Monday, January 30, 2017

Whose Life is More Important?
Back in November 2015, I wrote a post asking, "Is the cost of security and self-preservation worth it?" This seems particularly relevant with the latest executive orders, so I've decided to repost it below. I think it's of significant note that the refugees and immigrants being banned are not those who are threats to us, which seriously undermines any security argument.

Here is a sermon from a guest at our church with first hand experience of having Syrian refugees move into her neighborhood. An audio-only version is also available.


Security has become a bit of a conversational past time the last couple of weeks. The Syrian refugee crisis and Paris attacks have, of course, brought this to a significant head. But the issue is not new and comes up with various issues, including gun control, police force, just war theory, etc.

My problem is that, like many issues, we have dichotomized the sides, which doesn't help any solution-finding. We need to validate that a sense of security for ourselves is important. But security for other people is important, too.

Assuming refugees pose various dangers to us (on Monday, I talked about my personal experience with Muslim peacemakers), is our safety more important than the safety of the refugees? Should we be putting our needs and (more commonly) comfort about the basic (often life and death-related) needs of others? It's human nature to do so, so it's understandable, but is it what we should strive to do?

When we start denying people asylum in order to protect ourselves from potential (not guaranteed) cultural changes and potential (again, not guaranteed) attacks, we should also not place these as opposites and acknowledge the true costs. Few people want cultural change, and no one wants the safety of their loved ones and themselves to be put at risk.

What we are saying is that maintaining our culture as it is is worth hundreds of thousands of lives of the Other who have no safe place to go. We are willing to let hundreds of thousands of innocent people live in limbo with a horrible quality of life with many likely dying in order to maintain a status quo culture and give us a sense of security. Is that cost worth it?

Let's assume for a moment that denying refugees prevents another 9/11-like attack, so we have saved 3,000 American lives. The cost is hundreds of thousands of refugees' lives. All are innocent victims. All would be tragedies. So are our lives worth more than theirs? What does it say about our value system that we put psychological security above human rights? The problem is the cost of denying refugees isn't ours to pay, at least in the short term and materialistically. It's theirs. But it's ultimately our cost morally.

What is our obligation to our fellow human? When do we put ourselves at risk in order to reduce the risk to someone else?

Should security be pursued at all costs? Is self-preservation or (wise) self-sacrifice for the sake of another the higher goal? 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Standing Together

Let's be clear: The strong protest against Trump is not ultimately about policy. (He doesn't even know his own policy, so that can't truly happen, and no policy debate can occur in 140 characters.)

It is about him betraying fundamental American values through his disrespect and dismissiveness of other people. It's about his inability to recognize the value of people who are different from him.

Though I didn't vote for him, I have come to deeply admire and respect Obama. It's generally not hard to find something to admire and respect about our Presidents. I can do that for all those in my lifetime. I hope Trump finds a way to act and do something that's worthy of admiration and respect at some point. That's best for us all, even if we disagree with his policies.

But we must stand for respectful, inclusive dialogue, something our president elect seems fundamentally against. Meryl Streep's best line was "Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose." This is true regardless of policy or political party. And it has been evidenced repeatedly in many people's actions in the name of Trump.

Support the Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian, or other party platform.

But let's stand together in standing together. Especially on this day remembering and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Should Tolerance be Limited?

In any time of controversy, there are claims of tolerance, intolerance, and intolerance of intolerance. The last one has gotten a lot of play time post-election, with people claiming those protesting the election and criticizing Trump voters are intolerant in their promotion of tolerance. I understand this argument well, as I claimed and experienced intolerance of different views during my time in Berkeley by some of the residents. Some of the "tolerant" ultra-liberals would write people off for having a view that even remotely smacked of conservatism.

So is that again what is going on now with the anti-Trump sentiment? Should tolerance be completely unconditional? Is intolerance of intolerance hypocritical?

It's probably helpful to start with the definition of tolerance. Google's first definition is:

The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
And since defining a tolerance with tolerate may not be all that great, let's see what Google says about tolerate:
Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.
I think this is really helpful, as it focused on allowing difference of opinion. This is really foundational in democratic (as in democracy, not the Democratic party) society. If we cannot allow differences of opinion and get along, society falls apart. Although this is also the reason for many wars over the years. As people live closer together, we have increasing encounters with people who are different from us.

