Category Archives: Leadership

Love’s In Need of Love

I don’t normally repost things, but this is never more timely.

 

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. – Lao Tzu

Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving.  It is loyalty through good and bad times.  It settles for less than perfection and makes allowance for human weaknesses. – Ann Landers

They do not love who do not show their love. – William Shakespeare

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. – Dalia Lama

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31

Several years ago, I facilitated a group discussion on Living Biblically in Contemporary Society.  My intent was to create opportunities for dialog among a diverse group of Christians in our church on issues common in society then, and just as much today: immigration, gun control, sexual identity, climate change, race, and other topics on the societal radar.  Our discussions were lively, and by no means did everyone agree on everything, which I expected.  The underlying consideration was wrestling with how we could demonstrate a Christ-like ethos at every turn, not on reaching agreement about the rightness or wrongness of any given position.

 The core of that ethos, as I see it, is found in John 3:16, one of the most referenced passages in the Bible: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  This one statement leads me to this conclusion: Those who place their faith in GOD through Jesus Christ are to love what He loved and still loves, irrespective of whether we agree with the moral appropriateness of a social position, political stance, or behavior that is an outgrowth of an issue.  Love does not equate to condoning everything that happens around us.  If it did, any and all moral stances rooted in a desire to obey the GOD of the Bible would be meaningless.                                 

I suspect that it would take the Library of Congress (or perhaps more) to house all of the quotes from notable people about our need for giving and receiving giving love. The kind of love the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 comes immediately to my mind because of John 3:16, but not to the exclusion of romantic love or love of family members and friends.  Paul’s description is special because it is all-encompassing and without condition, which makes it also rare.  I view it as a key mile marker in “the race to win the prize for which GOD has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” that Paul speaks of Philippians 3:14.

 To recap, here’s what Paul says this kind of love does and doesn’t do:

  • It has a lot of patience and puts up with an awful lot
  • It is kind
  • It is not driven by ego
  • It doesn’t act out
  • It is not self-seeking
  • It is hard to provoke
  • It thinks the best of others, not the worst
  • It takes no joy in wrongdoing
  • It finds the truth to be a source of joy
  • In the face of problems caused by others, it is never cynical
  • It is always hopeful even when confronted with difficulty

 Whenever I read the passage, I’m reminded that this is the love that GOD has for me, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. I’m also reminded that I’m called to have the same goal as the Apostle Paul, including loving GOD and my neighbor in this way, which is only possible through the ministry of GOD’s Holy Spirit working in me.  If you’re unclear as to whom your neighbor is, review Luke 10:25-37 (Hint: GOD’s definition is pretty broad).

Because I live in the 21st century rather than the 1st, my natural tendency is to think that the possibility of loving like this is a distinctly and ridiculously naïve notion, i.e. it is impossible to give or to receive love this way because of the climate of competition between tribes, boundary protection (personal and group), the hoarding of resources for the sake of having a sense of security, and the gaining of power and influence (or, at least, aligning ourselves to the powerful and influential).

A friend once said our social climate today is really no different than what we see in street gang behavior, with each gang having its membership requirements, territories, identifiers, code words and signs. Although it seems to be increasingly amplified today, I think human history, since Adam’s sin in Eden, reveals that it has been this way since Cain’s jealousy of and subsequent destruction of Abel.  If humanity has always been this way and continues to be this way, then the Lord’s admonition to love is the only counter force that can demonstrate another way…you might say The Way.  Ironically, this is what Christianity was called before it was called Christianity.

This issue has been percolating in me for several months, prompted by a fresh hearing of Stevie Wonder’s, “Love’s In Need of Love Today.”  Recorded in 1974 as one entry on his masterful Songs in the Key of Life double album, it speaks in a soul touching way, of the very serious, negative impacts on all of life occurring because of serious deficits of love.  Stevie asks us to consider that love itself feels unloved, the very thing that some of the greatest thinkers in history, including the Greatest, say is essential to our being.  Love feels unloved! How messed-up is that?

To choose not to love is downward devolution from what humanity is supposed to be. To choose not to love is to deny the need for godliness. To reject love by not loving is to reject GOD Himself, for He is love (1 John 4:8).  This is not Hallmark sentimentality; this is the Word of GOD in all of its weight and glory.

If, as Stevie Wonder sings, love is need of love today, perhaps we who carry the name “Christian” need to submit ourselves to the examination light of GOD’s Word and Spirit, and the example of His only begotten Son.  We need to make sure that we are not in the way of what He wants to accomplish in us and through us, but in The Way.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2018. All rights reserved for textual content.

 

If you’ve never heard Stevie’s song before, here’s a clip:

https://www.google.com/search?q=love%27s+in+need+of+love+today&source=lnms&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiY1ZaB5qTcAhWmiOAKHYWlDYMQ_AUICSgA&biw=1051&bih=461&dpr=1.3

 

Reconciliation

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18) 

On the same day this is posted, I’m sharing a related, though much briefer devotional reading with folks in my denominational context based on this passage from 2 Corinthians.  Some of that devotional will be included here, but I want to use this platform to expand on my thoughts in light of conversations I’ve been a part of over the last two weeks, in particular, but also from time to time over the course of my adult life.

