Redemptive Violence

One Reason I Still Have Hope For The USAmerican Evangelical Church

DSC00816If I’m completely honest, I’ve been really discouraged as of late. A major source of my discouragement has been the way the USAmerican evangelical church (a tribe I have identified with for most of my life, so my critique and exhortation will be directed there) has chosen to engage the world in this season marked by division, violence and trauma. Now, I admit I’m speaking in generalities, but rather than being the healing balm to society’s gaping wounds, we have often contributed to the bleeding by either withdrawing in fear or adding fuel to the violence. 

I actually believe that if the USAmerican evangelical church took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, our collective presence globally would not be associated with violence and division, but with hope and reconciliation. Call me crazy, but I believe the Church -- at her best -- can be an instrument of peace in the world. The collective impact of the USAmerican evangelical church (which, obviously, is only one segment of the Church global) on the world is unprecedented. That impact can either be associated with revenge (which it largely has been) or reconciliation. 

When we are more driven by our fear to defend what is ours from the enemy “over there” rather than freed to live fully into our mandate to love, we morph into something we were never intended to be…and our actions follow suit:

Fear trumps hope.

Isolation trumps invitation.

Stereotype trumps understanding.

Dogma trumps generosity.

Critique trumps curiosity.

Safety trumps faithfulness.

And, ultimately, hate trumps love.

So, what is one reason I still have hope for the USAmerican evangelical church?

As much as you may be thinking I’m going to say Amy Grant’s infamous Christmas album or Nick Cage’s sterling performance in Left Behind or our fascinatingly disturbing alignment with the “politics” of Donald Trump, it is none of those…

What gives me hope is that we follow a God who, in Jesus, invites us to not only love our neighbor, but our enemy. 

We follow an enemy-loving God. 

I think we often miss how unbelievably significant and world-altering the implications of this mandate can be if we actually took it seriously. Having sat at the feet of religious teachers from all over the world representing many different traditions, I’ve NEVER heard a teaching so radically provocative, subversive and compelling as Jesus’ words of enemy-love in Matthew 5. Of course, Jesus didn’t just teach this stuff, he embodied it as he’s dying at the hands of the “enemy” saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I would argue that living this mandate is the best, most tangible contribution the USAmerican evangelical church can make in our divided world. In fact, I think this matters so much, our world can’t afford to have us withdraw from Jesus’ invitation to enemy-love. 

Why do I believe the USAmerican evangelical church can actually live this out?

Two reasons:

  1. Because Church history affirms that a commitment to enemy-love is a normative element of discipleship. Dr. Ron Sider recently did an exhaustive study of the Early Church’s response to violence and found that there were no accounts of Christian’s responding to violence with violence for the first THREE HUNDRED years of its existence (Jesus to Constantine). Violence only infected the Church when Constantine married Empire and militarism with Christianity in the 4th century.
  1. Because I’ve seen it being lived out ALL OVER the world and it has inspired and completely reshaped my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. 

It’s being lived out in war zones in Iraq by my friends with Preemptive Love

It’s being lived out under military occupation in the West Bank village of Bethany by my friends Milad and Manar

It’s being lived out in deportation shelters in Tijuana by my friend Gilberto at Casa Del Migrante

It’s being lived out on the streets of East Oakland by my friend Ben McBride of the Empower Initiative

Although we are still stumbling into this, it’s being lived out among my community right on our streets in Golden Hill. 

And, here’s the thing, every time hatred and violence is returned not with revenge, but with forgiveness and love, the world actually begins to reorder itself into the way God designed it to function all along. The cycle of violence is immediately destroyed. The humanity and dignity of the abused is revealed. The inhumanity of the actions by the “enemy” are exposed for all to see. Relationships strengthen and deepen in mutuality. Imagination and creativity grow as we see that another way is actually possible (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God!). And, ultimately, people actually see, experience and are transformed by this revolutionary 1st-century rabbi from Palestine we’ve all been trying to follow all along. 

This, my friends, is Good News. This gives me hope. This is our invitation and opportunity to join God in healing a broken world by living in the most counter-intuitive and counter-cultural way imaginable. 

It’s going to cost us something. In fact, it may cost us everything. But, it is in our willingness to die that the soil is prepared for new life. 

