Charlottesville and the acceptability of hate

I can’t look away from the news out of Charlottesville. The fact that there are actual swastika-waving Nazis marching armed through an American city just short-circuits my brain, and I find it hard to focus on anything else. There are gangs of white men in body armour beating black people with sticks. There is an Ohio-born terrorist who killed someone with his car. I am at a loss for words to express exactly how evil this ideology, this rhetoric, and these actions are — it should go without saying, though.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/7c67cb72-7fb1-11e7-b2b1-aeba62854dfa

I find the interviews with the white supremacists in this video particularly chilling – there are quotes about “our values are #1 our local white identity, #2 the free market, and #3 killing Jews” and “defending our southern culture, our white culture, our Christian culture”. I’m not southern, but I am white and Christian, and these men do not speak for me, or my culture, and anyone else who shares one of those identities should be willing to stand up and disown this toxic bigotry as well, in the strongest and most unequivocal possible terms.

Why, then, has the response of some white Christian leaders been so muted? President Trump’s first reply was “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides”. Now, yes, as near as I can tell, there were anti-fascist counter-protesters present who also came from out of town just as prepared for a brawl as the armed and armoured fascists. I tend to think that sort of violent response is misguided and counter-productive. Many of the counter-protesters were local, though (including Heather Heyer, the young lady who was killed by the terrorist), normal people upset about the hate walking the streets of their city. Regardless, to pretend “kill all the Jews” is somehow equivalent to “Nazi bigotry has no place in our public life” is just wrong, and using language like “many sides” that makes the sides sound equivalent is saying that this bigotry is normal. The white supremacists were shouting “Heil Trump”, and you can see plenty of red “Make America Great Again” hats in the video — they obviously think that Donald Trump is their man, and the fact that he won’t disown them says pretty clearly that he thinks they are his people too.

It’s not just the political leaders who have been oddly equivocal in their response to this outrage. Check out this response by Franklin Graham, respected Evangelical leader and son of Billy Graham:

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Notice how he seems more concerned about the white supremacists marching to defend a statue of a man who fought a war for the “right” to own people as property than for the very real physical danger the descendants of those slaves faced from a crowd of Klansmen, Nazis & heavily armed militiamen who had come to their town to march with torches. Notice how he mentions an invented “black racism” before the actual white racism on such blatant display.

Yes, many conservative leaders did specifically condemn the utterly despicable idea that being white somehow makes you intrinsically better than other people. Yes, Trump and Graham (and many other conservative leaders) did condemn hatred and bigotry (albeit in shamefully non-specific terms). The actual, literal, sign-carrying, Hitler-quoting Nazis thankfully remain a small minority, and no one with any significant power is willing to explicitly endorse them at this time. You don’t get a trophy for saying that Nazis are bad, though, it’s practically axiomatic.

What grieves and enrages me, though, is that it took Nazis and Klansmen marching through an American city with torches for religious and political conservatives to step up and say “this is the point where we say it has gone too far” (and some of them still then quibbled with an “… on both sides”). Donald Trump ran on a platform including “let’s build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, because they are rapists and criminals” and “let’s ban Muslims from entering our country”, and white evangelical Christians supported him by a 4:1 ratio. Those policies are why the bigots in Charlottesville are wearing MAGA hats, and while Donald Trump’s other supporters may not support those particular policies, they are by definition okay with them being part of the Trump package deal. Here in Canada, during the last election our sitting Prime Minister proposed a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” tip line, the obvious purpose of which was harassing members of religious minorities (there’s already a tip line for anything actually violent or criminal, it’s called 911). The government of Quebec proposed effectively banning visibly observant Muslims, Sihks, and Jews from the public service, and this was much more controversial than it should have been. The Nazis in Charlottesville did not just appear out of nowhere, they have always been among us, but the fact that they dare to show their faces in public is a scathing indictment of the normalcy and acceptability of their white supremacist ideology in our public discourse.

