Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where religion and politics collide -- intro

I've been posting a lot lately about religion and politics, but not together. Yet of course they're very linked. Look at how many things they have in common:

1) People get very emotional about both
2) Both are polarizing issues, creating an "us vs. them" dynamic
3) Both are subjective, creating a system where endless debate can take place with no one ever definitively "winning"

Here in Texas we have a very specialized style of religously political worldviews, where people blend their faith with politics in an amazing way. I think that if Jesus came back tomorrow, many Texans would assume that he:

1) Would be a staunch Republican and would denounce liberals
2) Would get heavily involved in the political system
3) Would be American-centric, naturally, because we are the Christian nation
4) Would bring along George Washington, team up with Chuck Norris, and blast the Muslims into the fires of hell, ushering in a golden age of American rule through the power of God

Okay, so I went a little far with that last one. But it's not far from the kinds of things I hear down here. What I want to address, though, is points 1 through 3.

Jesus lived in a time of political oppression. The Romans weren't the worst rulers in the history of the world but they weren't perfect either. The murder of Jesus, the stoning of Stephen, the jailings of Paul... all of these happened under forms of Roman law. Slavery was legal, as was prostitution -- two things we have outlawed in our country.

Yet Jesus made a fuss of none of that. Rather than appearing staunchly conservative in his political views, he appeared to be utterly apathetic about politics. He focused on the small, the local, the personal, and said the government serves its purposes but it can't fix problems of the heart.

Fast forward to today. I often hear it said, either directly or indirectly, that to call myself a Christian must automatically mean I'm in a certain political party, with certain political views. I struggle to see the basis for this. For example:

-- Benevolence and giving to the needy are good, biblical principles. Yet somehow the very idea of governmental wealth redistribution (a.k.a. tiered taxation, welfare, etc...) is anti-Christian and it just coddles lazy people.

-- Killing and murder are bad things, and human life is highly valued in the bible. Yet somehow if a government official speaks about peace and troop withdrawals, he or she is a weakling and doesn't have the guts to fight evil and kill our enemies, the way a good Christian would.

-- The bible says we should speak in loving truth to one another, yet somehow today it's okay to spread vicious rumors and even outright lies about people if it's for the greater good of getting "our people" elected into office.

I think some of these things can be traced back to our picture of America and its roots. Some people of faith seem to think that we have always been a conservative Protestant country, with the founding fathers almost being a roomful of Baptist ministers, invoking Christianity into the very fabric of our union.

It's just not true. Here are a few tidbits, but my next post will cover our nation's heritage in more detail:

-- "In God We Trust" didn't appear on our currency until 100 years after our country began
-- The pledge of allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist preacher, but even he didn't include the words "Under God" in the pledge. Those words weren't added until 1954.
-- Francis Bellamy was a Socialist.

Several weeks ago at work I received an email describing the many ways we are a Christian nation. I took some time and debunked the entire email, showing point-by-point how it was filled with falsehoods. I will show that email in my next post.

I do not do this purely as a critique or an attack -- my intentions are positive. I ultimately want to focus on some of the things Christians may be able to rally around and support, and how they can be a force of unity in a politically-polarized time. And I want it all to be based on historical truth, not fiction.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Forgiveness (continued)

I've been thinking more about the topic of forgiveness. My last post mentioned how shocked I was that my opinions, and my experiences, of forgiveness were so different than many of the members in my bible class at church.

Eventually I realized that their opinions were exactly what my own would have been a few years ago. And that the way we feel about forgiving each other is inexorably tied to how we think God forgives. Jesus said that the two greatest commands were:

1) Love God with all you've got
2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

He said everything hangs on these. And they're melded together. Whatever I think about God will inevitably shape how I treat my fellow man. If I think the God of the Old Testament is waiting to send fire on the sinners, I might forcefully protest at a solider's funeral or a gay wedding and get the warning out. I become a smaller, flawed extension of the God I perceive. That's what many Christians mean when they quote things like Ephesians 3 and say that God is "at work within us".

So I considered that if I think God will send the vast majority of people to eternal torment, how will that impact the way I forgive other people here on earth? Can I truly "give it up to God" and offer pure, total forgiveness to people if I think that the creator of the universe is going to punish? Or am I merely waiting on them to "get theirs" when judgment day comes?

I can't answer for anyone else. I don't know where my bible class participants sit on this issue. But for me, when I thought God would punish in eternity, I could never really 100% forgive people here on earth. Couldn't do it.

