Death and Unanswerable Questions

2014 was the year my father died, something we’re still coming to terms with. His death was particularly hard to make sense of, because everything felt so unfinished. It’s not just that he was pretty young (under 60) and seemed healthy enough. Dad took some selfish and inappropriate actions in May that caused a crisis in my parents’ marriage. My last post was mostly an attempt to answer my despair and anger over the situation, trying to reconfigure my anguished “I NEVER want to be like him” into some kind of statement of what I wanted to stand for, some kind of affirmation to fill up the void left by repudiation. Family meetings were held, Dad expressed a wish to fix things, appointments with mental health professionals were made. And then, suddenly, he was gone. The timing was so paradoxical that almost all of us initially assumed suicide, but no, it was just a weird medical accident: no resolution, no answers, no teleological purpose written in the night sky, no meaning.

I wrote the following piece less than a week after his death, trying to put my emotions in some kind of order. It’s still a process, I still feel guilty sometimes for missing my grandmother, who died 2 years ago, more than him. But life isn’t some big-screen narrative where all the loose ends get tied up within ninety minutes. What I do know is that healing is sometimes helped by a little honesty and transparency, hopefully here with the right balance between obscurantism and oversharing.

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Early one Thursday evening, perhaps six hours before I learned that my father was dead, I watched my then-11-month daughter playing with a wind-up music box. Our little one is not exactly a calm baby–she is always crawling toward the next toy, pulling herself up on furniture or diving headfirst off the edge, loudly telling us what she thinks about the world as if her language is completely obvious and logical (which to her it is, I suppose).

But for a few minutes, she was transfixed by the tune of her music box (some timeless masterpiece like “Jingle Bells”), rocking gently from side to side, singing softly under her breath, totally enraptured. These are the kind of moments that fill up a parent’s heart with love for no good reason whatsoever.

At the same time, I was thinking about my dad. I had no mystical premonition of the news to come, no idea that something in his body had already failed catastrophically. Rather, for several weeks I had been caught up in my frustration over his latest stupid mistake, something that was threatening to destroy a marriage of 33 years.

 

I have always envied those people who seemed to have a loving, close relationship with their father. To be brutally honest, my dad was just plain bad at relating to his children (and most people) on a personal level: talking to us, sharing wisdom, asking questions, getting at what made us tick. His blindness prevented him from fulfilling a lot of your typical “dad functions”–taking us fishing, teaching us how to ride a bike or drive stick-shift or change our oil–but I always felt like he could have made up for that by being a moral role model. The anger issues he dealt with for the first half of my life (which resulted in severe screaming matches but fortunately never any kind of physical abuse) certainly didn’t help my impressions of him, although to his credit he really did undergo a kind of healing about fifteen years ago that severely blunted the edge of his rage. I only clued in later in life to some of the mental illness and past trauma that had partly made him who he was, but by then it seemed hard to relate to him with any emotion warmer than pity. When I thought of his legacy, I could only seem to point to many of the traits that I most disliked about myself. Passivity. Laziness. Social awkwardness. The inability to carry on a satisfying conversation. Coming across as intelligent by mastering rote facts instead of critically analyzing them. Blundering over words.

But despite my frustrations with Dad, the way he had seemed to squander so many opportunities to connect with people or do something with his life, I couldn’t help but circle back to my daughter’s response to her music box. As she listened to it, she felt secure and purely in the moment, interacting with something beautiful, something that made her happy. She felt loved, even if she doesn’t have the abstract capacity to understand what that means yet, and from that place of stability, of fundamental safety, she was able to experience a sense of wonder. This wonder, or what one psychologist has theorized as “flow,” doesn’t have to emerge from a sense of love, but those two things are among the most necessary ingredients in “the good life,” something I’ve been trying to figure out for quite a while. Could my dad have experienced such feelings himself, or even the kind of tenderness I feel toward my daughter?

A scene from a South African film called “Tsotsi” has stuck in my mind for years. In it, a thuggish teen points a gun at a crippled beggar, a character portrayed in the film as truly pathetic. “Why should I let you live?” he asks. (Subtext: you don’t contribute anything to the world, and your existence is desperately unhappy.) The beggar’s halting justification for his own survival–“Sometimes, I like how the wind feels warm on my face.”

At some level, we’re all faltering through, trying to find that warm wind. We know that “the night is dark and full of terrors,” but we clutch forward, believing that the day will return and bring with it some small joy. We construct coherent systems of thought and tell ourselves that there is reason to hope that everything will be well in the end, but ultimately we don’t really know. We understand much less than we think we do, and at the best moments we’re not all that different from babies experiencing simple joys for the first time, without even a vocabulary to describe what it is that’s happening, but just feeling loved and safe, perfectly situated for wonder.

At least, most of us start out that way, and then bump up against others blundering through, maybe a little more aggressively than we’d like, trying to snatch their own piece of the light; we bruise, develop calluses and rhino skin, forget that many of our experiences of wonder are better when they’re shared, all the while learning how to push others out of our way to get what we want.