To any Christians reading this, I would like to propose a thought experiment — if you walked into your church or Bible study with one of the following positions, which would be more controversial: “We should put a transgender-friendly bathroom in our church” or “Our country should only take Christian immigrants from the war zones in the Middle East”. The answer to that says a lot about the values and view of God’s Kingdom held by a Christian community. By my reading, the Bible has an awful lot to say about taking care of foreigners and dispossessed people, and zilch to say about being transgender. In my experience, though, the Evangelical movement is extremely zealous about (perhaps even defined by) policing its left flank, yet surprisingly tolerant of exclusionary, un-Christian ideologies on its right. Publicly suggest that church dogma on gay people might be wrong, and you will swiftly have church leaders denounce you as a heretic and do their best to silence you (see: Eugene Peterson, World Vision, IVCF). Say any number of bigoted things about any number of minorities, and those same leaders will bend over backwards to try and justify, contextualize, and nuance it, if they’re not trying to wrap the bigotry up in a palatable Bible verse wrapper (see: #AllLivesMatter, “not electing a pastor-in-chief”, II Thes. 3:10 in the repeal & replace debate, residential school apologism). This isn’t all Christians, or all churches, but the North American church as a body has a serious problem with being more willing to hear and consider oppressors and bigots than people fighting for a basic level of human decency, civil rights, or in some cases basic security from physical assault. Until we as a church name and excise this cancer in our body, we will keep seeing white supremacists and other bigots marching under a banner of “Christian culture”, and that is flatly unacceptable.

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On September 11th

Most university freshmen this year don’t remember September 11th; it was fifteen years ago, they were toddlers. Those freshmen have grown up in a world of airport security theatre, a seemingly interminable chain of Western wars in the Middle East, and “Muslims” being the bogey-man unscrupulous politicians use to draw attention away from their own lack of achievements or vision. I was in middle school on that day in 2001; old enough to remember hearing the announcement in spelling class at my too-short, pastel-coloured desk and watching the endless loop of the tower falling on TV that evening, but not old enough to really remember what life was like before. I know enough history to know it wasn’t some mythical era of world peace shattered forever by one violent act – the Cold War ended around the time I was born, and I suspect children of that previous generation could tell similar stories of growing up under the threat of mutually assured destruction.

The thing I remember most about those early days was the uncertainty, and the fear that came with it – terrorism used to be something that happened “somewhere else” (to be fair, most of it still does happen “somewhere else” than North America and Western Europe), but suddenly we in the safe and prosperous West had been attacked. Less than a month later we had invaded Afghanistan, the first campaign in the (still unresolved) “War on Terror”. Given that most of the wars you learn about as a child were between roughly equal powers, childish logic demanded that the swiftly forming international coalition be matched by a similarly powerful opposing coalition, leading to World War III, global nuclear devastation, and the End Times (I read too much Left Behind at that age).

Happily, my worst fears did not come to pass, and I was able to grow up to write high school civics papers on whether the cost in civilian and combatant lives was justified, read science magazine discussions about the de-humanizing effects of drone warfare, see internet memes about “Gulf Wars II” and “iRaq, by Apple”, and listen to and participate in the perennial political debates about our ongoing military action in the Middle East. The War on Terror has been part of the setting of my entire adolescence and adulthood, and yet oddly removed from my personal experience. Some of my countrymen died in the initial act of terrorism, and others have died and killed on foreign soil on my behalf in the years since, but I don’t know any of them personally, so my perception of the War on Terror has been strictly media-disseminated and filtered by political and ideological spin. To the extent that things which one can personally and directly observe feel more “real” than things that one can’t, the only “reality” to me of the post-9/11 state of the world is the pervasive fear about it I see around myself (and sometimes in myself).

It may be terribly trite, but I do not think this fear has made us our best selves. The Bible tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18) – love is self-sacrificial, whereas fear is driven by the inherently selfish instinct to preserve oneself. I think the converse is also true, that fear drives out love – we cannot act in love, sacrificing ourselves for others when we’re living in a state of fear for our own safety. This kind of fear-driven thinking is particularly marked in the recent rise in overt anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. We in the West bear some responsibility for the flood of refugees knocking at our borders (Middle Eastern politics has not been simple any time in recent memory, but a decade-plus occupation by a foreign military force does not seem like a stabilizing factor to me), but yet our response collectively and individually has been in places shockingly miserly, with overblown concerns about strengthening our already sufficiently exhaustive immigration controls, and rhetoric about “stolen jobs” that makes no economic sense – the economy is not a zero-sum game where someone winning means that someone else has lost, and an influx of working-age adults with the dedication to escape a war zone should lead to economic growth, making everyone better off (I predict Germany’s generous welcome of refugees will have paid off quite handsomely in ten years or so). I wish the Levitical command to love the foreigner residing among you and treat them as well as native-born citizens (Lev. 19:34) got as much play as some of the others.

Regardless of creed, I think most of us would agree that the great project of humanity is to build a better world, and also that fear, persecution, and insensitivity to the pain of others do not have a place in that better world. Terrorism, by definition, creates fear, but once created that fear is built upon, sometimes by people mutually reinforcing each others’ fear, sometimes by unscrupulous men and women looking to gain personal advantage from others’ fear. If the fifteen-year “War on Terror” has taught us anything I think it is that terror cannot be fought with bombs and that our own fears cannot be sated by making others afraid of us. Our wars have bred reprisals, our own fears compounded and multiplied by the effects of our fear-based responses. The problems of war and global terror are too big for any of us to solve, but that should not stop us from choosing love over fear in what ways we can, from building the better world where we are, from moving the needle in hopes that our children or theirs will be able to grow up in a world that is not as defined by fear as ours is.