The term “reconciliation” denotes the existence of something broken.  Though I know there are some who are still in denial, it’s hard to deny with any integrity that the broad existence of racism, ethnocentrism (belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group), and xenophobia (fear, hatred and/or distrust of that which is foreign) in our world indicates a fundamental brokenness in the ability of human beings to be in healthy relationship outside of one’s preferred group.  Even within groups, culturally rooted sexism, which so often undercuts women’s legally equal status, points to real brokenness and explains the discouragement many women experience regardless of their economic status.

From the very first post on this blog, I’ve been clear about my beliefs and my commitment to what I believe is the objective voice of GOD as expressed in His word, what we commonly call the Bible.  I start here because of things that I have heard and have had said to me from some, including a few who claim the same faith as I.

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:26-27). 

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22: 37-40; see also Leviticus 19:18)

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28; see also Colossians 3:11).

The marginalization and minimalization of any created being, whether an individual or a member of a nation, tribe or tongue is irreconcilable to the purposes and will of GOD for humanity.  And yet, here we are!

One of the reasons for our being here, at least for those in the USA I believe, is the attitude of “I didn’t do it so I’m not responsible.”  This alone is an explicit rejection of biblical oneness. Our Senate Majority Leader used this argument recently when asked about an issue related to slavery and its continuing impact on American civil life, “None of us currently living are responsible.”1

Personal and collective responsibility to earnestly attempt to right wrongs is rejected.  The hyper-individualism built into the fabric of this nation enables people to effectively push back on pleas to do something.  We see this, unfortunately, in much of evangelicalism where righteousness and justice have been separated as twin principles of goodness and replaced by a heavy emphasis on personal piety as the sole standard bearer of what is good.  This combined with the refusal of responsibility easily leads to a “not my problem” attitude.  The net result is a state of national sin (We may have a problem…) and its legacy which no one wants to own (but it’s not my problem).

This is understandable, again in light of the highly influential American ideal of individualism, but as an excuse, it is historically invalid.  Here are three examples I point to as highlights:

  1. The Ancient Israelites. The sins of the generation of formerly enslaved Israelites following 400 years of Egyptian slavery were so broad and continuous, despite the blessings of GOD (presence, provision, and protection) that He caused them to wander in the desserts of Sinai and Arabia for 40 years.  They were not allowed to enter the promised land.  The entire culture was judged and held accountable.  It was only after this generation died that entry was possible.  And the same faith and obedience required but not demonstrated by their parents was required of this new generation.  They were raised in the midst of consistently disobedient and spiritually derelict people.  This was a major component of their legacy.  And while the new generation were given opportunity and help in not repeating the mistakes of the past, and even despite their pledges to be faithful, their track record was inconsistent, and it degraded over time in ways that modeled the previous generation.  The result: once again, the entire culture was judged and held accountable.  Who among them were able to say, “I didn’t do it so it’s not my problem.”  It was everyone’s problem.

 

  1. The Shoah (Holocaust of the Jews during World War II). The genocide of 6 million Jews by the German Nazi regime and their proxies (along with 5 million Poles, Russians, Roma, and homosexuals) was inarguably among the most horrible set of events in human history.  In the last 70 years, however, in the old West Germany and now in the consolidated country, reconciliation efforts have been extensive, continuous and genuine.  One result is Germany’s ascendant international popularity within the international community..2  What is more astounding are the number of Jews who are opting to move to Germany as a place where they feel safe and comfortable.3  This remarkable outcome could not have happened without the collective support and engagement of a majority of the German population.

3.  Japan and Korea. To this day, tensions remain between Japan and South Korea expressed in political and trade disputes.  The roots go back 100 years and was vividly evidenced during WWII.  During the war, Japan conquered and occupied Korea and made many Koreans forced laborers (slaves).  Additionally, many Korean women were forced into sexual slavery through a system referred to as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.  The demands for Japan to repair the damage caused by their atrocities have not been sufficiently met according to the South Korean government.  The Japanese, however, have staked out a position that all matters are settled,4 e. they are no longer responsible for what happened in the past.   This unresolved tension is a sensitive issue for the Japanese, one for which it is not politically correct to openly discuss.  Many young South Korean adults, on the other hand and born decades after the war, have taken this on as their own issue of current political protest.  It remains a problem.

Each generation’s failure to confront and address the sins of prior generations perpetuates participation in the sin, not because we necessarily overtly commit them (although we can) but because we omit acknowledging and confronting their existence and impact (James 4:17).  If we truly are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, not being the cause of something does not mitigate against responsibility for wrongs against our siblings because. long after those who have caused the problem have passed into eternity, the impact of the wrong remains.  A society that depends on the “I’m not responsible” argument is one that is not supported by history.  The sins and failures of each generation have this way of following succeeding generations.  The argument ignores the corporate nature of the human body…and most certainly the GOD-defined nature of the body of Christ.

