Advent Week 3: Violence and the Table

This is the third week of Advent.  This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”.  The dominant theme of this Sunday is rejoicing.  The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”.  For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments.  If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.

For the past two weeks we have been coming around the idea of violence, which is only tangentially Advent-related (if at all), yet I believe very timely given where we are as a nation.  Last week we left off with a poignant question:  The story and cycle of violence as part and parcel of the human condition go back much further than any of us can remember.  Yet we as Christians are called to hold out hope that things can change.  How?

In the 2014 film Noah, there is a scene where Noah retells the story of creation to his children while they are on the ark.  We get to the story of Cain and Abel (3:21 in the video below) and, for a heart-stopping 27 seconds, we see the two brothers silhouetted against the sky, the sun low on the horizon (Sunset on peace?  Sunrise on violence?  Perhaps both), and a sequence in which the form of Cain cycles quickly through every kind of pre-firearm soldier imaginable as he is in the process of delivering the fatal blow to his brother Abel.

The meaning is clear:  Whenever we engage in violence, we re-enact that first act of violence committed by Cain against his brother Abel.

So given that our human predisposition to violence is something that goes all the way back to that first act of violence depicted in the story of Cain and Abel, it is clear that this is nothing new.  How then can we possibly have hope?

The answer lies at the Table, in the sacrament which is known as Communion in some traditions, also known as the Eucharist and possibly other names as well.  This sacrament is the realization of a hope that lies buried deeply within the story of Cain and Abel.

As the story goes, Cain and Abel both brought sacrifices to God.  Cain brought the fruit of the field.  Abel brought a lamb.  Abel’s sacrifice was accepted.  Cain’s was rejected.  Why?  The story doesn’t say.  Scholars and interpreters have teased this out in a million different ways but no one has been able to get a clear read on this.  At any rate, Cain turns his rejection into murder–the very first murder ever recorded.

But when we come to the Table, we see both sacrifices brought together.  We see the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  Abel’s sacrifice.  We also see the bread and wine–grain and grape, the fruit of the field.  Cain’s sacrifice.  Both brothers, both sacrifices, together.  And both are accepted by God.  And in this acceptance the brothers are reunited and reconciled, their enmity healed.

And herein lies our hope.  When we come to the Table, we can lay down all our cynicism, all our weary resignation, all our sighs of “Same as it ever was”, “There’s nothing we can do”, “That’s how it will always be”.  We can lay it all down at the feet of Jesus and let him resurrect it as hope.

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Roy Moore: A New Low for Evangelicalism

As mentioned in the previous post, there is now a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world.  As you have probably suspected, this is just a crush, exactly the sort of thing experienced by young teenage boys who are just starting to find their way in the world of love, romance, and dating.  (That I, at my advanced age, am still capable of such a thing–well, I leave it to you, dear reader, to form your own estimation of me in light of that.)

Crushes suck, but when you get to the other side you would gladly do it all over again.  Every time.  Why?  Because there is a payoff:  You have this beautiful young woman on the edge of your world and you are trying oh so hard to be the very best you that you can possibly be because she’s oh so worth it…

And then there’s Roy Moore.

ICYMI:  Alabama just had a special election to fill one of their US Senate seats.  Roy Moore was the Republican candidate.  He lost.  It was in all the papers.  (Kids:  Old school slang.  Ask your parents.)

Moore was the odds-on favorite in this election, until allegations surfaced that he had had inappropriate sexual relationships with as many as nine different women, some of whom were way underage.

Formerly the chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, Moore was an arch-conservative firebrand who said and did all the right things to reach those who believe that we need to “take our country back” for Jesus Christ–outlaw abortion, run off all the gays and the Muslims, put prayer back in public schools, the whole bit.

When the allegations surfaced, the big question was whether Moore’s evangelical supporters would stick with him.  They did.  To the tune of 80 percent, according to all the exit polls.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was emphatically in Moore’s corner.  “I have been dismayed and troubled,” said Dobson, “about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment.”

This is where we are in evangelicalism:  I now feel exactly like an English professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

I have spoken previously in this space about the “post-evangelical wilderness”.  Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories.  I found myself in the post-evangelical wilderness through a series of life events/challenges which all converged over the course of the previous decade, when I suddenly looked up and found that I was no longer quite the young hot-blooded evangelical that I had been back in happier times–and also that the world of evangelicalism around me had quietly morphed right before my very eyes into something almost unrecognizable to me.

This has accelerated over the past year, as I have watched my faith–the faith that proclaimed the Gospel to me and discipled me and gave me a spiritual home through a goodly portion of my collegiate and young adult existence, and has been very good to me over the years–sell its very soul right out from under me, linking arms with some of the worst specimens of humanity to elect a president who is the complete and total opposite of anything even remotely Christ-centered or Christ-shaped–even going so far as to claim that as a Christian I have a moral imperative to support this president.