God’s Word, His Church & His Drama

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Amazon.ca

Over vacation this spring I read Glenn R. Paauw’s Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well. It’s a book about the Bible, what it is, and what it isn’t, and how what we (consciously or unconsciously) think the Bible is effects what we do with it, and how we live it out. Paauw has what I think can properly be called a high view of the Bible, and a significant portion of his book is dedicated to a critique of what he sees as distortions in the form and use of the Bible by the modern Western church, and the distortions of church practice that result. However, this is not a carping book of “back in the 1400’s, people did church right!”; for each critique, Paauw provides a Biblically grounded view of what the Bible and the church should be, and the mission God has us on. Paauw describes a Bible which is deep and rich, with more to offer than scattered, out-of-context verses, a Bible which is deeply grounded in and concerned with the real and present human concerns of its original recipients, and a Bible which tells the story of a personal God and his relationship with his people, as a collective body as well as individuals. From this Bible, “saved from ourselves” as it were, he tells the story of a Church, that, like the God she follows, is not removed from the world, but deeply and presently concerned with its redemption, a Church that, like Jesus, is fully and vibrantly and life-givingly alive and human as it acts out that redemption, and a Church that acts and lives in deep relationship between each member of her body and with her God.

The picture I think will stay with me the most is in the key passage of this book (in the middle, as in the Jewish style), where Paauw describes the story of history as a play – an improvised drama, with God as both the director and the key actor, played out on the stage of “the heavens and the earth”. In this drama, the opening acts have already been played, the conflict and characters established, and the climactic resolution of the plot accomplished in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and the story of all this is the script of what has gone before, recorded in our Scriptures. What is left, then, is the final act, the working out of Christ’s climactic resolution in its fullness, and here is the part that belongs to the church. We, like all of our spiritual forebears, are improvising the script as we go along, but we know the major themes, we know where the story is going, and most importantly, we know the Director, and he guides us just as he has guided his actors throughout his story, as we can read in the pages of his word.

To conclude my review, I think this is going to be one of those rare and special books that change how I look at the world, and I would encourage any of you to give it a read as well (though my copy is an ebook, so unfortunately I can’t lend it out).

Ceasefire in the Culture Wars

I am so tired of fighting the culture wars (on either side), so tired of the antagonism, the enmity, of putting good, well-meaning people on the other side of a pitched argument rather than having a discussion where we can learn from each other. The us-versus-them framing of so many political and social issues is toxic, kills dialogue, and reduces our opponents from fully realized people to hollow stereotypes.

The real tragedy of the culture wars is that I think each side has a lot to offer the other – to be rather blunt, I think that modern secular liberalism does a better job listening to, loving, and serving the poor, the disenfranchised, and the ignored than significant parts of the Christian church do, and that this service is a core part of Christ’s mission, and thus the mission of his Church. James says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27, NIV) – the action of right religion should be in supporting those in need of it, the “orphans and widows” of the world who lack other supports. On the flip side, I think Christianity has a lot to offer the various social justice movements – even in this rather post-Christian Western society, we have a large body of generous, engaged people who follow a redeemer God, who believe in a world that is both broken and being made whole, and who want to be part of making this world right, as part of the way we follow and imitate our God. I don’t pretend that Christians have always been on the side of redemption – to borrow one historical example, we have to balance out our William Wilberforces fighting for the abolition of slavery with all the Christian pastors who spoke out against Martin Luther King Jr. That said, Christianity does have its social justice warriors, men and women who express their passion for God and the work of his Kingdom through fighting against injustices in the world, and I think that the people and the energy and the resources the Church puts into these causes could be fruitfully allied with secular movements for justice.

Now, I suspect some of my Christian brothers and sisters reading this are thinking “but what about that ‘keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ part – aren’t we supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of it’?”. I would respond to this that God’s work isn’t always done by his people – just look at the Good Samaritan, who wasn’t Jewish, but was doing God’s work – and that “the world” which we are called to not be “of” is a system of values which is self-serving and self-focused, not people doing God’s work for reasons other than that it’s God’s work. The James passage I cited earlier is followed immediately by an admonition to serve the poor, and another passage on “in the world, but not of it” reads as follows: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (I John 2:15-17, NIV). I think it’s really key here that “the world” is defined in terms of self-centeredness, discontent, and pride: those are things that followers of God should eradicate from their lives. Contrasted to this, though, is the will of God, which Christians are called to do; I would argue that doing the will of God doesn’t always happen within the walls or programs of the church, and that Christians are just as called to do God’s will when we find it outside our churches as when we find it inside.