My dad blundered around more than many. Honestly, if I thought that I was ever going to cause as much pain to my wife and family as he did, I’d just give up on life now (yes, I’m still young and naive). While he probably didn’t fully intend the consequences that his actions brought, he still made many horrible and selfish choices, over an extended period of time, progressively warping his character and leaving us still scratching our heads in disbelief. But he too was once a dearly beloved darling baby with parents who thrilled over his every move as if it was world record-setting; later, he too experienced that sense of love, that sense of wonder, probably not least as he felt my own tiny 11-month hands in his own. And there is at least some part of him in me and in my baby girl. I wish I had gotten over myself sooner and tried to show him, in a way that he would have understood, the love that we all desperately crave but are usually too arrogant and stupid to reach for.

Dad, you were deeply flawed, and my anger toward you is honestly still greater than my sadness over your death, but I promise to carry on what good there was in you by loving Rosa unreservedly and unashamedly.

A Manifesto

-to bring life into the world. To oppose the Powers, to oppose death, pestilence, rot. To take the graveyard’s humus and plant a new sapling.

-to search for truth in all places, where least expected. Not to accept easy answers. To reject, no matter how well-footnoted, any answers that justify oppression, marginalization, meanness, complacency, prejudice, pettiness, selfishness. Not to stay in Omelas, not to walk away from Omelas, but to start tearing it down brick by fucking brick until we figure out a better way.

-to scream until my throat bleeds (bis der Hals kracht) for every child soldier, every rape victim, every crack baby, every refugee, every 4th-generation criminal, every passenger pigeon, every widow, every orphan, every alien, every leper, every beloved child of God rotting in a mass grave, every deluded boy from the sticks with blood on his hands who was only doing what they told him to, every girl trapped in a boy’s body, every burned library, every blown-up giant Buddha, every girl targeted for attending school.

-to render coal into diamonds, lemons into lemonade, mud into porcelain, shit into a flowering garden. To squeeze strange chords out of the rusted strings of my guitar. To wash and bandage my hands, and start all over again. To make all things new.

-to befriend Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man. Not to be colourblind, not to pretend we’re all the same. Not to ignore my own privilege.

-to search out the light shining through the billion trillion cracks found in everything.

-to hug Rosa.

-to look for the helpers, follow the healers, accept their feet of clay.

-to order the spicy items off the menu.

-to carve the tetragrammaton into sky and ocean, mountain and forest, plain and river. To bathe daily in the mystery of creation, of atomic physics, of black holes, of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

-to rage, rage against the dying of the light. To curse, to beg for mercy. To argue with God. To regret, to forgive, to hate, to love, to feel.

-to hold myself as complicit as the billionaire stockbroker or fat oligarch.

-to take step by failing step toward wholeness, reconciliation, redemption–further up and further in.

-to view everyone I meet as a potential friend, brother, sister, grandparent, niece, nephew.

-to glory in the stench of the “corpse flower” (Titan Arum).

-to oppose petty divides that would sunder us from our siblings, however they dress, whatever language they speak, whatever temple they burn incense in.

-to learn new songs always, preferably in languages I don’t speak.

-to delight in the soft fur of baby rabbits, to hold carefully tiny ducklings. To let the dolphins swim free. To consider my cat Jeoffrey, a servant of the living God duly and daily serving him.

-to recognize myself in what I hate most.

-to wake up from my slumber.

Teenage Thoughts on Triviality

Today’s offering is a blast from the past. I wrote this back in 2001, fresh out of high school, before blogs even existed (at least as far as I or most people knew). Actually, it was an entry for a newspaper writing contest, which I lost, probably due to being a pretentious git, as the following will likely make clear.

I’m not sure that teenage Matt really knew what the heck he was talking about, either. He was obviously terribly proud of himself for reading 19th-century Russian literature and felt an immense sense of superiority over those peons watching “Dawson’s Creek.” (At least he didn’t get his hands on any Ayn Rand…)

However, despite the curmudgeonly tone, I couldn’t help but reflect upon how many aspects of my basic worldview have remained stable since then. I’m still distressed by the triviality of many of our pursuits, which I think leads to passivity in the face of injustice. I also think we have a tendency to avoid the big questions due to a fear of admitting how bad things really are, and that even the kind of “awareness campaigns” (read: link-sharing) indulged in by those of us who pride ourselves on being socially aware are often a substitute for actual action. But most distressingly, I’m left wondering whether my writing has actually improved since I was eighteen.

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I Want my Brain Back, Please

Are people stupider these days? (Being a “young adult,” perhaps I have no authority to judge the state of affairs “these days,” lacking an abundance of “those days,” but allow me to be cocky and naïve.) The shorter answer: mmm, sorta. The longer: In a way, but they’re doing it on purpose, so it can’t totally be considered stupidity. Maybe the term of the moment is “self-deafened.”