This Roy Moore thing has just dumped several truckloads of nitroglycerine on that fire.

Almost two decades ago, and it really doesn’t seem that long ago at all, evangelicals, including me, were all up in arms because of allegations that our then-president Bill Clinton was having inappropriate sexual relationships with White House interns.  We believed that he ought to be impeached because character matters.  The Democrats and the liberal media all doubled down on their support of their guy and they all called us out of line because look at all the good things he was doing and how dare we get our panties all up in a wad over some quaint pedantic notion like character because what he does in his bedroom is his own business.  But we persisted because by God CHARACTER MATTERS!!!!!  But now here we are and suddenly character doesn’t count for jack shit.  Not when there’s tax reform legislation to pass and Obamacare to repeal and Supreme Court justices to appoint and Roe v. Wade to overturn and we’ve got to have our Republican majority so we’re giving you a president who brags incessantly about sexually exploiting women.  And if you don’t like that then by God we’ll give you Roy Moore the child sexual predator.

The world outside of evangelicalism is watching this shitshow.  We know that some things are right and others are just wrong.  We know that Jesus treated people with love and respect, especially those on the outer fringes of society, and that he calls on us to do likewise.  Moore’s treatment of the women with whom he had relationships flies in the face of this, and to believe that his positions and/or voting record excuses all of this–no, people.  It doesn’t.

Every person with whom you will ever come eyeball to eyeball is a person created in the image of God, and a person for whom Jesus Christ died.  Thus, every person has intrinsic worth and deserves to be treated in that fashion.  Roy Moore’s actions fly completely and totally in the face of this.  It is therefore impossible to support Roy Moore while maintaining that people have intrinsic worth because they are created in the image of God and because Jesus died for them.  The two just don’t square.

Think about this through the lens of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to support Roy Moore and his inappropriate sexual relationships with underage women–no, people.  There is no such case to be made.  That’s all there is to it.

I cannot possibly imagine myself going after this beautiful young woman, trying oh so hard to be the very best me that I can possibly be because she’s oh so worth it–and then telling her that I supported this toxic waste dump and all his inappropriate relationships with underage women.

Advent Week 2: Violence Is Who We Are

Today I wish to begin where we left off last week, with the Wendell Berry quote that I ran:

This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional. …Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.

…The event in _________ is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.

It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.

We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?

…The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.

This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.

–from “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)

As noted last week, Berry’s big idea is that we are simply not invested in doing anything about the status quo.  We don’t know the answers and we don’t even want to know them, because we are just too invested in the violence inherent in the status quo and how it benefits us.

Perhaps the best place to begin is just by owning up.  I am violent.  You are violent.  We are a violent people.  Violence is part and parcel of who and what we are as human beings.  Sure we’re not all terrorists or mass murderers, but who’s to say what any of us is capable of, given sufficient access to weapons and the right provocation at the right time?

You doubt me?  Go ahead and try driving the freeways of Atlanta during rush hour.  There, respect is not given, it must be demanded and taken by force.  You do not wish to imagine the words directed by me towards other drivers who are unwilling to grant me the respect I feel I am due.

There is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world.  (And I’m…well, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.  Hey, story of my life:  The other guy always gets the girl while I get to go back home to my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids.  But that’s beside the point here.)  She has a very sweet disposition, which is a large part of what endears me to her.  I find it well nigh impossible to imagine anything that even remotely begins to resemble a violent bone in her body.  Yet imagine it I must.  Given a sufficiently difficult day at work or a sufficiently lengthy and exhausting commute or a sufficiently awkward Thanksgiving dinner or other such stressful situation, who’s to say what manner of violent words and/or deeds she could be capable of?

Zoom out to the national level and the view doesn’t get any prettier.  As Americans, we are a violent people, by far the most violent in the world.  We feast on it.  We thrive on it.  We gorge ourselves on it as entertainment.  We are morbidly fascinated by it when we see it in the news.  As a nation, we are the farthest thing from a peace-loving people.  We are wired to dominate, to control, to force our way and throw our weight around on the world stage.  Go ahead and tell me what a bad thing it would be for us and for all the rest of the world if America were not like that.  You’re probably right and I don’t want to have that argument right now.  But even if our large, controlling, dominating presence on the world stage has made the world a safer and happier place by scaring all the bad guys into submission, it has come at a heavy cost to us because as individuals, we are shaped in the violent, controlling image that our nation projects on the world stage.  You doubt me?  Try driving the streets and/or freeways of Atlanta during rush hour, as noted above.