Despite our temptation to be discouraged and paralyzed by our collective failures, we have something to contribute to a hurting world.

Now, let’s get after it. 

The Idol of Safety

safetyIn the wake of another heinous attack taking the lives of innocent civilians, the world feels increasingly unstable. The violence “over there” is no longer relegated to headlines on the other side of the world; it is edging closer to our doorsteps and threatens to invade our everyday lives. 

In light of this reality, conversations ranging from our coffee shops to the halls of political power are shouting out the necessity to pursue security and safety above anything else. 

I get it. 

As a father of four little kids, there has never been a season in my life when I’ve felt more compelled toward security and safety. I can’t begin to comprehend the disorientation and paralyzing pain that would come with the harm of my family. 

For the past five years, I have regularly been traveling to conflict zones in the Middle East, but the more kids I have waiting for me to safely return home, the harder it gets to step on that plane and make an intentional decision to move toward exposing myself to violence. 

In short, when I hear our current political candidates talking about the paramount importance of “security” and “safety,” it strikes a chord and I find myself tempted to stand up and applaud.

AND THEN I PAUSE, step back for a moment, ask some harder questions of where my applause is coming from, and consider my kingdom allegiance marked by One who moved toward rather than away from potential violence.

I’m convicted that my desire to applaud this “security at any cost” rhetoric and policy is a temptation to worship the idol of safety. It is not something to be admired, it is something to be acknowledged, questioned and repented of (turned away from). Worshiping the idol of safety greatly inhibits our ability to worship the crucified and risen Jesus.

It’s not that I don’t want safety for me, my family or the world. I actually want that more than ever, but when I look at this through the lens of discipleship (following Jesus), here are the issues I’m wresting with today:

  1. The objective of terrorism is to instill fear. Politicians then use that fear to shape a reality that advances their agenda. What they are offering us is nothing more than a pseudo-reality that requires we have the discernment to see through the smokescreen to what is actually real. My desire for safety is real, but in reality, I should be far more concerned about a car wreck, chronic disease or natural disaster than terrorism. When I begin making decisions from a place of fear, I not only buy into a pseudo-reality that is being crafted by political power plays, I begin to close my eyes to the new and dynamic ways God is calling me to join in the world he is making. 
  2. The means through which we pursue safety often force us to compromise our kingdom identity and can lead to less safety. First, let me acknowledge that political leaders are responsible to tend to the safety of citizens and can make the decisions they feel are necessary to do so. With that said, we, as the Church, can’t allow our political allegiance to trump our kingdom allegiance. When we worship the idol of “safety,” we can quickly compromise our kingdom witness and begin to justify the means through which safety is achieved. For example, when we celebrate the death of other human beings because it means we are “safer,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than the enemy-loving God embodied in Jesus. When we demonize and punish entire groups of people (the vast majority of whom have no desire to do us harm) for the sake of our “safety,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than a Jesus who loved indiscriminately. When we reject the very people (many of whom are children!) who are fleeing violence for the sake of our “safety,” we may be worshiping the idol of safety rather than a Jesus who calls us to care for the “strangers in our midst.” Finally, while these may feel like safety measures, it is growingly clear that these means don’t lead to a lasting, sustainable security and safety. Rather, they more often lead to resentment, oppression and instability, which then breads more violence. 
  3. I can’t reconcile withdrawal, isolation and a posture of defense with a God who moved toward violence, brokenness and “the other” in Jesus. As Ive been wresting with this idol of safety, I’ve repeatedly been convicted by this truth; Jesus never called us to be safe; he called us to be faithful. According to Jesus, faithfulness moves us beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy. If pursuit of my safety trumps my ability to love whoever God has in my path, fear wins and I distance myself from God’s heart for the world. How can I love my “enemy” if I don’t know them? The idol of safety moves us away from people who are different than us and sends us inward to those who look, think and act like we do. There is no love outside of relationship; there is only misunderstanding, demonization and stereotype. Lastly, how can we know our “enemy” if we don’t cross the borders that divide us? The Jesus Way requires we reject the temptation to move inward and continually calls us to move toward “the other.”  