The opportunity is to either correct the past or to ignore the past, wishfully thinking that the past will resolve itself.  Perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, it will take direct action by GOD to address the wrongs of both the far and near past.  The Germans took it upon themselves to look themselves in the mirror and courageously face their past.  The result is that something wondrous is happening.  For the South Koreans and the Japanese, the situation remains to be seen, although it seems both sides have the feet dug-in.

Like any unresolved conflict, the result of ignoring the past or suppressing it just forces conflict to bubble over (or explode) at another time and perhaps in other ways.  Not sure about that?  Ask Dr. Phil or any competent psychological counselor.  That’s what I believe we are seeing in the USA today, the reemergence of long-simmering conflict repeatedly ignored and suppressed by the denial of its existence and the refusal to acknowledge any responsibility, individual or collective.

Another reason we’re here is because whenever an individual or group experiences injustice, someone else benefits, materially and/or psychologically.  When these benefits accrue to one (or to some), are the beneficiaries not complicit in the injustice if they accept the benefits?  If the answer is ‘yes,’ then these beneficiaries bear a responsibility to correct the injustice.  Refusal to move toward correction is a tacit approval of the cancerous condition of injustice where it produces privileges for some and penalties for others.  A ‘no’ answer to any complicity is a validation of the injustice and a commitment to the status quo.

Whenever restrictive and discriminatory housing practices, predatory mortgages, prejudicial treatment toward retail customers, inequitable treatment by police, inequities in educational access and delivery for children, use of urban settings for environmental dumping, neighbors who harass those who are exercising their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (e.g. walking, jogging, backyard barbecuing, enjoying public parks, birdwatching), and a list of other examples that are common negative experiences of some folks, there is an opposite positive experience for others.  Something limited or denied to some is made readily available to others.  This is a corrosive reality which has had and continues to have important negative side effects across a broad spectrum of the American population.5

Finally, I return to the word “reconciliation” which I mentioned early in this post and a word I’ve heard lot lately, to hardly anyone’s surprise.  Societal clashes of various sorts tend to raise the profile of that particular need.  Reconciliation was a significant theme in the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990s.  I went to several of those stadium conferences and one or more of the speakers were designated to speak on the topic.  All of them did I great job, I thought…although we’re still talking about it.

In March 1992, I was at a conference held at a Youth for Christ camp outside of Johannesburg, South Africa during the S. A. referendum on ending apartheid.  Only white citizens were able to vote in that referendum, and all of us in the conference (members of my denomination from the African countries south of the equator along with a handful of Americans and Europeans) waited in great anticipation at the outcome.  Even while various people were speaking, a small box radio (remember those?) was tuned in the back of the room so that we could track the voting returns.  That historical vote opened the door to a powerful and deeply needed work of reconciliation in that country that had known so much strife and bitterness rooted in racial separation and domination.

Four decades ago, the first description of reconciliation I heard in my local church was this: Reconciliation is when something broken, like a dinner plate, is carefully pieced and glued back together.  The cracks from the brokenness will still be visible, but the plate is whole once again and fit to be used for its intended purpose.”  I recall this illustration every time I hear the word “reconciliation.”

A question I’ve asked often over the years (usually to myself) is, if Christ was able to reconcile the entire world to the GOD the Father, why can’t we be reconciled to one another, person to person, group to group?  I believe we can, but I think the cost is big, perhaps too big for some.6  It requires of each person a decision to be the reconciliation just as Jesus was.  It means having a broad vision of and for the world.  It means following in Christ’s footsteps in the deeds of reconciliation as well as its words.

Reconciliation flows from the inside out and reflects the desire of the heart to be one with other hearts.  While it may be motivated by an external influence, the movement toward reconciliation cannot flow from anything outside of us.  It won’t come from some source other than the spirit of reconciliation at work within us.  As 2 Corinthians 5:18 says, reconciliation is a ministry given to the Church.  This means those of us who are the Church:  everyone who counts themselves as a member of the family of GOD who loves the world.

How wonderful it would be for us to be the glue that binds the broken pieces together.  This is extremely hard and self-sacrificial work, and for too long many have pushed it away and that’s why we’re still here.  My prayer is that GOD’s way will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

“Every time in history that men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” – Henri Nouwen

1 – Corky Siemaszko, NBC News digital, July 8, 2019.

2 – Greg Rienzi, “Other Nations Could Learn from Germany’s Efforts to Reconcile After WWII,” John Hopkins Magazine, Summer 2015.

3 –  Daniel Estrin, “Thousands of Israelis Make Berlin Their Home and Make Their Cultural Mark,” NPR, March 7, 2019 and Isabel Vincent, “Why American Jews Are Moving to Germany,” New York Post, January 5, 2019.

4 – South Korea and Japan’s Feud Explained, BBC News, December 2, 2019.