Has anyone else noticed an overabundance of triviality in daily life? I speak not of the regular activities that make the average day “daily,” but of the overwhelming obsessions people develop to create the illusion of personality. Barring irregular events that rip a black hole in normalcy, life is mundane and predictable. So we cover it up by working on our builds, memorizing the Primetime lineup, becoming intimate with all the details behind the latest Hollywood breakup. Oh, everyone is a Trekkie at heart, a shameless nerd too afraid to face “the real world,” a creator of his or her personal universe. And life has become so rooted in black-and-white Kansas that tornadoes are about all we have left to look forward to.

Unconsciously sensing this inherent lack of progress, humanity seeks the sensation of motion. And it’s not difficult to find. Life’s hecticity factor is on the rise, replacing dial-up doldrums with high-speed cable hijinks. (Thank goodness, no more dancing penguins!) As more and more distractions come along to draw our attention, however, less and less time is doled out to each. (Show me a teenager who can sit through a seven minute song with no blistering guitar solo or hypnotic 1-2-3-4 beat, and I’ll show you someone who’s been playing violin since the age of 2.) And as less time is spent on each activity, everything becomes less important. We need more to fill the void, in ever-increasing numbers, preferably packaged with colour-coded accessories and a glitter pen. So kindergarteners parade on TV, demanding faster Internet connections. McDonald’s throws half a litre of melting ice cubes in your Coke and doubles your grease intake for a mere 50 cents extra. Libraries discard Dostoevsky and fill up on less mildewed Star Wars tie-ins. (But hey, at least we still have libraries.) Unfortunately, most of the people riding this roller coaster down a steepening hill don’t realize that amusement park rides always end up right back by the ticket booth, unless there’s an accident on the way. And Uncle Bozo is just a stupid old clown; he really has no idea how to steer the thing, even though he’s sitting up front.

OK, we get it already…

Most of this drive into madness is, nevertheless, somewhat purposeful. We recognize that we act like animals, existing solely to munch ‘n mate, as it were. But for the most part, that’s how we want it. Humankind has an instinctive aversion to moments of infinity. They come along, for sure, but the years diminish the worth of their eternity, allowing us to forget and go on with the numbers game.

HUMANITY NEEDS TO BE TALKED DOWN TO. It’s not because we’re stupid or shallow. It’s because we’re afraid to think over the big questions, having left them to the philosophers and scientists, and not appreciating the conclusions they’ve brought up. The bright confetti and fake diamonds we fill our nests with are distractions that allow us to avoid wondering what’s over the trees, or past the river. We’re not de-brained, just very small.

World Vision USA and the Gospel: What Bible are we Reading, Anyway?

I wasn’t going to comment on the World Vision USA hiring fiasco (for those who haven’t heard, the organization announced several days ago that it was going to start hiring married gay Christians, and then reversed its decision today after receiving severe backlash on the order of 2,000 cancelled child sponsorships), but I have found myself getting steadily more frustrated and I have to try to organize my thoughts somewhat. This will necessitate an attempt at laying out some of my core beliefs in a kind of partial credo.

Once again, the North American evangelical church has failed to demonstrate an understanding of “good news,” “gospel,” or “evangelion.”

As I interpret the Bible, Jesus’ mission is about drawing people into the reconciling work that is already being carried out by God in the world. Every day, everywhere, in the places where we least expect to find it.

The gospel message is about being given the choice to follow Jesus into the deepest and darkest corners of earthly existence, finding God at work there, and in some way contributing to the mission of reconciliation, that long moral arc that is leading slowly but inexorably toward justice. It is about slowly chipping away at our own selfish imperfections and being changed into humans who more closely resemble Jesus in self-sacrificial love, not fearing our own deaths because ultimately Jesus is Lord. God will triumph over injustice, as the dominant ways of the world–the ways of empire, of hierarchy, of power imbalances, of oppression, of “redemptive” violence–are destroyed. No, better than destroyed–somehow turned upside down, and yes, even reconciled.

To somehow reduce this message–this gospel–into a ticket into heaven, or a list of sins that we are to avoid, is deeply unfortunate.

To turn away people who wish to participate in the work of reconciliation is also deeply unfortunate. One’s personal sexual predilections have absolutely no bearing on the kind of work World Vision does.*

I have expressed this many times, and I’ll probably keep doing it forever: if anyone thinks that the Bible is primarily about sexual relationships, or that they’re even a topic of secondary importance, that probably says more about our own cultural obsessions than anything.** The two big-picture issues that emerge from the Bible are giving our primary allegiance to God, and bringing about justice in the world. Jesus gives us the Cliff’s Notes version of this when he sums up the entire law & prophets as “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Reducing this mission into rules about what to do with our private parts is embarrassing, shortsighted, pointless, and tragic. It is a distraction.***

The more that Christians get suckered into idiotic wastes of time like this (see also: Duck Dynasty, Chick-Fil-A), the less time is spent actually participating in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is not of this world, something that we forget when we try to legislate moral standards that arise from a single religious conviction rather than being universally recognized human rights (see also: Hobby Lobby). The kind of Christendom thinking inherited from many centuries when the church served as the primary moral authority in Western society has many thinking that Christians have a right to set the moral agenda for the world. Here I’m showing my Anabaptist colours.