How well we can we deal with that reflects on our level of tolerance. Most folks I know (and likely everyone who will read this) would agree with that basic idea--we want to tolerate differences.

But the reality is we all have our limits. How different can someone be before we say, "No"? What thoughts and ideas are too extreme before they get censored?

The biggest apparent irony is when those who promote tolerance draw the line at ideas that do not accept diversity. Is this contradictory to their tolerant ideals?

I think it's helpful to also get beyond definitions and consider the ideals that drive tolerance. These are oversimplifications, but hopefully helpful.

A major reason for tolerance is driven from a social justice perspective that there is inherent value in each person and in dialogue and discussion reflecting many opinion. It helps enhance and shape greater understanding of the world and ourselves. Therefore, we need to protect ideas that may seem different. This is what's behind academic freedom, the theological idea of soul liberty, discussion groups, and even some parts of freedom of the press. However, this motivator has quite a range of tolerance levels and endorsement of what kinds of things can be valuable.

When someone values tolerance in order to bring people together, limits to tolerance (meaning times of intolerance) make sense. Tolerance is an active process that helps give people recognition. If an idea misrepresents or disregards another group's rights or perspective, tolerance ends. We can see examples of not tolerating murder, rape, many forms of crimes foundationally, not just as a practical element of society.

We can make an argument that Jesus displayed intolerance in the temple when he threw out the vendors. He made many efforts to create an inclusive group, from tax collectors to prostitutes to temple priests, but his tolerance ended when people were stopping other people's access to God.

I would make an argument that tolerance should be limited when ideas misrepresent, disregard, disrespect, and make no effort or willingness to seek understanding of another viewpoint. Unfair intolerance by the tolerant (and yes, it definitely exists) happens when we do not accept a different perspective, but people's rights are not violated, etc. For instance, slavery should not be tolerated. White supremacy/nationalism should not be tolerated. Violence toward any group with provocation (including law enforcement, racial groups, and faith groups) should not be tolerated.

So what has been happening post-election? A lot of misunderstanding! While some may complain just because of a loss and display unfair intolerance, the consistent message I hear is not rejecting ideas just because they don't like the ideas, but because the ideas promoted fundamentally misrepresent, disrespect, and disregard other groups. There is not an effort to gain accurate information or even dialogue.

Many people don't see this. They either haven't heard things that have been said (this has been far more common than I realized) and/or they have trouble understanding how problematic the words are. So I ask all to listen, to truly listen, to the other views and hear the authentic concerns. There are authentic concerns on both sides.

If we can listen with respect and humility, then we build authentic, helpful tolerance. Regardless, many of us will continue to stand intolerant of disrespect, of misrepresentation, and of disregarding other people and groups.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Love Brings Peace

This is the second week of Advent, with the topic of Peace, following the week of Hope. The nexus of these two topics is the first anniversary of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Friday marked the first anniversary of our community changing forever. I have three prior posts related to it: The week afterrelated to a sermon, and around the six month mark.
I find meaning in the anniversary occurring between Hope and Peace. And our pastor's sermon this week was quite relevant.
Some of us spoke in Sunday school about how San Bernardino, when known, wasn't known very positively. A terrorist attack doesn't put it on the map of positivity any more. However, I'm so proud of how our community has responded. It should be put on the map for its response to tragedy and trauma, beginning minutes after horror. While there were minutes of horror, there have been hours, days, weeks, months, and building toward years of love, compassion, encouragement, and unity.
I'm particularly proud of two organizations I'm a part of.
My county family has risen to the occasion to respond not only to our general community, but our Public Health family, as well as to ourselves. I still lead a team of liaisons serving survivors, and my liaisons are still available 7 days a week. They've made over 3,000 contacts this year (and this is to only one group). There isn't a day that goes by that we don't think about or do something to help support our community's recovery.
My church has quietly but actively engaged, as well. Members helped clean up scraps left by the FBI that were used in bomb making. Imagine the difficulty of having that left. Our interim pastor prayed with the family of the shooters. He and other members partnered with other places of worship for interfaith strength.
These are just some of the stories of true community strength, but you likely won't hear them in any media. What brings tears to my eyes is the active acts of love that exist without fanfare or recognition, but fundamentally transform lives.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Stop Misrepresenting, Start Listening

Wow, what a week, and how social media has blown up.