Then I thought about some biblical examples of forgiveness, from Jesus himself. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it got me thinking:

#1 -- The Adulteress

In John chapter 8 Jesus is teaching in the temple courts when the religious leaders bring a woman to him. They claim the woman is caught in adultery, and according to Mosaic law she must be killed by stoning. Jesus responded at first with silence and started to write in the dirt, but eventually he uttered the famous "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Everybody left, ashamed. Later he looked up and the woman was still standing there, surely shocked that she was still alive. The scene ends with this exchange:

Jesus: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
Woman: "No one, sir."
Jesus: "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

#2 -- The Murderers

In Luke 23 we see the death of Jesus. Correction -- the murder of Jesus. He was in his early 30s and was apparently healthy until being severely beaten and hung on a cross to suffocate. And here was the Messiah, the son of God, the blameless one, being brutally killed for no justifiable reason. Surely if there was an unforgiveable sin, this would be it. The God of thunder would come charging in. Retribution would be swift and brutal. Justice would be served. So what did Jesus say?

"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

#3 -- The Doubters

So Jesus was killed. And in the events leading up to his death, his disciples, his closest friends, disappeared from the picture. Most we just don't hear about during and immediately after the crucifixion, except that John was near the cross while Jesus died. And that Peter was elsewhere in the city, denying that he even knew Jesus.

In John 20 we get a glimpse of the disciples three days after Jesus was buried, and they're noted to be locked in a house, fearing for their lives. Not exactly a stirring tribute.

Jesus appears to them multiple times and the final time he asks them to meet him on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28 notes that even now, when they saw him, they doubted.

These men had every possible advantage of belief. They'd been with Jesus 24/7 for three years. They'd seen him face-to-face and heard his direct teachings. They'd seen him alive again after being killed. Yet still they doubted.

And if there was any sense of repentance necessary here, any requirement to make things right, Matthew 28 doesn't have a record of it. Jesus just asked his friends to get to work.


One thing strikes me as a common theme across these stories -- none of the screwed up people actually asked for forgiveness. They just received it. Yes, Jesus told the woman to leave her life of sin, but after he said he didn't condemn her. Forgiveness came first, then a new life could begin.

My former picture was that I had to repent and follow the steps to salvation, in order to receive forgiveness. That was how I saw God interacting with me. So in turn, when it was my time to forgive someone who had hurt me, they had to ask for it first. My forgiveness was conditional, naturally, because I thought God's was too. How could I hold myself to a higher standard than what I thought God would provide?

I admit that this might be merely my own personal weakness. Others may be able to forgive others ceaselessly in this life, even if they think God will condemn them in the next. But for me, I had to remember those greatest commands, and that above all I am to love my neighbor as myself. To forgive them without ceasing. And if my treatment of people depends on my picture of God, I chose to picture God providing forgiveness without ceasing. They my own forgiveness flowed to others naturally.

I may be wrong about all this. Other bible verses can surely be cited to conflict with the three stories noted above. But my perspective has helped me better fulfill the greatest commands, and I think that is a good thing.

Bottom line: When the most heinous act in history was being accomplished, even though the murderers showed no sign of remorse, Jesus said to God, "forgive them." I believe God said, "Done."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Example of my outsider role

Building on the last post, I thought I'd give you more insight into one of the ways I'm trying to serve as a helpful outsider -- my church. I recently attended a Wednesday night class, which isn't all that heavily attended (maybe 75 people, or 20% of the adult members).

The topic was forgiveness. As the class discussion developed I found that I disagreed with almost every single point that was being made, either by the teacher or the class members. It seemed like a loving and open forum, so I began gently sharing my perspective and seeing what would come out of it. All in all it went pretty well -- here are some examples:

Class point: We can forgive a person, but we don't forget. In the future we will be more cautious with someone who has hurt us.

My response: I understand what you're saying, and in truth that's probably the way I live. But Jesus said that if someone hits me in the face, I'm not supposed to forgive and then stay at arms' length away from the person. I'm supposed to turn my other cheek, to make myself vulnerable, to act as if the first punch never happened and throw myself right back out there, believing the best of people. I get the point that we go into self-protection mode after somebody hurts us. I do that all the time. But I don't think that's what Jesus taught.

Class point: I cannot forgive someone for the wrong they've done to someone else. So if my friend lies to his parents, and he comes to me grieving and repentant, it's not my place to forgive. He has to go straight to his parents, those who were wronged, to make it right.

My response: I don't agree. When someone comes to us in confession and heartache, they know intuitively that my forgiveness won't make the situation go away. That friend will know that he has to talk to his parents. But I still have a role as the listener, and I think that role is to draw near and offer the idea that forgiveness and acceptance are possible no matter what kind of damage was done. My role is to say, "I forgive you for that. There is nothing you can do that will stop me from loving you as my friend." They need that. Then of course at some point they should begin the healing process with the parties who were involved. But my acceptance of my friend is not conditional on whether other people are forgiving him. I forgive him, and I accept him and love him anyway.