5 – Karina Bland, “Blue eyes, brown eyes: What Jane Elliott’s famous experiment says about race 50 years on,” The Republic, AZCentral.com, November 17, 2017 and 2015 Stress in America:The Impact of Discrimination, The American Psychological Association, January 2015.

6 – See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Touchstone (originallypublished by Macmillan), 1959.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

 

Crisis in the Church

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’” (Mark 12:17)  

In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which effectively legalized Christianity.  A decade later, Christianity had become the “official” religion of the Roman Empire.  Reading these words as I write them brings to mind those TV commercials citing various consumer and financial products as being the “official” product of sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

Prior to the pandemic, I often had reason to drive on I-95 in South Philadelphia and couldn’t help but to see Lincoln Financial Field, the Wells Fargo Center, and Citizens Bank Park, all where Philadelphia professional sports teams play and all with their corporate names largely emblazoned on the exteriors of these facilities.  By various acts that led to the mainstreaming of the faith, creating within it structures and hierarchies along Roman lines, and giving it preferred status, the Church was positioned to be a partner with civil government…and, I fear, sometimes its enabler.

Christianity, the Official Religion of the Roman Empire!

As a result, maintaining its core character as the exclusive creation of Jesus Christ, being His prophetic voice in the world, and performing the priestly function for the blind, the captive, the prisoner, the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks, has often been mixed with serving as an instrument of power to pacify populations and sustain the status quo.

The political terms “right wing” and “left wing” had their origins in the French Revolution of the 18th century.  In the French National Assembly, as delegates were debating and attempting to draft a constitution, those aligned with the king and his efforts to minimize reform and retain power and privilege, including the wealthy aristocratic class, would sit to the right of the person presiding over the debate.  Those seeking a republican form of government with less power for the king and more rights for the king’s subjects sat to the left of the person presiding.  It was then typical of the clergy to sit on the right.

The king and his kingdom were eventually overthrown violently. Among the repercussions in France to this day is a chilly attitude toward the Church.  That attitude has not always been warranted, but it can be difficult to overcome the collective memories and biases of a people.

There are plenty of other examples of state/church partnerships such as the various “religious” crusades to retake the Holy Land, forced (sometimes brutal) conversions of Jews and indigenous populations around the world, its role in justifying and sustaining slavery and the ideal of Euro-based ethnic and racial supremacy, and church-endorsed antisemitism by both the western and eastern Church.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe empires need an official religion…they tend to worship themselves.  They seek their own ends which typically don’t align well with the vision of GOD for His world as expressed in His Holy Word.  History has proven that when the Church of Jesus Christ aligns itself closely to the politics and economics of empire, the power of its witness suffers.  It gives to Caesar that which is GOD’s, and the blind, the captive, the prisoner, and the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks for His kingdom are at risk of being confused by the Church’s voice or worse, turned-off by it.

I accept that some will naturally be turned-off by the message of the gospel which I believe is good in every way.  Jesus said to expect this.  The hearts of many are hard and the enemy of souls works hard to keep them hard.  I doubt though that those whose hearts are open and seeking the authentic GOD will be confused by the agapē of His servants.  If the Church is confusing or turning people off for other reasons, it is a true crisis for the Church.

Monk and mystic, Carlo Carretto (1910-1988) said that “when there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.”1  By “contemplation,” he means the intentional practice of being awake to GOD and whatever He may be saying or doing at a point in time.  Contemplation is an quiet, patient openness, awaiting and listening in order to become aware and to discern rather than a reacting and a doing.2 Contemplation is a way of being and a type of prayer that was heavily deemphasized and discarded by those who led the Protestant Reformation.  It has only been in relatively recent times that contemplation as a spiritual discipline has regained some acceptance in the Protestant Church.

Carretto goes on to describe the crisis: “The Church wants to feel able to explain about her [Lord] even when she has lost sight of him; even when…she no longer know his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.”3

I believe “the other people and other things” has often been the alignment with worldly power and the perceived perks that come with that.  The Church, in its history, has demonstrated a belief that such alignments can help it advance its cause which it genuinely believes to be spiritually and morally sound and, therefore, beneficial for all.  But I raise the question as to whether expedience (doing things because they are advantageous) has ever been a legitimate spiritual value.  Subscribing to this indicates a belief in “the ends justifying the means.”  It is utilitarian philosophy (that which achieves a desired end for the perceived benefit of the majority is justified).

Clearly, some believe in this.  I don’t.  It too easily leads to taking what belongs to GOD and giving it to Caesar.  It may work for the benefit human systems; I don’t think it works for the kingdom.  Perhaps that was the point Jesus was making.

1 – Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes. Orbis Books, 1974.

2 – Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. InterVarsity Press, 2005.

3 – Carretto.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise indicated.