Interestingly, I find myself wresting through this stuff during Holy Week. This is the week in which Jesus models to the world life as it was meant to be lived. It is a life marked not by isolation or triumphant overthrow, but by suffering, sacrifice and selfless love for the flourishing of others. It is a life that crosses borders and boundaries to reassign the humanity, dignity and the image of God in all the “wrong” people with whom he should have feared and stayed away from. A life that ended with the uttering of this prayer for his enemies, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” These are the stories we tell in Sunday School and say, “Wow, Jesus is a bad ass. He wasn’t scared of anything and I would do anything to live and love like that.” 

Imagine if instead he chose to worship the idol of safety and never left the safety of his little Galilean synagogue so he could read Torah and remain isolated from all the violence of the world? That story would not only suck, it wouldn’t reflect the heart of a God who literally moved into our human neighborhood to remind us what love looks like. 

So, during this Holy Week, let’s pay attention to the very understandable fear, paralysis and temptation to worship the idol of safety. If I’m completely honest, I’m still having a hard time with this. This is not easy stuff and I’m not happy about having to make these intentional decisions to keep perspective in a world that feels so unstable. But, friends, this is the beauty, challenge and mystery of choosing to follow an enemy-loving God who -- this Holy Week -- invites us to love to the point of death, while being fueled by the hope and reality of Resurrection. 

May it be so. 

 

Living ‘Selma’ in a ‘Sniper’ World

130117191909-mills-mlk-march-story-topThis coming Monday is our national celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As I have been reflecting on his work and witness, I am convinced his message is as necessary and prophetic today as it was when he was alive (if not more!). 

We live in a culture that not only glorifies violence, but often celebrates its use against the “enemy” as the truest form of heroism and bravery. While I won’t get into the debate of whether violence is ever justified to preserve life (a much bigger conversation extending far beyond an 700 word blog post), I will say I’m deeply troubled by our assumption that violence is the only way to respond to a real or perceived threat. 

Most disturbing is the fact that the majority of Jesus followers in this country have the same assumptions about the “necessary” use of violence as the culture at large. I would argue that an objective observer would not be able to distinguish between the USAmerican Church’s ethic of violence and the ethic of the State or the culture at large. As followers of a God who looked like an enemy-loving Jesus -- who sacrificially absorbed violence rather than perpetuating it -- we’d be wise to re-examine our assumptions around violence in light of his life and teachings. 

Jesus’ take on responding with violence:

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.” -- Matt 5:43-45

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.” -- Matt 5:38-41

After being beat, humiliated, dehumanized and nearly killed, Jesus’ response to violence, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” -- Luke 23:34

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” -- Matt 5:9

These passages are often interpreted as Jesus either being a soft pushover or teachings that were not realistic and helpful for establishing a normative, everyday ethic toward violence. The reality is that Jesus was not promoting a passive response to violence, but a dignifying one. A response that would both expose the inhumanity of the abuser’s actions and amplify the dignity of the abused. 

Jesus is not just calling us away from the lure of violence, but inviting us toward the necessary, subversive, creative and costly work of peacemaking. Peacemaking isn’t a passive withdrawal from conflict. Peacemaking isn’t embracing the status quo. Peacemaking isn’t euphoric or other worldly. 

Peacemaking is a series of actions that move us toward conflict armed with weapons to heal and transform rather than weapons to destroy.

MLK not only took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, he modeled actions of an alternative response to violence, hatred and injustice. He invited a movement of people to take the hard work of peacemaking seriously by outlining tangible actions that would expose the inhumanity of those abusing power and amplify the humanity, dignity and plight of his black brothers and sisters caught in their wake. 

As we celebrate MLK’s life and legacy, may we be reminded to take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously and repent of the ways in which we’ve allowed a culture of violence to hijack our own humanity. Because when we begin to view fellow image bearers as “collateral damage,” we are becoming less human and missing out on an opportunity to join God in the world he is making. 

So, rather than embrace an American Sniper spirituality where the Bible brands our violence, may we embrace the spirituality of Selma where the Bible is embodied in nonviolent action. This is not only our task, it is our opportunity. May it be so. 

Lament and the 4 Kids Who Will Never See Their Mother Again

unnamedLast night, friends from around our neighborhood gathered to hold a vigil of lament for the Charleston tragedy. 