In saying this, it is not my intention to bring the culture wars inside the church, but rather to call for a ceasefire. The antagonism saps everyone’s energy, and gets in the way of both serving God and making the world better (which can very well be the same thing). The stance of us-versus-them divides people who should be allies from each other. As Christians, we are “in the world” – we are part of “the culture”, and our aim should not be to remove ourselves from the rest of our culture, or to defeat it, but to serve God as part of that wider culture, and through our involvement in it. I don’t want to capitulate in the culture wars, but I don’t want to win either, because any victory in this war is a scorched-earth victory that is no good for anyone. Rather, let us retire our culture warriors, have peace, fix the brokenness in the world and serve God, and let us do it together with our brothers and sisters, both in the Church and in the rest of the human race.

Countercultural like Jesus

In a world where Christianity has been “the establishment” for centuries, wielding some form of political and social power as either a movement of individuals or as more organized bodies, it is odd to think of Jesus as countercultural. But he was – he hung out with all the wrong people, he said the wrong things, he wasn’t respectable.

In Luke 7:34 Jesus is accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (NIV). Now, the tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying empire oppressing the Jewish people, and often extortionists to boot, and in the very next paragraph a prostitute (one of the “sinners”) spends dinner kissing Jesus’ feet, and these were the people Jesus spent time with, because these were the people he had come to save and the people the culture of the day had let slip through the cracks. When Jesus is called out on the people he associates with, he responds with “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32, NIV). I find this personally challenging, because it’s not something I do as well as I should, but if you want to be countercultural like Jesus, that involves a lot of time with the marginalized people of society, the people everyone else forgets unless they’re hating them, the ones who aren’t like you.

Jesus’ followers had some pretty radical political backgrounds as well – Matthew was a former tax collector, one of the aforementioned collaborators with the Roman empire, while some scholars believe one of the twelve disciples, Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:16), was a member of the radical Jewish independence movement of the time. I would love to be able to sit in on the political debates they must have had while travelling, I expect they would have been spirited. Jesus himself was executed for the crime of treason, claiming to be a king, yet when Pilate pressed him on this issue Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) – yes, he was (and is) a king, but his Kingdom is a bigger thing than any earthly nation, and it’s his own Kingdom Jesus was most radically political about. Anyone who followed me on Facebook throughout the last election knows I can be as partisan as the next guy (or more so), but being countercultural like Jesus means putting his Kingdom first, and not letting your “red” or “blue” political team get in the way of seeing the redemptive work of that Kingdom done.

It’s easy to make Jesus sound like some sort of arch-liberal hippie – “big on social justice”, “unpopular political views”, “beard and sandals” – but his religious teachings were really more extreme in their conservatism. The righteous were never righteous enough for Jesus; in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20, NIV), then follows that up with six “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you” pairs where he lays out where the religious laws should be even stricter to meet that standard of surpassing righteousness, finishing with “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). After setting up this exacting standard of righteousness, though, he says “seek first [your heavenly Father’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) and later “seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:7) because “your Father in heaven [gives] good gifts to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11). I think as Christians (and also as a broader culture) we tend to think that God’s righteousness and his grace are opposed, that his righteousness needs to be bent to offer grace, or that his morality acts as a limit on how far grace can go. I think to be countercultural like Jesus, we need to know that our heavenly Father is perfect, that as part of that perfection he gives us gifts of grace, and that our own righteousness is one of those gifts, given freely to all who seek it. Grace and righteousness, far from being opposed to each other, are in fact so inextricably tied together that neither can exist without the other.

As a final note, I’d like to say that the important part of being countercultural like Jesus isn’t being countercultural, it’s being like Jesus. Acts 17:16-34 tells of Paul’s message to the Athenians – the account opens with “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v.16, NIV). Paul finds himself in an idolatrous, sinful culture, but look at how he starts his message: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” (v. 22) – in this sinful culture, he has found a thread of virtue, and he uses that thread (thin though it is) to lay out an account of God’s history of creation and redemption, and to point his listeners towards the full expression of that virtue of piety in service and obedience to the one true God. Like in ancient Athens, following Jesus should look very different than the surrounding culture, but also like in Athens, we should be able to find aspects of God’s original good design in the people and the culture surrounding us, and I would encourage you to affirm those and to use them to point people towards Jesus, like Paul did.