Before election day, I shared the photo in this blog, and I think it's time to share it again as a reminder to everyone.

Back in July, I also predicted that many people would have trouble accepting the results, but that part of what makes us great is the process of democracy, not necessarily the results. I stand by both of these posts.

The problem is that people on both sides are not just sharing their personal concerns or convictions. Rather, they are misrepresenting other perspectives, largely from not actually understanding the other side. We have all been quick to talk and slow to listen.

Before creating and re-sharing another nasty meme dismissing and even condemning a different opinion, please try to fully understand it. Please deeply listen to concerns on both sides.

Here are two articles that anti-Trump folk probably should read to understand some of the non-racist reasons people supported him:

For the Trump supporters who do not understand the protests, here are some articles and thoughts. Violent protests are not acceptable, and protests do not mean that those protesting don't acknowledge that Trump won fair and square. It's not even about policy issues. It's in alignment with serious concerns people have about his fundamental dismissal of huge groups of people based on inaccurate generalizations, reinforced by the people he is surrounding himself with. People must stand up against injustices, in alignment with a classic Martin Niemöller quote:
First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
And some articles that may help the Trump supporters listen to the deep concerns of the anti-Trump movement:
As Obama said, we all want Trump to succeed. Indeed, that would be best for the country. Success does not mean ostracizing huge groups of this country and world who have been central to making this country great. Success and greatness begin with listening and understanding differing opinions.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Are We Listening?

In the midst of debates of policy positions and voting decisions, do we really understand the motivations of people we criticize? While I know I'm never guilty of this (ha ha), I've noticed the way many people characterize others frequently displays a strong sense of ignorance of the nuances and true motivations of differing perspectives.

A friend posted an article that shares a painful perspective of someone who had a late term abortion. He specified that he didn't want people to debate the issue, just to read the story. Rather than trying to listen and understand someone else, many people complained that my friend didn't want people to debate there. They didn't want to listen and understand; they just wanted to argue.

Michael Moore recently claimed Trump supporters are "legal terrorists," dismissing the honest needs and motivations of people who will vote for Trump.

The Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter efforts, memes, etc. often don't understand each other and frequently talk past one another.

This only leads to more anger, divisiveness, and ability to dismiss other people and perspectives.

How do we make America kind again? By listening. By truly trying to compassionately understand the perspective and motivations of someone else. We may never agree with them, but if we can better comprehend the complexity of life, we may be less likely to build contempt.

My pastor gave an excellent sermon last month encouraging exactly this. I can't imagine a better way of explaining the importance of seeing people and how to do so. Morgan Guyton wrote a wonderful blog post reminding us that a full range of political perspectives and personalities live in our church, and we need to remember to love them--we're all in this together and usually have the same goals. And then there were two articles that attempt to build compassion for some of the reasons people may vote for Trump despite himself.

So let's us all help each other make American kind again by encouraging listening and seeing each other. Regardless of the election outcome, this is what we need to move forward.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Making Satan Real

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Christians view and interpret Christ rather diversely. However, there seem to be even wider discrepancies between understandings of Satan. Is he real or a metaphoric personification? Is he a fallen angel or playing a designated role in God's court? Does he have real power or not? Do Christians need to worry about Satan, or should we have no fear because we live in Christ? Many modern Christians in developed countries seem to avoid the issue, perhaps reading CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, but not having much more conscious experience with the Devil beyond that.

In Reviving Old Scratch, Richard Beck's intended audience is the group of Christians who, as he says, are "doubters and the disenchanted." He taps into sociological frameworks with the latter term, referring to the opposite of enchanted worlds, where we see overt supernatural influence all around us. Disenchanted means stripping the magical quality of things, largely via scientific explanation. A good example of this comes from a missionary living in Africa, where a woman had an emergency delivery. When she returned to her village with her newborn, her health quickly declined. The local Christian seminary students were convinced the neighboring village had put a spell on her and started threatening them to release her. Just then, the village received a physician, who quickly identified an infection and medically treated her. The villagers were skeptical, but trusted the physician. A few days later, she was just fine. Those villagers live in an enchanted world. Few Americans would even have a similar thought cross through their minds in the same situation--we have a scientific explanation and solution. Beck cleverly and aptly summarizes our disenchantment process as "Scooby-Dooification," referring to the classic Scooby-Doo plot line of a supernatural threat that eventually gets unveiled as a common person creating fear in the guise of false supernatural forces. The disenchantment process of the supernatural is part of the solution of solving a crime.