For Such A Time As This

“…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  In Judaism, Pentecost (referring to the 50th) was a harvest celebration held seven weeks and one day following the Passover.  In Christianity, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church when, 50 days after the resurrection of the Christ, His promised Holy Spirit fell on the 120 Jewish believers huddled together, praying in a room.  From that small beginning, the harvest of souls worldwide began.  It continues even now in the midst of deep unsettledness.

Pentecost is personally significant to me as it was the day 41 years ago when I offered myself to Jesus Christ, in faith, as a believer and became an adopted son of GOD.  In time, that believer status transitioned to servant.  I am an adopted son of GOD by the work of Jesus Christ, possessed by His Holy Spirit, and I choose to serve Him because He is worthy.  To borrow from a friend, “I believe Jesus is exactly who He says He is,” and on that my life is based…not that it hasn’t been a difficult struggle at times.

Today, in a pandemic filled world, pastors and priests have or will be proclaiming the Pentecost from their pulpits, home offices, and dining rooms to listeners near and far, in small, masked huddles in church sanctuaries and over various technology platforms.  They will be talking about the historical act of that initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the current relevance and need to experience both a personal and corporate outpouring because it is the will of GOD for all to be saved and baptized with and filled with the Holy Spirit, enlivening the image of GOD within us, the perfect model of whom is Jesus Christ.  Scriptures were or will be referenced and impassioned arguments made.  And as truth is earnestly proclaimed, the Holy Spirit will search the hearts of every listening person, preveniently leading them to make a decision.  At its core, that decision has to do with our own spiritual status quo and whether we will cling to it or relinquish it to GOD.

Our world is very troubled.  That trouble is within our borders and beyond it.  We euphemistically choose words like “pandemic” over “plague” because “pandemic” doesn’t sound quite as threatening.  Nevertheless, people are dying in large numbers even as some clamor and even insist on a return to “normal,” sometimes denying the utter seriousness of our collective situation or choosing to take the risk in what they believe to be a Catch-22 reality.

Beyond this, we find ourselves witnessing scenes reminiscent of those of the late 1960s and early 1970s when frustration, pain, and anger at systemic and isolated injustice spilled over into the streets, often in acts of violence.  I remember what happened in Detroit, in Newark and elsewhere.  As a college sophomore in 1970, I stood with a few others at the head of Springwood Avenue in Asbury Park as buildings I had walked past countless times in my youth burned.  I remember the sounds of gunfire and seeing a WABC news reporter from NY beaten and arrested within 50 yards of where I stood.  I recall the tanks and other military vehicles stationed in the parking lot of the Asbury Park train station.  I witnessed and experienced other things as did virtually all of my contemporaries.  It was hard then and it is hard now.  The Teacher was right, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)…and here we are.

Beyond our borders we find other tumult.  It’s not exactly what we’re experiencing, but it is disturbing, nonetheless.  We don’t have to look hard to find it if we are interested in knowing.  What is going on in Hong Kong is just one example, but there are many others.   It is as the chorus of a famous song of my youth, says, “That’s the way of the world.”1

Much of what we see, expressed in anger and protest, is a reaction to and rejection of the social political and economic status quo.  It is a rocking of very large boats that strongly resist being rocked.  It is a challenge to those who want to think that all is well or would be if those who are so vocal would stop being so vocal.  Theologian Walter Brueggemann commented on this, “Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of…social control are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms [status quo].  Otherwise the norms would collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the numbness of his social context.”2

Just by being who He was, Jesus critiqued the “numbness” (i.e., not feeling or caring) of the society blind and unconcerned about the legitimate needs and complaints of those among them.  He offended those who were committed to maintaining the status quo, including the religious establishment.  He is still offending today.  He was concerned with righteousness and justice.  When we listen to what He said, we find both, not just one to the exclusion of the other.  He is still making people uncomfortable.  He said that this would be one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit in order to produce transformation in the spirits of those He seeks.  Conformity to the ways of the world [including its dependence on power-based systems of control] is a rejection of His Spirit-led transformation (Romans 12:1).

When people throw up their hands because they are frustrated, maybe they need to be listened to rather than dismissed or be told, “If you don’t like it, leave!”  Leave?  To go where?   For one out of every eight people in this country, nearly everything once possessed by ancestors was stolen: family names, ancestry, countries of origin, language, culture, dignity, and freedom.  These were continuous, large-scale, systematic, grossly violent acts against human beings who were stolen people, not immigrants.  We live in that legacy today and it is manifest in multiple ways, both subtle and not so subtle.

When folks decline to salute the flag because they, like James Baldwin have concluded, “…the flag to which you have pledged allegiance…has no allegiance to you,”3 consider them worthy of pursuit rather than indignation and condemnation. When people say they’ve had enough, maybe their views should be explored rather than being explained away and ultimately ignored.  When people say, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore,”4 maybe it’s time (or past time) to honestly examine what is behind such deep emotion particularly when, apart from that emotion, we call them “brother” or “sister.”

