to be like God so long as they become more like us. But that's not what I want. I want the God to whom people come to be a god not mis-fashioned in our own image. I want the God they come to to be transcendent.
In order for the world to see the Divine through us, we must struggle to get the logs out of our own eyes before asking others to take the specks out of theirs. For how could we lead others to a God whom we ourselves can't even see? And how could we expect others to want to come to a Holy God - not to have their beings transformed - but rather only to have their pet sins changed to become those of the church? For if their sins become our sins, they can then be overlooked. In the church's eyes, the gay, the aborter, and the atheist must change, but the greedy, gluttonous, unmerciful, prayerless Christian - the functional atheists - must not, since, of course, the latter looks like me. Oh how we have logs in our eyes!
But praise God for his mercy and grace, for in this, the Son and the Spirit are our perfect hope. The Spirit, the stonemason, takes our heart of stone and chisels it to become a heart of flesh. Jesus the carpenter, in turn, removes the logs from our eyes and fashions them into a yoke which is easy to bear. Together they lead us into the arms of a loving Father and King, to whom we do not merely profess some empty faith, but to whom we bow our knees as the outworking of true faith. Without such a transformation - without putting our subordination where we claim lordship lies - we smother our light, trample our salt, and build our house on sand.
As we Christians think about revival out there (which we should), I think the prophets would ask us to first consider our own repentance and need for reformation, both as individual Christians and as a collective body. I know that I fail to seek mercy and justice. I fail to walk humbly with God. My "sacrifices" don't cost me anything. I seek the praises of others. I contribute to systems and actions which oppress the weak. I murder with my hatred. My heart, more than any other heart, is in need of revival. Let me acknowledge my sin in the presence of God before seeking and expecting revival elsewhere. And perhaps it is acknowledging my sin and allowing God to transform my life - genuinely submitting to his lordship - that he will bring about revival in others. Maybe God calls us to judge ourselves and those inside the church rather than those outside. Maybe the loudest voice for God isn't the condemning one, but the one whispered in seemingly relative obscurity through a distinctive life of holiness and incarnational love, embracing the sinners and calling out the hypocrisy of the religious. Maybe the Christian is the one who stoops to write in the miniscule pebbles of sand rather than being the first to throw stones. Maybe, just maybe, a revival comes through following Jesus and becoming more like him - not just saying it.
In that vein, I want to invite any Christian reading this to look over Isaiah 58, one of my favorite prophetic calls to repentance and justice. And after you read that, you will find the ways God has been calling me to repent. My prayer is that this will spur you on to examine your own life, and that as the body of Christ, we can be broken open as a sweet smelling aroma to the world around us.
The murder of James Bulgar is a story which wrecks my heart. While all murders are tragic, this one feels to me as if it fits into a different category. The level of reprehensibility, of violence, of senselessness, and of the corruption of innocence eats away at my emotions. But in reality, the murder of James wasn't much different than the murders of other children, save for one fact - his murderers were children themselves. I think the reason the Bulgar case has become so infamous and why so many find it more tragic than other cases is because the source of evil came from an unexpected place. How could two children kidnap, torture, and murder a small child? That's not something children do. In fact, that's something it seems children aren't capable of doing. We don't expect to find great evil in certain places. We think such a thing is reserved for the darkest recesses of society. We expect evil to exist, but we don't expect it in all the places where we often find it.
Many Evangelicals harp on the fact that our culture has lost notions of sin. Our culture is often willing to call evil, "good." Certainly the redefining of morality is problematic, but I think there is something even more tragic going on.
It is easy to live in fear these days. Perhaps it's always been that way. Maybe the times aren't any more fearful today, but rather humans are beings always prone to fear. Regardless of fear's source, whether in circumstances or in human nature, it's easy for those of us living in the present to see the fears which the modern world stirs up in our neighbors and in ourselves. But all this fear seems so odd in our enlightened age. One would have thought (or at least I would have thought) that a world which proclaimed itself as more "scientific," more "objective," and less "mystical" would be one in which fears would dissipate. In a world where malicious demons and capricious gods don't exist, we only have the rational world to fear. And what is there to fear in that which can be understood and controlled? The problems of modernity can be measured, assessed, and converted into probabilities. In a world where cause and effect are better understood than ever before, it seems like we should have a handle on most of our fears. Yet we find that in the Western world - the part of the world who thinks of themselves as the most advanced and scientific - fear reigns supreme. Whether you watch the news and take the temperature of the nation, whether you gather anecdotes from those in your community, or whether you simply look at rates of psychological/emotional issues and prescription drug use and drug abuse, you'll find that our world is one which is steeped in fear.