As Christians, we’d do better to work at serving God through service in our communities and worry about being a living incarnation of the gospel. When a person identifying as LGBTQ enters our worshipping community, let’s love them as we would love any person, get to know them without agendas. Learn where God is working in their lives; learn from them as they reveal ways they see God working in our lives.

God is moving in the world, reconciling all things in creation, working out a greater narrative than we can grasp in one sitting. Let’s not quench the spirit of those who wish to participate in that work.

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*There is certainly room to critique models of international development and charity, but that’s a much bigger discussion; I don’t mean to say that WV is a perfect organization, but its humanitarian intentions seem genuine.
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**To be totally clear, I am what some call an “affirming” Christian. This means that I see no reason why any LGBTQ person (married or unmarried, practicing or nonpracticing) should be denied full participation in a church body should they wish to be there. The Christian tradition has had a troubling and problematic understanding of sexuality, the human body, and the material realm in general, leading us to the quasi-Gnostic position held by many North Americans today, that holds the body to be largely dirty and impure.
Some of the reasons for my stance are detailed in this video, but obviously I didn’t just arrive at this conclusion randomly. It arose from years of reading and careful, prayerful consideration–much the same process that the board of World Vision USA described going through before reaching their original decision to allow same-sex married Christians to join with them in their work of bringing children out of poverty. Then their apparently careful decision was undone in mere days after a couple of influential evangelical gatekeepers riled up the troops and held them hostage with the threat of severe revenue cuts.
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***I don’t want to imply that it’s a waste of time to argue over the inclusion of people who identify as LGBTQ in the church. I recognize that as a privileged straight male, I am potentially welcome at any church I choose to enter. For people who identify as LGBTQ, the lack of this assurance is a tragedy, and marks another failure of the Church universal. I merely want to point out my frustration that so many Christians have chosen “opposition to gay marriage” as their hill to die upon when the Bible says nothing about this issue and clearly has some obvious priorities, like caring for the poor, that have absolutely nothing to do with sexuality.

“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway”: Meeting Will D. Campbell (Christianity Worth Emulating, Part 1)

Holidays mean that there is finally time for recreational reading, and I recently finished Will D. Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, a book originally written in 1976 that had been waiting on my shelf for months.  It is an odd sort of memoir with a lot of wisdom, and I would highly recommend you take a look at it if you are interested in topics like the Civil Rights movement, radical Christianity, race relations in America, or the “Suthern” states.

Will Campbell, who died less than a year ago, was a Baptist preacher from Mississippi.  Born before the Great Depression into a poor but relatively open-minded family (although the pulpit Bible at the local church was embossed with the initials “KKK” for the organization that had donated it), he lived history as a staunch champion of racial integration, being one of the four escortees of the Little Rock Nine (African-American students who challenged the segregationist policies of an Arkansas public school in 1957), and the only white person present at the founding of MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  After attending Yale Divinity School and working in Christian ministry for years, Campbell was “converted” at the hands of a self-described pagan who challenged him with the truth of the gospel.  This was one of the most powerful parts of the book: two of Campbell’s friends, fellow civil rights activists, had just been shot and killed by a racist policeman.  If the gospel you claim to preach is true, asked the “pagan,” doesn’t God have as much love for the murderous Klansman as for your two dead friends?

To Campbell, this was a turning point in his understanding of God.  He began to see the poor white folks who populated the Klan’s ranks as themselves victims of an oppressive system, one propagated by wealthy elites whose interests were served by keeping the lower classes polarized and riven by conflict.  Feeling that his poor rural origins gave him a natural affinity for the KKK’s constituency, he began to befriend many of its members and visit them in prison, describing himself as “pro-Klansman” (which some people took as synonymous as “pro-Klan,” despite his attempted disclaimers).  Campbell became known as someone who would put no boundaries around God’s love, arguing that any true Christian needs to be “as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed” (201).  Later in life, the “nasty calls and letters” that he used to receive from the Right started coming from the Left.

I definitely have a fascination for Civil Rights history, having gone out of my way to visit sites like MLK’s birthplace in Atlanta, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (not to mention naming my daughter after Rosa Parks), so the details Campbell shares of his involvement in the movement, although they are not really the main focus of the book, were pretty interesting to me.  The reflections on race and religion found in Brother to a Dragonfly are numerous and profound.  Campbell describes a scene he witnessed as a boy, listening to the “Jesus sounds” of an African-American mother sobbing over the death of her son, hearing in them

“the articulation and recitation of two hundred years of pathos.  An emancipation which still had not reached them, or us, if in fact it had reached anywhere at all.  A manumission inferred by Christian proselytizers, but undelivered by the steeples and structures they represented…they were the pleadings of an African peasant woman to the son of a Jewish peasant woman to be with her in her travail” (62).

Campbell and Ralph Abernathy upon hearing the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination

Campbell is an iconoclast, skeptical of the Church’s “respectability” and of his own earlier “liberal sophistication” which idolized Supreme Court rulings and made a theology of law and order.  He shares his realizations that the legal institution of marriage grants nothing more than the right to sue your spouse, and that his years of “Yankee education,” while valuable, also imparted a sense of superiority toward “rednecks” that delayed his later ministry to them.

