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.

Advertisements

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)

Michael Spencer: I Hate Theology

In light of the last few posts about one reason or another as to why systematic theology is on my shit list, I feel it would be good for us to look at a post from Michael Spencer about the dangers of certain approaches to theology, appropriately entitled “I Hate Theology“.  This is a lengthy read, but well worth it.  It is representative of my own feelings about the enterprise of theology.

While theology itself is a noble calling and it certainly has a place in the Christian life, there are many approaches to theology that are not good and have no place in the Christian life.  Spencer enumerates several such approaches:  Theology that lacks humility.  Theology that gets in the way of real ministry.  Theology that, in the name of confessional precision, sets itself up as the enemy of simple personal devotion.  Theology that passes itself off as divine revelation rather than fallible human effort.  Theology that must swat away every error (whether actual error or merely perceived as error) in sight.  Theology that ignores our humanity.

This has been my primary issue with systematic theology in the examples I have cited in prior posts:  That it ignores and even sets itself up as the enemy of our humanity.  That it sets itself up as the enemy of a perfectly good holiday celebration (Halloween) because a case can potentially be made that some elements of said celebration have historically pagan roots.  That it sets itself up as the enemy of an entire class of people created in God’s image, people for whom Christ died, by placing itself in the service of those who wish to uphold oppressive power structures in the Church by reviving practices which reinforce these structures.

Read:  I Hate Theology by Michael Spencer

Ladies: R. C. Sproul Says COVER YOUR HEADS!!!!!!!!!!

Yes, friends, this really is a thing.

It has been said that conservative, reactionary evangelicals can be described as “Trinitarian Muslims”.  Today I give you an example of that:  The Head Covering Movement.

Sadly, this is far from being just your run-of-the-mill rogue evangelical fringe movement.  They have the full backing of evangelical theological heavyweight R. C. Sproul, who on the front page of the organization’s website states:

The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…?

Here we see another glaring example as to why systematic theology, at least as practiced in the Neo-Calvinistic universe, is on my shit list.

Sproul and other head-covering proponents make an egregious error in their reading of this particular Pauline directive:  They assume that Paul’s letters are open letters addressed to all Christians everywhere, in all places, times, ages, cultures, and other possible situations.

They’re not, people.  Paul was writing to specific churches in specific places in a specific age, facing specific challenges which he felt the need to speak to.  Paul had not even the foggiest notion that those letters would ever make it out of first century Rome, let alone make it into our present-day Bible.  By the grace of God those letters were preserved and we get to listen in on the conversations Paul was having with the churches he planted.  But get the notion out of your heads that Paul was sitting down to write the New Testament and he knew he was sitting down to write the New Testament when he wrote those letters.  Because he wasn’t and he didn’t.

As to the head-covering thing:  Some say that in first century Rome a woman’s hair was intimately tied up with her sexuality, so much so that the modern equivalent of going with uncovered hair in first-century Rome would be going topless.  In first century Rome the only women who went with uncovered hair were prostitutes and slaves.  Prostitutes in all places and ages are generally treated as subhuman, as objects and products instead of people.

In light of that, Paul’s head-covering thing is actually very pro-woman.  Paul is basically saying “Hey ladies:  You are not a product or an object, but a person who has value to God and others.  So do not dress like a prostitute or a slave because I do not want anyone treating you like that.”

Yet the head-covering proponents do not see Paul’s directive in that light.  They wrench it out of that context and bring it into our day and age as a club with which to quash a modern cultural/political movement which threatens their preferred status quo, demeaning and subjugating women in the process.  Sproul makes this clear in his quote on the Head Covering Movement website:  “[W]ere our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…?”

Here we see what this is really all about.  It is about a certain view of who and what women are and ought to be in the home, in church, and in the world.  A view in which it is men who call the shots and woman can do and be nothing more than what men will allow.  In short, it is about the dehumanization and objectification of women at home and in the church.  It is about bringing back a practice which reinforces said dehumanization and objectification, despite the fact that the original intent of this practice was to give worth and dignity to women.

Al Mohler is Against Halloween

If you’re looking for an example as to why systematic theology, at least as practiced in the Neo-Calvinistic evangelical world, is on my shit list, here it is.  Today I give you Al Mohler’s Halloween week podcast, in which we see that he is sounding increasingly like Jack Chick (kids and those of you from outside evangelicalism:  Wikipedia), albeit a more scholarly and refined version thereof.

With this being a podcast, he hits on a couple of different vignettes.  First, we see that he is against Halloween (no surprise there) because it has pagan roots, and he is all up in arms about the apparent resurgence of cultural interest in Halloween.  Our culture is increasingly secular, in his way of looking at things, yet at the same time spiritual in the sense of being pagan and occult and even satanic.

Since when is the Wolfman satanic?  Since when are zombies satanic?  Oh I’m sure there is a historical connection between all these things and the pagan, occult practices of old and of course if one connects all the dots according to the Neo-Reformed way of looking at things it all adds up to anything even remotely connected with Halloween as satanic and therefore to be avoided like the plague by any and all who profess the name of Jesus Christ.

Mohler then goes on to hit on a couple of other things, including a student organization at Georgetown, a Catholic university, which is under fire for promoting Catholic teaching with respect to marriage.  I will not address this except to say that I would bet you good money there is more to this story than Mohler is letting on.

People, the whole point of Halloween is that Christ defeated death and all the evil powers of this world.  Because of this, we can mock them with impunity, even to the point of dressing our kids up like ghosts and ghouls and other such things because they have no power whatsoever.

So walk under that ladder.  Adopt that black cat.  Break that mirror.  Put on that zombie costume and scream “SUCK IT MOHLER!!!!!!!!!”  Because Christ has defeated death and there is nothing you or anyone else can do to mess that up.

Luther Never Wrote a Systematic Theology

One of the chief selling points of Martin Luther is that he never wrote a systematic theology.

Neo-Reformed Calvinism is the new black in evangelicalism.  One of its big selling points is that it offers a rigorous, intellectually satisfying way of looking at things.  One has to admire the rigor of thought produced by John Calvin and his heirs, how it all fits together into a tidy system which explains everything there is to know about God, life, and faith, all with chapter and verse to back it up.

But at the end of the day, this way of looking at things is too divorced from the reality of human life.  The vast majority of us are real, flesh-and-blood people who do not live in a universe where truth is precisely defined and the path of obedience explicitly delineated, all with chapter and verse to back it up.  We live in a real world with real struggles, real doubts, and real messiness.

Luther understood this.  He started and stayed where all theologians should:  in the pages of the Bible and in the mess of day-to-day living.  His earliest preaching assignments were from the Psalms, which captures the full range of human emotion.  In the midst of divine majesty there is also human darkness, doubt, and despair.  Luther insisted that Scripture must be taught pastorally and only in ways which lead to Christ.  The example of Luther shows us that theology is worthless unless it begins and ends with the messiness of human life, in the world in which we all live.

Thank You Senator Flake

ICYMI:  Yesterday Arizona senator Jeff Flake announced that he would not be seeking another term.  That announcement was embedded in a remarkable speech which speaks truth with moral authority to the buffoonery currently in power.  Though some are critical of Flake for leaving the battlefield, as it were, this article takes a different view of things.

When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseam — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions of our liberty, then we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.

Would that we could all have the courage to speak the truth in this moment in our nation’s history.

Here is Senator Flake’s speech in its entirety, along with a video.