But there’s this other side, too.  As I process my own feelings and listen to how others have expressed theirs, I recognize that I cannot be a part-time Christian, a part-time servant.  As a bond servant of Jesus Christ, I have made a choice to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh because I have been enabled to do so and I am convinced that is the choice to make.  Quite frankly, right now, it would be so much easier to walk in my flesh and allow the anger, hurt and frustration that has accompanied a life bumping up against 70 years to bubble over in rage…and there is a voice that seeks to convince me that I have every right to do that.

But I have relinquished my rights.  I choose to have no life but Christ’s.  He is in me and I am in Him and He is in the Father.  This doesn’t mean that I am not feeling, I am and more deeply than I might show.  It doesn’t mean I can’t be constructive; I just won’t be destructive.  I won’t return evil for evil.  What I will do is go as He leads me and I’ll say and do what I believe He wants me to say and do.  Both now and in the end, I choose to follow Jesus and let Him be my consequence.  That is my Pentecost choice.  I own it.

What is yours?  Own it!.

  1. Verdine White, Maurice White, Charles Stepney. “That’s the Way of the World.” Recorded by Earth, Wind and Fire. Released in 1975 by Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
  2. Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, excerpted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Church Leaders, 1983.
  3. James Baldwin. “The American Dream and the American Negro.” The New York Times on the Web, March 7, 1965.
  4. A paraphrase of a statement made by the Howard Beale character in the movie Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. Released in 1976.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

What About Social Justice?

(This is a follow-up to a discussion I had with some friends two days ago)  

It is very hard for me to imagine that one could be a devout believer and follower of Jesus Christ and not think things around us are amiss.  Much is broken, and while I believe there is some room within the body for differences of opinion about what is righteous and what is just, those views, ultimately, have to align with Scripture, in principle and application.  Otherwise, our views and preferences are just that, our views and preferences.

It is not my intent here to list the things I view as social ills.  That list is way too long. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on two different models of engagement for the purpose of social justice.  More than anything, this is me working through what I think and feel theologically and viscerally. Articulation of these models originated with others, in some cases, spiritual and theological giants much smarter than me.  I choose not to name any of them because I don’t want who they are to overly influence how you may react.  

It is very hard for me to imagine that one could be a devout believer and follower of Jesus Christ and not think things around us are amiss.  Much is broken, and while I believe there is some room within the body for differences of opinion about what is righteous and what is just, those views, ultimately, have to align with Scripture, in principle and application.  Otherwise, our views and preferences are just that, our views and preferences.

It is not my intent here to list the things I view as social ills.  That list is way too long. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on two different models of engagement for the purpose of social justice.  More than anything, this is me working through what I think and feel theologically and viscerally. Articulation of these models originated with others, in some cases, spiritual and theological giants much smarter than me.  I choose not to name any of them because I don’t want who they are to overly influence how you may react.

One response to social justice needs is to confront them (or at least to attempt confrontation) in order to affect change.  Perhaps the metaphor of being salt and light that Jesus references in Matthew 5 is an apt passage underlying this activist view.  Intensity of involvement is the essential spiritual litmus test for being full of spirit (though not necessarily full of the Holy Spirit, as one critic reminds us).  Activism for the sake of justice that is separated from interior righteousness is human rather than Christ-centered. A second criticism of this model is the potential for arrogance born out of pride in the acts of confrontation.  Martin Luther, John Brown (the abolitionist), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and the many Christians who, over the last few decades have confronted civil rights issues and the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, and who have protested against abortion are examples of those who  expressed this model. The key questions from them are how can you be salt unless you are poured on that which needs to be cured or preserved? How can you be light if you don’t shine in ways that are evident? I have witnessed this enough to know that it can be effective in the long-run, and have personally engaged in it enough to know that it can be costly in the short-run, or even longer.          

A second model is that which promotes separation of Christians from the systems of the world rather than their diffusion in it.  Being in the world but not being of the world is a summation of a fairly long lists of biblical texts which directly and indirectly point to a spiritual separation that is anti-direct confrontation. Some of its weapons are the witness of grace and compassion, coupled with prayer and patience.  This view suggests that the best way to impact the world (and by extension, its social justice needs) is to be so different in deeply held attitudes, beliefs and actions compared to those of the world that the very distinctiveness of Christianity offers an alternative to what is clearly not working well.  The interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate when Pilate was concerned that Jesus was a possible threat to Roman order, is an example: “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were…” (John 18:36).  One criticism of this approach is that, short of intentional awareness of justice needs and a witness within and beyond the boundaries of the church, it easily leads to believers being desensitized to the negative and often harsh realities of the injustices that surround them, but which may not touch them personally.  Another is found in the reality that some have interpreted separation as being physical as well as spiritual.  In either scenario, claims to distinctiveness are moot as the availability of an alternative is invisible to those needing to see an alternative.  A dististinctive that is not distinct in the eyes of those who most need to observe and experience it is of little or no value. The key question for those in this camp is how can you follow the patterns of the world, using the weapons of the world, and still be separate from the world?                                                                                                                

