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!
I've always heard that it becomes much easier to understand our relationship with God after becoming a parent. I continue to find a great deal of truth in this. Right now Catalina and I have a hectic life. We have four kids under six, with two boys who are at peak craziness, and a five year old teenager. The big word running around in my mind the past few months has been obedience, because it is very clear to me that my children's obedience could significantly change how life runs right now. How do I develop obedience in my kids? If I could figure that out, it would make my life a whole lot easier. I have been thinking long and hard about how to handle my relationship with my kids, which has also begun to get me thinking about how my obedience (or disobedience) to God may have a similar appearance and patterns.
Obedience had always seemed like a cut and dry thing to me. If someone is in authority, you obey them because they said so. It's just the way it is. But as a parent, the anger which wells up inside me when my children disobey indicates to me that there is a lot more to obedience than some simple mathematical equation. When my kids straight-up look me in the eyes and disobey, I am infuriated. I have done a lot of soul searching on that, because the way I feel anger inside me is very clearly not good. It's not a righteous anger. It's a selfish anger. I recognize that in disobedience, my kids didn't merely fail a moral math equation, they offended me. Obedience is personal. Why is that?
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.
Cynicism has always been very alluring to me. There’s something about having low expectations that feels good. For one thing, a hardcore cynic doesn’t mind being proven wrong. Who would have a problem with a situation turning out better than expected? It is also helpful that when you have low standards, you find that the standards are frequently exceeded. Now I must emphasize here that I am not advocating for extreme cynicism. For its one positive aspect there are a multitude of burdens that cynicism creates. It is unappealing to people, fosters a lack of motivation towards progress, complains constantly, quells hope, etc. But for all of its faults, I am finding my cynicism to be a wonderful inoculation to one of the greatest threats our society currently faces – unfounded optimism.
[To hear the extended podcast episode on this topic, check out our episode here].
Every week, from thousands of churches across the United States, requests for help are sent out. Food pantries are in need of workers and food. Women's shelters need volunteers. Children are in need of being fostered or adopted. Families are in need of financial assistance as they try to pay medical bills. And the list could go on. While the church does much good in the world, many requests go unanswered, and needs are left unfulfilled. And though I'm sure it's true that the church could do better, we also recognize that we will never be able to meet every need in such a fallen world. Decisions have to be made about how to use our time and resources in the way that best loves God and others.
We all live in the real world, but at some point in time, we venture into possible worlds. Maybe you're a lover whose excursion into the alternate universe takes you to a place where you ended up getting married to your high school sweetheart instead of breaking up. Or maybe you're an adventurer who ponders the possible future where you journey to a faraway, remote, undiscovered planet. Or maybe you like to throw off all semblance of realism and you place yourself in a world where dragons or wizards exist. I don't know which world you love to enter, as there are an infinite amount to choose from. But I know I can tell you a world in which you will never, nor can ever enter, even in your imagination - the impossible world.
I can guarantee you that you have never - even in your imagination - visited a world where there are square circles or married bachelors. While one could conceive of a world in which dragons existed, since there is nothing in our world indicating that these creatures are logically impossible, we cannot imagine a world where square circles exist. Each, by definition, excludes the other. Philosophers love thinking about impossible worlds, though they can never enter them. This is because impossible worlds are an extremely useful tool we can use to test out the viability of an idea. Running an idea through this test doesn't prove the idea is true, only that it could be true. However, if an idea fails this test, we can remove it from the realm of possibilities and learn important information from it. So let's explore some worlds together by addressing a question I had recently: Is there a possible world where fallen humanity exists, but Jesus does not die for them?
Movies, stories, and songs are a great way to gather insight into the viewpoints of others and ourselves. They are wonderful, small windows through which we can look, which hopefully pique our attention to explore the philosophers who have dug much deeper than most of the artists. These sources of entertainment also tend to provide us with glimpses of popular thought. Exploring media allows us to see worldviews which are present in our culture or worldviews which are being presented to shape and change culture. One of the topics I have seen come up more frequently, as of late, is that of free will. Neuroscience, psychology, and biology have all been advanced greatly over the past few decades and they appear to be culminating into a conclusion that our lives are determined by our genes and our circumstances. In the minds of many, such a conclusion would overthrow religion. Therefore, it is important that we as Christians know what we believe about the will.
*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.