Such insights are thick in what is ultimately a very human story about Will Campbell’s relationship with his older brother, the hero that protected him, delighted in his accomplishments, and first made him aware of the injustices of race in America.  Tragically, Joe Campbell became addicted to the very pills that he dispensed as a pharmacist, ruining two marriages and hollowing himself out from the inside.  The narrative frame of Will and Joe’s interactions ties together evocations of poor rural boyhood in the South and philosophical discussions on race, history, rootedness, religion, family, and belonging.  Being a memoir, the book doesn’t have to end happily.  But it does end beautifully, characterized by the same lovely prose that pervades the rest of the book and its equal doses of humour and tragedy.

My copy is now ready to enter the lending library, so let me know if you want to borrow it!
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Note:
Years ago, I read a book by Phillip Yancey called Soul Survivor.  Yancey almost became an atheist at one point in his life, but as he puts it, his soul “survived” through his encounter with various individuals, primarily writers, who convinced him that there was something in Christianity that warranted a second look despite all of the garbage he experienced in his fundamentalist upbringing.  In the book, he briefly introduces each of these characters (G.K. Chesterton, Frederick Buechner, Shusako Endo, Annie Dillard, Gandhi, etc.).  I have a vague notion of doing something similar in a series of blog posts, partly to keep myself from forgetting about people like Clarence Jordan, Dorothy Day, or Toyohiko Kagawa on days when the John Hagees, Pat Robertsons, and Benny Hinns of the world are making my blood boil.  So here’s a kind of start.

Pope Francis Says All Religions are True: Wishful Thinking and Bias Confirmation

This was inspired by a recent spate of posts on Facebook, where at least 10 of my friends excitedly linked to this story, entitled “Pope Francis Denounces Racism and Declares that ‘All Religions are True’ at Historic Third Vatican Council.”  A bit of digging revealed that the story was an artful satire, but one more convincing than most.  To be clear, I in no way mean to denigrate those who were initially fooled.  People who are fairly knowledgeable about the Catholic Church would recognize that a Third Vatican Council would be very big news that wouldn’t just pop up out of nowhere after it had already happened, but unless you have a particular interest in this area, there’s no reason you should know that.  Rather, I’m going to reflect a little bit on why so many people–to their credit, I think–were fooled by this story.

There is a good amount of detail in the spoof article that comes across as believable, since it is similar to things that the pope has actually said in the last year.  Hopefully nobody would be shocked to hear Francis denouncing racism or speaking up for the basic human worth of immigrants and refugees, and lines like “Through acts of love and charity the atheist acknowledges God as well, and redeems his own soul, becoming an active participant in the redemption of humanity” are not that far off from a famous genuine statement he made in an interview a few months ago: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics…Even the atheists. Everyone!…We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

However, other supposed statements by Francis in the satirical article, calling hell nothing more than a metaphor, supporting the idea of a female pope, and claiming that people of all religions are really praying to the same “God of love,” are too much of a stretch from orthodox Catholic dogma to be believable.  In fact, some directly contradict the pope’s own statements.  The satire is really taking aim at the tendency of liberal types (like me, I suppose) to fawn over Francis’s pronouncements on social justice, excoriation of global capitalism, and apparent inclusivity toward LGBTQ persons and non-Christians as if he’s some kind of radical reformer who will “usher the Catholic Church into the present,” when in a lot of ways he isn’t all that different from his predecessors.

When I first read the satirical article and all of my friends’ joyful exclamations in favour of the pope’s stand, my thought was “Here’s a left-wing version of the ‘Abortionplex‘ debacle.”  In 2011, the Onion, probably the most famous satirical “news” source in the United States,  reported that Planned Parenthood was developing a massive $8,000,000,000 abortion themepark which would be able to conduct 2000 abortions simultaneously.  The article was pretty ludicrous, even by the Onion’s standards (and much more obvious in its satire than the Francis article), but at least one pro-life congressman fell for it, reposting it as fact.

This might seem like a farfetched parallel, but bear with me for a moment.  Socially and religiously liberal individuals fooled into believing that Francis would finally admit that all religions are true and we should just get along?  Pro-lifer fooled into believing that pro-choice organization wants so badly to maximize the killing of babies that it would turn it into a Disneyland experience?  In both cases, wishful thinking is at play.  Our biases are confirmed, which immediately dulls critical faculties and leads us to accept as true something that’s just a little bit fishy.