After ending the discussion with my friends, I continued to work through this stuff because I don’t believe it’s possible to be a committed Christian and not care about justice.  It is a theme woven throughout the Bible. What is the best approach then? Where I land is that it depends on the context and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The in-your-face strategy Moses used against Pharaoh was much different than the measured approach Esther used against Haman.  Elijah’s confrontations with Ahaz and Jezebel led to an outright spiritual battle royale. While Jesus had one type of response for Pilate, and no response for Herod, He was overtly aggressive in publicly chastising the religious community for allowing illegitimate use of the Temple. Paul used the conversion of Onesimus to quietly undermine slavery in the household of Philemon (and potentially elsewhere in the city of Colassae) rather than take on this well-entrenched Roman system head-on, a fight he would not have won at that time in history.                       

I think it is important to honestly come to grips that much is broken in our immediate world, conditions which GOD cares about deeply.  People are suffering in many ways, not because of chance but because of choices made by others (individuals and institutions). We in the church come up short when our focus lies exclusively on our personal piety without regard to that which impacts our fellows.  The Church must act like it’s interested in order to be the Church of Jesus. Neither model matters if we don’t care.

Ⓒ Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content.  

   

 

The Teaching Power of the NBA

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Have you paid any attention to the disaster that is the NBA’s (National Basketball Association) recent efforts to overcome the Chinese government’s anger at Twitter comments made by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, currently one of the NBA’s premier teams?  If not let me set it up for you.

For several years, the NBA has been trying to establish a foothold in mainland China, like many US based organizations have over the last decade or more.  The reasons are rather obvious. China, with its billion plus population and its stature as a world power, economically and politically, offers highly attractive and potentially lucrative commercial markets for those with the resources and will to capitalize.  Add the fact that the popularity of basketball has grown substantially in China, second only to soccer, the chance for the NBA’s wealth and worldwide influence to grow exponentially is easy motivation.  The benefits for China includes the opportunity to expose its current professional players to the best competition in the world, the likelihood that in time more Chinese players will be deemed good enough to get NBA contracts, and the possibility of one or more Chinese cities becoming a non-USA based NBA franchise sites.  Additionally, the relationship will provide the additional benefit of pushing up the skill level of players not yet ready for the NBA, but still competing on the international level.  All this would be increased international prestige for Chinese sports capability.

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Just before a set of scheduled exhibition games between NBA teams and Chinese teams, as well as games in China between NBA teams, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, one of the teams at the forefront of this growing relationship, tweeted his support for the protests and protesters in Hong Kong.

Yikes!  Hold the presses!  The Chinese government had a cow, and demanded that the NBA publicly renounce the statement and the person who made it, and called a halt to all of the exhibitions that were anywhere from 24 to 48 hours away.

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The commissioner of the NBA tried hard to negotiate a middle way by saying the league regretted that the comments were made, but he refused to denounce the person who made them, emphasizing the commenter’s constitutional right to freedom of speech.  The Chinese didn’t buy it because free speech is not their cultural norm, and at least one game was cancelled, along with some non-game but related contracts.

Ultimately the issue wasn’t whether one game or two or more would be cancelled last week, it was how this issue could compromise billions of dollars in commercial prospects for the NBA, and the Chinese government’s effort to use the withholding of these prospects to leverage the NBA into making the denouncement the Chinese wanted.  Although the game is basketball, the Chinese were playing serious hardball.

The issue, for the moment, has left the public eye, but I suspect a lot of back-channel negotiations are still going on.  At least one game was played, but the issue isn’t over I’m sure.                                    

For the last month or so, I have been teaching a class for ministerial students entitled “Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally,” and this real live case is as good an example as there is of how important it is to understand the culture of individuals and groups when trying to convince them of something that may be foreign to them, whether it is the gospel of Jesus Christ or the basis of for the Bill of Rights in our constitution.

If we want to get someone from another culture to see things the way you see them, we better have the discipline it takes to understand, and even try to appreciate their values, norms, commonly-held assumptions, and the other things that constitutes their cultural make-up.  We  may assume freedom of speech is right for everyone.  Our system of ethics would generally support that.  But what if Confucian philosophy had been firmly rooted in your culture for thousands of years like it has been in China, and was hardwired into your thinking? It is highly likely that freedom of speech could feel very foreign, even wrong to you.  Why?  Because, among other things, Confucianism stresses the need to respect hierarchy and to honor those in positions of authority, whether they be parents, grandparents, other elders, or government officials.  From this perspective, what we may view as a repressive response would be viewed as common sense to someone from a Chinese culture.

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We would do well to study or restudy the biblical examples of how Jesus overcame the cultural preferences and biases of those He encountered, how Paul did the same thing several times, even how the writer of Hebrews sought to convince his audience that Jesus was superior to Moses.  These and other biblical examples are all occasions of effective cross-cultural communications.

Maybe the leaders of the NBA should study the New Testament.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text.

 

Why Am I Here?