We shared our confusion, our sadness, our anger and our pain.  

We read a liturgy of solidarity and empathy seeking to simply sit in the pain alongside our black sisters and brothers impacted not only by this tragedy, but by the “spoiled meat of racism” that manifests itself everyday. 

We then walked around the room looking into the eyes of each of the victims as their pictures and bio’s hauntingly and beautifully hung on the walls of the room. 

What a remarkable collective of people giving themselves to God and neighbor. No doubt, a collective of people God was and is using to bring about the world he is making. 

But the pain of this tragedy runs deep. We must lament. We must wail. We must sit in the disorienting pain of our sisters and brothers seeking to understand rather than to be understood.

unnamedIt was the beautiful face and story of DePayne Middleton Doctor that broke me. A mother of four daughters who day in and day out lived a remarkable life of love and care. Four daughters who will never hear the soothing voice or experience the warm hug of their mother again.  

As a father of four kids, this is an unfathomable reality that I can’t pretend to understanding…but I can weep.  

Weep over the missed birthday parties, graduations, weddings and grandkids. 

Weep over the deepened feelings of vulnerability and isolation.

Weep over the injustice of a death fueled by an ideology that was given birth by a busted history and system of inequality.  

We trust that the stories of those killed did not end last week, but is just beginning as their witness is now amplified around the world to shed light on an infection debilitating our nation. 

We closed by reading the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr. spoken after four girls were killed in a Birmingham church in an act of terror similar to last weeks.

“They did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”

While we pray this to be true, for now, we must weep. 

The Bible (Part 1): Tool of Violence or Liberation…or Both?

Holy-Bible-by-Steve-Snodgrass-Accessed-August-4-2014.-Used-by-Creative-Commons-Licence.-httpsflic.krp79AtF3The Bible is one of the most misunderstood books in the history of humanity. Yet, it is the most read book in the history of humanity.  

It has been used to produce beautiful and broken realities:

  • The Bible has been used to silence and dehumanize women as “less than” and inferior. Some scholars have gone as far as saying women lack the image of God. Obviously, this leads to abuse and exploitation.
  • The Bible has been used to affirm the enslavement and exploitation of complete races of people who look different than those in power.
  • The Bible has been used to justify some of the bloodiest and unjust wars in human history.
  • The Bible has been used to isolate segments of society as though they are modern day lepers who are trying to infect the rest of the society.
  • ON THE OTHER HAND, a massive number of human rights and liberation movements throughout history have been fueled by a community who held the Bible as their sacred text. To name a few: The civil rights movement, modern unearthing of the sex trafficking industry, global reduction of poverty and increased access to clean water, overturning South African apartheid, etc…

This begs the question, “Is the problem the Bible or the way in which we have interpreted it over centuries of Church history?”

The other day, our church community started a series focused on asking hard questions about the Bible; where it came from, how it was written and assembled, what it contains and what are faithful ways we can begin to interpret its seemingly beautiful and broken contents. 

Let’s be honest, many folks have been reading the Bible since they were small children and now approach it will so many assumptions around interpretation and application that our engagement with the living text has calcified. On the other hand, many of us are new to following Jesus and asking where this book containing violence, infidelity and tribalism fits into liberating love and faithful discipleship.

We have two choices: 1. Continue with our assumptions about the text and stay comfortable (and potentially resentful), or 2. Engage the text critically seeking a renewed understanding of its place in our Christian story.   

I would endorse the latter. We don’t honor the Scriptures by dancing around the hard questions that force us into the muck and messiness of this complex story. No, we honor the Scriptures when we push into them with an eye toward understanding where they fit in God’s story of reconciliation with humanity and redemption of all the cosmos. It should make us squirm when we read about God endorsed genocide in the Old Testament and dehumanizing endorsements of “slavery” and gender inequality in the New Testament. We can let that squirming fester and lead us to resentment or withdrawal, or we can jump right into it seeking to understand beyond a surface reading that fails to invite us into the depth and breadth of the text in context.