However, one important distinction needs to be drawn between the two responses, related to the human tendency toward “othering” those who are unlike us.  In the case of my friends (who probably aren’t Catholic “insiders” or they wouldn’t have been taken in), the response can be characterized as “Wow, that pope guy isn’t all that bad–he’s more like me than I’d thought.”  I think this kind of response shows a potential generosity of spirit; a basic human stance, in my opinion, should always look for points of commonality with the “other.”  In the case of the congressman, the response is more like “Those Planned Parenthood folks are even more evil than I had thought possible!”  I would suggest that, while we should never believe any news source uncritically, it is FUNDAMENTALLY important to confirm every possible fact if we are tending toward the second kind of response.  If we come across something that makes us think “How on earth could somebody be that evil?” and there’s a good chance that it isn’t true, we had better do our darndest to doublecheck that information before passing it on.  While I have my own political leanings which are not always displayed in the most subtle manner, I should note that neither conservatives nor liberals have a monopoly on the tendency to demonize their respective “other.”  I have done it myself, and I would far rather be trapped by wishful thinking that is overly generous to the position of my “opponents.”

This connects quite well with something once written by the patron saint of thoughtful, imaginative young evangelicals, so I’ll let Jack take us to the finish line today:

“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

Advent Week 4: Serving God in the Empire

We have been examining what Advent means to our faith as Christians from a few different perspectives. In Week One, we considered the Kingdom of Heaven as “already” here but “not yet” come in its fullness. In Weeks Two and Three, we looked at Mary’s Magnificat, first in terms of anticipation of the coming new order before it has yet fully arrived, and next as announcing a “Great Reversal,” an “Upside-Down Kingdom” where God shows how wildly our hierarchies are out of step with the principles that Jesus embodied. The main point of all of this is to wrestle with what it all means when we say that God entered the world two millennia ago, has been at work ever since, and has even bigger and better things in store for creation. Our partnership in the Kingdom of Heaven calls us to a state of joyful rebellion against the powers that be—think of us as the “Rebel Alliance” in the midst of the “Evil Empire.”

Advent reminds us that things are desperately wrong, and that we should not accept this state of affairs. We are living in an Empire that commands our allegiance in ways both overt and subtle. The apostle Paul’s enemies in Acts 17 complained that followers of Jesus had come and “turned the world upside down,” sowing discord within the Roman empire by declaring that there was a king who should be worshipped instead of Caesar. Evangelical commentators have often been eager to explain how misguided 1st-century Jews were in their hopes of a political messiah who would end Roman domination. They have correctly noted that Jesus came to bring spiritual liberation from our sins.

However, an exclusive emphasis on this aspect of Jesus’ coming depoliticizes his message, turning it solely into an individual transaction between the believer and God. This is only half of the gospel. There are clear social implications as well, a message that calls us into what MLK called the “beloved community,” a place where we relate to each other as fellow children of God who are precious in his sight. This truth demands that Christians should organize our relations both among ourselves, and with those outside, along lines that are congruent with Christ’s coming kingdom (and, if I haven’t beaten this to death already, on lines that are different from what custom or common sense would suggest). Put differently, our Christian community should manifest the “already” aspect of the “already – not yet.” We anticipate a day when justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a flowing stream (Amos 5:24), but we don’t wait for that day in silence. Rather, we live as though it is already here, contradicting the ways of the Empire wherever injustice is manifested.

From this standpoint, it is clear that Jesus is a political messiah as well as a spiritual one. He just didn’t carry out the kind of political mission that the 1st-century Jews expected. Rather than mobilizing an army of angry insurgents and driving the Romans out of Israel, Jesus told his audiences to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Rather than inaugurating a new period of strict adherence to the Old Testament purity laws in accordance with the priesthood of his day, Jesus went out of his way to incorporate into his community those regarded as unclean or sinful: lepers, prostitutes, and adulterers among them. And rather than establishing himself as king through military might, Jesus willingly went to the most shameful of deaths, dying as a common criminal, and mocking with his resurrection the pretensions of the imperial powers that exerted control over their subjects by threatening to take away their lives.

We have been invited to live as citizens of the kingdom Jesus established, aligning ourselves with a different kind of “political ethic.” As Jesus warns us, nobody can serve two masters. We have seen that God’s standards are profoundly different than those offered by mainstream society, which tell us that our own pleasure and stability are the ultimate values, and teach us to take for granted a comfortable future, technological progress, the constant acquisition of bigger and better things, and an ever-growing economy. But if we do not manifest a fundamental conflict with the mainstream, what Walter Brueggemann calls the church’s “Mandate to Difference,” there is frankly nothing special about Christianity and we might as well give up on the entire thing. If following Jesus is just about our own happiness and not about an active lived response, we haven’t really been paying attention to the Bible, because our “comfort” rarely appears to be among God’s immediate priorities. Rather, we are advised that “in this world we will have trouble” (John 16:33) and that although we should not fear, we will “face suffering of all kinds” (James 1:2).

In following Jesus, we are living within the Empire but as citizens of another country, proclaiming that our Lord is not Darth Vader, but Jesus.* We reveal our “traitorous” colours as members of the Rebel Alliance every time we prioritize the least of these: orphans, widows, strangers and newcomers, the homeless and hungry, the mentally and physically ill, refugees, children from disadvantaged homes, and the old and forgotten, to name only a few. In what ways are we doing so?

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* Apologies to Scot McKnight; and yes, I realize that Emperor Palpatine would probably be a more exact analogy.