Class point: We should forgive because we are not the judge -- God is. If we can just forgive people in this life, God will take care of the justice in the life to come.

My response: I don't think this concept of delayed justice serves us well, and in my experience it's just not the way the world works. If I cause a lot of pain for someone else, I pay for that. Here. In this life. I'd guess that God built this law into the universe, like the law of gravity. When you cause pain you get pain.

Take the Nazi officer we discussed earlier (the teacher opened class with a story of a man who had killed hundreds of Jews, then on his deathbed asked for forgiveness from a nurse). Even if the nurse forgave him for it, there's nothing cheap in that type of confession. There's no way that the man ruthlessley killed families and then coasted along happily for 40 years until one day he decided to repent. My guess is that he lived an absolutely tortured life after what he'd done.

(The teacher verified that indeed the man had been in constant torment over his guilt)

Again, in my limited experience this is the way our world seems to work. When you cause pain, you receive pain. That's why I can offer forgiveness to someone -- they're already in agony over what they've done. Who am I to add to that by witholding forgiveness?

Class point: If we don't forgive people, we suffer more than they do. Forgiveness is as much for us as it is for them, so that we can move on with no baggage. This is why we should forgive.

My response: I agree that when we forgive people, we ourselves receive benefit. But I don't think this is the reason to do it -- that approach sounds pretty selfish and I don't think it'd actually work in a practical sense. If I'm only forgiving someone so that I'll feel better, is that actually the spirit we're supposed to have? Is that genuine forgiveness, if it's about me?

At that point I stopped my comments because I couldn't quite get a feel for how people were taking them. It was interesting, though, that later on the teacher told a story about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monks who continue to undergo persecution from China. One monk told the Dalai Lama that after 20 years of being held captive, he suddenly began to be very afraid. "Of what?", the Dalai asked. The monk responded, "I was afraid that I was about to lose my compassion for the Chinese."

How ironic that in this class filled with people who've faithfully attended church for decades, the most Christian thing I heard during the entire hour was a quote from a Buddhist!

My goal is not to nitpick or cause trouble -- I want to follow up every disagreement with a proposal for something positive. That's what I tried to do in class, and that's what I commit to doing here in the blog. If I have a criticism of something, I must offer a better alternative or keep my mouth shut.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My pattern as an outsider

My lack of writing has been eating at me, so here goes nuthin.

In the comments of my last post one of my friends teasingly called me a "fence-sitter". It was just a joke, but like the best jokes, there was a ring of truth to it. The fact remains that in many of the very volatile areas of debate (politics, religion, money) I tend to sit on the sidelines and find at least something in common with just about every perspective. The more I thought about it the more I realized I've always been that way.

In high school the big deal is which "crowd" you are a part of. Jock, nerd, goth, bimbo... they all have a crowd. I never picked a crowd and instead lived as a floater, a nomad. One day I'd eat lunch with the jocks, next day I'd eat with the brains, then move to the funny table. I was very good at making acquaintances with everybody, but I never had any really close friends. There was always a distance there... I sat on the fence and watched the cliques form.

In churches I've seen huge battles between the "conservatives" and the "liberals". Some of these happened while I was serving in a formal church role, but even then I'd sort of sit outside the debate, hoping we could just love each other and let it go.

Most of the personality tests I've taken (and as a part of business school, I took many) showed me to be a "chameleon", a person who switches among all personality types depending on the setting. Everybody does this at some level, I think, but I can almost reinvent myself from moment to moment, conversation to conversation. It's fun but it always leaves me at the edges, never completely invested in any one social group.

The fact that I'm on the edge, or on the fence, or on the sidelines, doesn't mean that I don't participate. I just participate in my own way, often a very subtle way, so subtle that some people may interpret as missing the game.

I think the world needs people who pick a team and go full-steam ahead with their perspectives. People like that have a way of getting big things done. And the people on the other team, moving full-steam ahead in the opposite direction, have a way of tempering the first group and keeping them from going too far, too fast. Republican/Democrat checks and balances are one example of this dynamic at work.

At the same time, I think the world needs people who don't fit into the main two camps. People who who don't care about picking a team but love analyzing the game and identifying trends in the sport as a whole. That's me.

The two games that I'm watching right now are politics and religion. I'm seeing huge battles in each. And in neither case am I going to pick a team. But I think I still have something to contribute.