For each of our pregnancies, I wrote sonnets dedicated to our new child. I don't have too much to offer in the way of quilting or woodworking, so creating some sort of functional heirloom isn't an option for me. Instead, I thought I would craft some of the ideas I thought most important for my kids to understand when they grew up, and I decided to do this in sonnet format. While the structure is modeled around childish notions (ABC's, 123's, Colors, etc), the content is about morality, theology, and the like. They are definitely ideas the kids will have to grow into. I hope that one day my children can read my sonnets and reflections and take them into their own hearts as they wrestle with their humanity, with God, and with how they are going to move out in the world. Until they grow into that, I hope these works will be of use to at least one other strange person out there who would take the time to read about epistemology or metaphysics in an archaic, poetic format.
John Vanier, co-author of "Living Gently in a Violent World."
For most of my life I found the story of Adam and Eve perplexing for a number of reasons. Beside the talking snake, the seemingly silly command of God not to eat from a tree, or the woman being made out of Adam's rib - one of the most puzzling elements to me was our forebear's first response to sin. The first response wasn't to hide, to repent, or to run. Their response was a recognition of their nakedness. Talk about a weird story. But as I've learned more about the Bible, I have come to recognize that these odd details are often some of the most important details, because they indicate something profound. Such is the case with the nakedness of Adam and Eve.
We Christians think we have the Apostle Peter pegged. Of all Jesus's disciples we seem to have the most insight into Peter's thoughts and actions. He was clearly a very eccentric individual, prone to speaking before thinking and prone to ideas of grandeur. He is the disciple who first proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. He is the disciple who walked on water. He is one of two disciples who raced to Christ's tomb on Easter morning. Peter was always caught up in the action. And while he so apparently loved Jesus, Peter is most well known for his betrayal of our savior during Jesus's greatest hour of need. That act of betrayal seems to fit Peter's character pretty well. He is always so close to good, but ends up falling short. Peter's betrayal was just the last example in a string of near successes, but ultimate failures. Right after being the first disciple to declare Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus told Peter to "get behind me Satan," as Peter tempted Jesus to avoid the cross. Right after being the only disciple to walk on water, he began to sink because he focused on his circumstances rather than Jesus. And right after Peter declared that he would stand by Christ, he denied him three times. Peter's story is largely a story of "almosts." He almost got it right, but always messed things up somehow.
There are many directions I'd like to go with Peter's story. I think it's awfully sad that the disciple who trusted Jesus enough to recognize him as the Messiah and to trust him to walk on water gets such a bad reputation. But what I really want to focus on is how I think the whole denial story paints Peter as something he absolutely wasn't - a coward. I want to make a case for Peter's bravery, but even more than that, I want to make the case that the underlying issue with Peter's betrayal was much deeper than momentary fear. While there may have been some fear involved in Peter's denial of Christ, I think it's fairly clear that fear for his own wellbeing was not Peter's primary problem. So why do most of us think Peter was filled with fear? I think the fear narrative is easy for us to latch on to for a number of reasons, but most of all because if we say Peter's problem was fear, we in the West can subsequently disassociate ourselves from being in Peter's shoes. How often have we felt genuine fear for our lives because of our Christian beliefs? Almost every one of us would have to say "never." And so we never have to identify with a traitorous Peter who feared for his life. But as I will argue, Peter's reason for denying Christ should make us much more introspective about the ways we are constantly tempted to deny Christ in like manner. So let me make my case now for why I don't think Peter was a coward who feared for his life.
*The views and ideas on this site are in no way affiliated with any organization, business, or individuals we are a part of or work with. They're also not theological certainties. They're simply thinking out loud, on issues and difficulties as I process things.