A Grandmother’s Legacy

I’m still not sure if this is going to wind up being a personal blog, or one that focuses more on current events and news, or more abstract theological and philosophical ponderings.  But today’s post is going to lean toward the personal.

It was one year ago today that my dear grandmother died, just a few short weeks after finding out that her first great-grandchild was on the way.  Grandma K. was one of my very favourite people in the world; I lived in her basement for a number of years while attending university and starting to work as a high school teacher.  She was a gentle and generous soul with a sharp intelligence and a voluminous appetite for knowledge.  She instilled a deep love of reading in me through the encyclopedias, newsmagazine subscriptions, and many, many books she bought us.  Her inquisitive nature meant that she could talk to almost anybody since chances were she knew quite a bit about whatever the other person found interesting.  Who knows, maybe her stories about growing up in Canada’s Far North, speaking Inuktitut to her Inuit friends, and living on a barren Arctic island as the wife of a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader ignited some kind of nascent anthropological impulse in me that is still bearing fruit.

Hardly a day goes by since the birth of my daughter, who shares a middle name with Grandma K., that I don’t mourn the fact that Rosa will never meet this woman who meant so much to me and who would have loved her so much.  Why couldn’t she have lived just one more year, or even a few months longer?  But we trust that her legacy will survive, and that there is power in the names Rosa has been given.

The memory of Grandma’s passing is especially bittersweet this week, because only two days ago my parents finally moved out of the house they shared with her for four years.  Grandma & Grandpa K. bought that house way back in the early ’60s, so it was in the family for nearly 50 years.  In all the time I knew my grandparents, that was their home, and the memories are thick–more than 25 Christmases celebrated; innumerable family dinners, games, photos, and songs; watching “American Idol” or “Dragon’s Den” with Grandma after Grandpa had passed away; proposing to my now-wife  in the basement and then going upstairs to share the news, Grandma getting up in the morning to make me bacon and eggs many times even though I told her I was fine and that she should sleep in, Grandma singing along to oldies (I mean WAY before “Johnny B. Goode”) on the radio. Of course, a house is never just a house; it’s a box of memories that peel off the walls unexpectedly as you walk by.  Now some developers will be “flipping” it, and who knows what will be left when they’re done.  (Besides our daughter’s placenta buried in their garden…whoops!)

My parents have taken the unusual step of moving from River Heights, one of Winnipeg’s more desirable neighbourhoods, into the West End, which is infamous for shootings, drug deals, and prostitution.  But they have chosen this path out of deep conviction, believing that as Christians they are called to identify with those whom God values the most–the marginalized, the refugee, the prodigal, the child of violence.  Rather than swooping in from a suburban refuge to dispense well-being to the benighted denizens of a disadvantaged neighbourhood, they have chosen to join that neighbourhood and live in solidarity with its residents.  So even though it is hard to say goodbye to a beloved landmark (and with it, to Grandma all over again), I can’t help but feel that Grandma is being honoured by what they are doing with the gift she gave them.  There, too, her legacy will live on.

Advent Part 3: Magnificat, the Great Reversal and the Upside-Down Kingdom

Advent Part 1: The “Already – Not Yet,” Liminality, and the Kingdom of Heaven

Advent Part 2: Magnificat, Spirituals, and Anticipation

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Last week, we started to explore the theme of God’s already present but still anticipated kingdom through the lens of Mary’s Magnificat. I want to continue that discussion today by looking at the second half of her song (Luke 1:51-55):

 He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, to remember his promise of mercy,

The promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children for ever.

We looked at the Magnificat as an African-American spiritual last week, but this week’s selection takes on overtones of 1970s anarchistic punk rebellion.  What Mary describes here has been called by some the “Great Reversal.” She anticipates a time when God will destroy the elitist pretensions of the conceited, tear tyrants from their thrones and replace them with the humble, and send the rich away from their own dinner tables so the poor can feast in their place. These sentiments may sound exciting or sinister depending upon our own relative position, but they pervade the entire Bible, as witness Isaiah 40:4 with “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” or Psalm 146:7-8 with “The Lord sets the prisoners free” and “lifts up those who are bowed down,” or Zephaniah 3:19 where God promises to take the lame and the outcast and “turn their shame into praise.” God continually promises that a day will come when all will be put right, as we have already seen, and often this takes the form of an upending, a reversal of evil fortunes and a bestowing of good gifts upon those who have had nothing but sorrow in life.

In our earthly hierarchy of values, we prioritize those who are rich, successful, intelligent, accomplished, and beautiful. But it is clear that from God’s perspective, our values are skewed. God continually expresses a special concern for those who would have been considered most worthless in ancient Israel: orphans, widows, lepers, the poor, and immigrants or “aliens.” Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to say that God displays a preference for the marginalized and disenfranchised. 1 Cor 1:28-29 notes that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” In effect, God cancels out all the accomplishments that might make us so proud; in Jesus’ words, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. This kind of ethic has led some (like Mennonite author Donald Kraybill) to describe the Kingdom of Heaven as an “Upside-Down Kingdom,” a place where our hierarchies are flipped on their heads, with the coronation of a homeless country bumpkin rumoured to be illegitimate and leading an army of smelly fishermen and tax collectors. The values of this Upside-Down Kingdom are best exemplified by Luke’s Beatitudes, which extol the poor, the hungry, and the despised and denounce those who revel in their riches, full stomachs and good reputation.