Given all of this, it is very difficult to have hope.  “Same as it ever was”, screams the chorus of cynics whenever a significant violent event takes over the news cycle.  “There’s nothing we can do.”  “That’s how it will always be.”  These voices shout down any hope that anyone could possibly have.  It would be so easy just to give up and go with the flow, to join our voices with those of the cynics who proclaim that we should not expect anything different and there is nothing we can do.

But as Christians, that option is not open to us.  We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was very much an idealist.  We believe in some crazy things, like the forgiveness of sins, redemption, and resurrection from the dead.  We believe in a guy who predicted his own death and resurrection and then went and pulled it off.  We have no business whatsoever just going with the flow when the cynics scream that it’s the same as it ever was and there’s nothing we can do.

But how can we possibly hold out hope when everything we see in the news cycle screams that there is no reason to hope?  We will have to take that up another time.

Advent Week 1: The World Is Ruled by Violence

Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

–Bob Dylan

Welcome to Advent.

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas.  When Christmas falls on a Sunday the fourth week of Advent is a full week.  This year, the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve so the fourth week of Advent is only one day.

Advent is a season of darkness. Not the special darkness of Lent, which results from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but a more general, pervasive darkness, the darkness of a world in waiting for the coming of its long-promised Savior and Redeemer. During this season, liturgical churches change the color and the decor, sing different hymns and do some things differently.  Around here, what we typically do is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This time we are going to talk about violence.  Why?  Because even though it is only tangentially (if at all) related to Advent, it is timely (I believe) given where we are at this moment in our nation’s history.

The Bible has way more to say about violence than about any of the other sins it addresses.  Some Jewish readings of Scripture hold the murderous episode of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), instead of the thing with the apple (Genesis 3), as humanity’s first sin.  Even if you do not agree with this reading, you must still take note that it only takes one chapter to get from the apple to the murder.

There is only one story in the entire Jewish/Christian tradition (the flood – Genesis 6) in which God pronounces a universal judgment against all of humanity.  What prompts this judgment?  The story begins thusly:  “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with …” –what?  Not homosexuality or abortion or kneeling during the national anthem (sorry conservatives).  Not institutional racism or corporate greed or environmental pollution or tax breaks for billionaires (sorry progressives).  Violence.

We go to the prophets and it is almost impossible to find a single page on which they are not decrying violence in graphic detail.  We go to Proverbs and the very first moral warning given by the author to young readers is as follows:

My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.
We shall find all kinds of costly things;
we shall fill our houses with booty.
Throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse’—
my child, do not walk in their way,
keep your foot from their paths;
for their feet run to evil,
and they hurry to shed blood.

–Proverbs 1:10-16

In light of this, a glaring question comes to mind:  Where are all the sermons about this?  Why isn’t this stuff front and center of every Christian discipleship program on the planet?

ICYMI:  Last month there was a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, a small town outside Dallas, Texas.  26 people were killed.

Predictably, right-wing conspiracy theorists were all over this thing like white on rice, labeling it a gay/liberal/Antifa/ISIS/communist conspiracy.

One church in Florida responded thusly:

Of course there are no answers to something like this.  Liberals who support gun control are way too enamored of it to acknowledge in any way, shape, or form the limits of how far gun-control legislation can go in curtailing this and other such acts of violence.  Conservatives, on the other hand, believe the answer is to place more guns in the hands of more people.  But that will do nothing save to ratchet up the violence yet another notch.  Both sides of the debate refuse to acknowledge that there is a limit to how far legislation–of any kind–can go.  This is not to say there is nothing we or anyone else can do and that we should not at least be working to prevent violence–I for one believe that common sense reforms to gun laws would be an improvement–but the problem is bigger than politics.  The problem is with all of us.  I am violent.  We are violent.  This world is ruled by violence.

But where is the Church in all of this?  Shouldn’t we be at the front lines of promoting sane, commonsense remedies to the violence in our communities?  Wouldn’t that be a way to show love to our communities and the people therein?  Conservatives decry the violence of abortion, yet when it comes to all of the other violence which permeates our news cycle…  *crickets*.  Progressives abhor oppression and violence against marginalized people and groups of all stripes, yet shamelessly employ tactics in the culture wars that would make Franklin Graham and Al Mohler fiercely proud if they were on the same team.

I shall leave you this week with the thoughts of Wendell Berry on the subject.  His big idea is that we are just not invested in doing anything to change the status quo.  We don’t know the answers, we don’t want to know the answers, because we have WAY too much invested in the violence inherent in the present order of things and how it benefits us.

This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional. …Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.

…The event in _________ is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.

It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.

We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?

…The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of hatred and killing? To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.

This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.

–Wendell Berry, from “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)