This disenchanted world makes belief in anything supernatural, including God, difficult. The idea of Satan is even more challenging to many Christians in the developed world. Yet references to Satan and demons are pervasive through Scripture, and many people talk about the demonic as part of the influence of the world and their lives. People like Elaine Pagels have provided detailed explanations on how Satan is more metaphor and personification (a lecture transcript provides a nice summary of her analysis). However, Beck's foundational thesis is that this isn't a good enough response to Satan. Rather, there is actually something quite useful, powerful, and important about talking about Satan and demons as real. This is summarized nicely when he stated, "I turned the corner in my faith when I adopted a theology of revolt, a vision of spiritual warfare, a posture of action over theological rumination. I got disgusted with how much time and energy I was wasting on my doubts. It was time to get off my theological ass and into the game" (p. 82-83).

The biggest struggle I have with this text is how to categorize it. While categorizing isn't always necessary, it can be helpful to clearly know what the book's purpose is and how to set expectations. While the back of the tome labels Reviving Old Scratch as "Religion/Theology," Beck doesn't actually make any traditional theological arguments. He doesn't try to convince anyone about their theology of Satan. There's a basic assumption that Satan as a conscious force does not exist, which goes back to the disenchanted audience to whom he is writing. Rather, he seems more to provide many examples of how disenchanted Christians can still find value, meaning, and depth in Scriptural and everyday references to Satan and demons. He basically creates a hermeneutic for modern American Christians. That is fundamentally theological. However, it often feels like the book lives more on the Christian Living than Theology shelf. At times, it feels like a devotional, especially in part because while generally logically organized, the book seems more like a series of semi-related stories than building a logical, linear argument. In the midst of all of this, Beck deserves kudos for being able to reason in an academic environment, but write a book that is accessible and bridges both theology and Christian living.

There were two primary areas where the text made helpful theological insights for me:
  1. Early on, Beck introduces and seems to support the atonement theory of Christus Victor, which refers to Christ's death as a ransom. Satan holds humanity hostage, and God ransoms us through Christ's sacrifice. One of the biggest theological problems with this atonement theory is that it almost gives Satan more power than God--God is required to pay Satan. That gives many people pause. I found it odd that Beck talked about this theory, particularly from a disenchanted view. If Satan isn't a being, how does Christus Victor apply? Beck ultimately argues that demonic power is real, but he never really closes the theological loop on this point. However, his book triggered other connections in my mind. I've become a fan of Girardian scapegoat atonement theory, which asserts that it is humans who need a sacrifice--a scapegoat--to feel reconciled. It is the absurdity of Christ's sacrifice that breaks this cycle. What if Christus Victor and scapegoat theory could actually be describing the same thing, but Christus Victor from a more a enchanted worldview, while scapegoat is more disenchanted and psychological? If Beck is correct about the reality of demonic power over us, but due to the reality of the human condition, not because of a supernatural conscious force, what if God is actually trying to ransom us from ourselves?
  2. From a disenchanted worldview, many Christians struggle with ideas of worship. I've heard people say, "Is God really that insecure that he needs us to worship him every week?" I've also recently struggled with the purpose of singing and music--what is it really supposed to do? Beck provides some excellent examples about how the purpose of worship isn't to stroke God's ego, but it helps us reorient ourselves to refocus our actions. He states, "When life is hard, we must constantly exorcise the demons of despair. And worship, praise, and testimony are how we combat the despair and reach toward hope" (p. 131-132). That fundamentally impacted my experience of worship in the weeks that followed.
Beck's text is a nice addition to the conversation about Satan and the demonic. It won't be terribly helpful for those looking for more traditional exegesis. However, his stories bring Scriptural and theological principles to life in a powerful way. He makes abstract, removed ideas, especially for the disenchanted, real, immediate, and relevant. His framings provide good reminders and ways to consider and approach life. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages because of the many good ways he discusses important, timely topics. While some could think a book about Satan could be depressing, this is a quite uplifting, inspiring text. In fact, I ended the book with tears in my eyes from a touching concluding story.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).