Jean Vanier is one example of a person who has tried to put the values of the Upside-Down Kingdom into practice (others in this mold would be figures like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Toyohiko Kagawa). He came from a privileged and indeed elite background, with a father who was a major-general, ambassador and later the Governor General of Canada. Vanier himself studied in Paris and became a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. But at the age of 36, inspired by Jesus, he left his academic career to start an organization that would work with people with severe developmental disabilities. Unlike many, Vanier’s organization, l’Arche, was predicated on the notion that those viewed (inaccurately, of course) by society as “normal” had as much to learn from the differently abled as they had to offer them in terms of assistance. Thus, in his group homes, the “workers” live among the “clients” for their mutual growth, rather than following more paternalistic models where a service is provided by the “able” to the “helpless.” The l’Arche model may sound wildly impractical, but it reminds us that the values of God’s coming kingdom are fundamentally different than our own. It should also give us pause—in what ways have we bought into a system that reinforces the “right” of the privileged, rather than trusting in a God who is unimpressed by strength (Psalm 147:10) and prefers the weak and foolish things of the world (1 Cor 1:27)? Juergen Moltmann reminds us that “Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is” but must begin to “contradict” it. After all, God isn’t actually going to be turning the world upside down, but right side up. In following Christ, we get a head start in learning how to walk on our feet instead of our hands.

Advent Part 2: Magnificat, Spirituals, and Anticipation

Last week I talked about how Advent reminds us to consider the unsettled and transitory nature of our current historical moment—a time when Jesus has announced that God’s kingdom is already here, but that it has not yet arrived in its fullness. To further reflect on this, let’s briefly take a look at one of the first Christian hymns ever recorded: Mary’s “Magnificat,” found in Luke 1:46-55. This is one of the classic Advent texts, since it comes at a time when Mary is already pregnant and is thus very aware of how close Jesus’ arrival is. The first half of the Magnificat (don’t worry, the rest is coming next week) reads:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;

he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;

the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.

He has mercy on those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

In the “Magnificat,” Mary expresses her amazement over the incredible brand-new thing that God is about to do in the world. She is filled with thankfulness to the Lord who has saved her. There is a highly personal aspect to this: Mary is acutely aware of her own lowly status. As a young woman in a patriarchal society, Mary would have been valued only for her ability to link her family to another lineage through marriage. However, God has chosen her to bear the Messiah—an honour which ensures that she will be remembered by every generation to come.

It’s worth noting, though, that Mary sings her hymn of ecstatic praise from a place of expectation. Every time Jesus kicks in her womb, she feels the world beginning to shift toward a future where the promises made to Abraham will finally be fulfilled. She hopes, with justification, that things are about to change. But she proclaims her hope from an unsettled, transitory position, where the promise is there but the outcome, to all outside appearances, is still highly uncertain. What if that wasn’t really God’s voice she was hearing? What if God changes his mind in the next few months and she gives birth to a hamster or a salamander, or just a normal baby who’s cute and all but kind of…dumb? What if Joseph decides she’s just lying to cover up a disgraceful betrayal of their engagement vows?

Mary recognizes that things aren’t as they should be, but that God is starting to turn things around, and—here’s the crucial part—that she has been invited to play a role in this wonderful process, the upending, revitalization, re-creation, reconciliation of the world. In a way, Mary’s hymn of expectation can be thought of as a kind of first-century African-American spiritual.* These songs—Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; Go Down Moses, and Wade in the Water, for example—were written within the hardship of slavery. Their nameless composers experienced crushing oppression, but responded to the message of faith and liberation found in the gospel, trusting that God would tear down a demonic system and restore their dignity. Thus, while the song texts often reference sorrow and pain, they also point to a coming “gospel feast,” a “promised land where all is peace.” Like Mary’s song, the spirituals recognize that soul-crushing power has far too long been the law of the land, but that God has something immeasurably better in mind. And further, the spirituals don’t argue for simply accepting life’s evils in return for a happy afterlife. In the here and now, they quote Moses (and Jehovah!) in demanding “Let my people go.” They also contained coded messages about paths to the Underground Railroad and physical freedom, and advice on evading their pursuers by “wad[ing] in the water.” The promise of a heavenly reward thus served as a motivation to struggle for greater justice on earth (as it is in heaven), since any pain or punishment received as a result could only pale against the greater glory to come.

Like Mary and countless others, then, we anticipate the coming kingdom even as we work to bring it about, recognizing the insufficiency of our personal efforts but also believing that they are in some way part of Christ being incarnated in the world—this time, through our actions.

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*This analogy originally comes from Scot McKnight via Internet Monk.