A Couple Thoughts to Frame this Conversation

We don’t follow the Bible, we follow Jesus. When those get inverted, bad things happen. Yes, the Bible is one of the primary resources for faithfully following Jesus, and we are commanded to obey Scripture, but it is a means to an end…not the end in and of itself. When we follow the Bible (or, more accurately, our interpretation of it…) rather than Jesus, we may get the “right” answers while failing to live, love and lead in the way Jesus did and calls us to do. We can’t prooftext our way to right relationship (e.g. 1st century Pharisees or modern street preachers holding hate signs that may -- or may not -- have the “right” answers but in no way reflect the love of Jesus for humanity). We must enter into relationship and allow the Spirit to lead and guide us in the middle of it. 

The Bible wasn’t written ABOUT us, but it was written FOR us. We have to understand context and genre because most people writing the Bible and/or whose story the Bible was telling lived in a radically different context that we do today. The vast majority of the Biblical canon is written about a people (Israel) who are seeking to rightly follow God (Yahweh) and reflect his love to the world as they live as a migrant community wandering the Middle East or as a community in exile under the heavy yoke of Empire (of course, they had seasons in power as well). Bottom line, as Western Christians who have the most “power” in the world, there is very little we can relate to about the realities of who the Bible was written about. We’d be wise to ask our immigrant neighbors or our brothers and sisters living under the reign of a violent regime how they may help us intrepret the Story of God told through Israel. Lastly, it was written FOR us in as much as it is a story of humanity’s (which includes us) journey back to God and his mission of reconciliation and redemption of all the cosmos. 

Infallibility, Inerrancy and all that fun stuff. This is where things often get a bit sticky. The Bible is a book written by human beings with stories, agendas and literary techniques unique within their context. Yes, the Bible was God-breathed, but we have to understand both the human writing and human reading of the text. Inerrancy is a modern concept; not applied to Scripture until the Enlightenment when truth became primarily associated with science, logic and rationality. Infallibility doesn’t lead people astray, it leads people into the middle of the human story (with all its muck, mess, beauty, hope, tragedy, doubt, etc) and of God’s willingness to meet them right in the middle of it. 

The Art of Interpretation. There is a long history of brilliant people trying to decide how in the world to interpret this wildly complex and sacred text. The way in which said brilliant people have chosen to interpret represents a really, REALLY wide spectrum. Some have chosen to see Scripture as allegorical (Church Father, Origen, being a leading proponent), which proposes that the deepest truth of Scripture isn’t found in a literal reading, but in the space where the words are pointing us (beyond and below a literal reading). On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that a literal reading of text is the only way to faithfully interpret the truth being conveyed by the biblical authors. In short, it is important to note that there is no such thing as reading the Bible without interpreting it. There are many ways to interpret and we trust the Spirit to guide us to those ends, but all is interpretation and we’d be wise to embrace that as a gift rather than a threat.  

PRIMARY THEME: It is important to enter our reading of the Bible with an eye toward the meta theme of God’s Story, which is God’s Reconciliation with Humanity and Redemption of all the cosmos (New Creation). Amid all of the potentially confusing, complex and confounding pieces of Scripture, this is the theme our interpretation must point back to (unless, of course, you view the primary theme as something radically different…). It is a story of right relationship, grace, selfless love, unfolding liberation and a relentless pursuit of all things being set to right.  

CENTRAL CHARACTER: Israel. Yep, this is not the answer most people expect to hear and, sadly, I don’t have space to fully unpack the nuances here. In short, the whole of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is the story of Israel’s covenant relationship with God (Yahweh) and their vocation to reflect good news to the world. The Bible isn’t a story of autonomous stories that are fun to read. No, they are all placed within God’s redemptive plan for humanity as seen through its central character, Israel. “Well, what about Jesus?” one may ask. Yes, Jesus is the more important character in the story, but we MUST understand Jesus in the context of his role in Israel’s story. Jesus is the long awaited messianic deliverer of Israel (second “Adam”) who finally liberated them from exile and expanded the identity of the people God to the ends of the earth. Jesus is central to Israel’s story and to understand him outside of the context completely neuters the story and his decisive role within it. 

In my next post (part 2), I’ll seek to answer the question, “Where did the Bible come from?” by offering a brief recap of how the content was captured over a couple thousand years leading up to the final canonization of our current Christian Bible. 

 

1 2 3 4  Scroll to top