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Years ago, in my pre-pastoral days, I worked for a man who always began his staff meetings with this question, “Why are we here?”  He recognized that we all entered the meeting with a range of issues occupying our thoughts.  Some of those concerned the meeting agenda, but often they involved a variety of unrelated concerns: the need to complete and submit a report, an unresolved operational problem, an employee who was underperforming and needed an intervention, the customer complaint that required a response, a disagreement with a family member, etc.  Our boss, instinctively knowing this, used the question as a way of helping us put those things aside for a brief time so we could focus on the meeting, and get the most out of that time together.

Recently, I posed a related question to myself: “Should I not live as if the spiritual well-being of everyone I touch depended on my faithfulness in and obedience to GOD?” Isn’t that why I’m here?  Let me see if I can work through this.

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The word “Christian” is a designation that means a follower of Christ or modeled after Christ.  This begs the question, what is there to follow, of what did the original model consist?  In general, these questions are answered throughout the New Testament, and in the gospel accounts  (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  Jesus, the Christ, spoke to this Himself when He said, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12). 

So it seems, from this, there are two essentials to being a Christian.  The first essential is belief in Him as the Christ, the Son of GOD chosen to be the Savior of the world by way of His sacrificial death, His resurrection and victory over death, and His ascension to sit at right hand of the Father.  As His half-brother James later commented, this belief is not mere intellectual agreement; it is confidence in Him as a result of being persuaded.

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The second essential of being a Christian is doing the kind of work that He did (and doing more of it; i.e. doing it continually).  Well what work did He do?  I believe the work of Jesus can be classified in four buckets:

Bucket 1: Jesus revealed the nature and personality of GOD to all people.  Some of those people wanted to know what GOD was like.  Others thought they knew and were wrong.  Still others did not know they had a desire to know GOD until it was awakened in them by the presence of Jesus.  And then there were some, I’m sure, who didn’t care.  Regardless, if anyone crossed paths with Jesus, the nature and personality of GOD was revealed to them.

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Bucket 2: Jesus was compassionate toward those in need; and His compassion moved Him to action.  We see this with those He healed physically or delivered from spiritual bondage.  There was, within Him, a deep tenderness felt for those who suffered.  When people were in anguish through no fault of their own, He sought to extinguish it.  His tender heart is captured in Luke 4:18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Bucket 3: Jesus instructed those who would listen about the nature of the Kingdom of GOD through His teaching and proclaiming of truth.  He did this with large groups, small groups, and with individuals.  He did it in synagogues, on mountainsides, in fields and on seashores.  He clarified GOD’s system of morality, rescuing it from the distortions to which it had been subjected.  He expressed GOD’s desire for both righteous living and for merciful actions toward others.  He emphasized the importance of forgiveness.  He made the will of GOD clear and uncomplicated for people as it applied to the most important areas of their lives.

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Bucket 4:  Jesus developed people to continue His work.  These were people who lived as if the spiritual well-being of everyone they touched depended on their faithfulness and obedience to GOD.  And because of them and those in whom they poured their lives, we have churches and seminaries, Bible colleges and Sunday School classes, small groups and books, journals, blogs, vlogs and podcasts, evangelists, pastors, teachers and committed church men and women, all ostensibly dedicated to carrying-on His work.  Theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer is quoted as saying, “Nothing of real value in the world is ever accomplished without enthusiasm and self-sacrifice.”* Without the enthusiasm of belief and the sacrifices of countless people over the millennia, none of this would be.

So…what responsibility do I have in seeing that the work of Jesus continues beyond me?  Do I think it’s important?  And if so, how do I respond to that challenge?  If I put aside all of the peripheral thoughts and concerns of my life and really listen to Jesus, I think the answer becomes pretty clear.  Regardless of any other consideration, I should live as if the spiritual well-being of everyone I touch depended on my faithfulness in and obedience to GOD.  It’s a worthy burden that requires a lot more of GOD in me, and a lot less of me in me.  Maybe that’s why I’m here.

What about you?  For what purpose are you here?

* Referenced in Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, (Beacon Press, Boston), p.80.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved for original text content.

Enlarging Our Circles

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

My great friend, former college roommate, and “brother from another mother” is one of those people who can walk into a room of strangers and have three new “best friends” within an hour.  I have seen him do this time and time again, and it always amazes me.  I saw him do it at school.  I’ve seen him do this in supermarkets, restaurants, and in crowds of people…all kinds of people: every size, shape, background and hue.  He has a way of being forward with people without being offensive to them; and they like him.  He reminds me of Paul in some ways; he never stops being himself, but he quickly finds common ground with others.

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At first glance, Paul’s comment opens him to the criticism of being a spiritual chameleon, someone who changes his colors and stripes in order to fit-in with those in his immediate surroundings.  I think the truth, however, is far from that shallow assessment.  The gospel and the sharing of it was, he believed, far too important for him to be parochial.  That was the fault of the Pharisees, his former identity and association, whose narrow-mindedness prevented them from seeing GOD at work in their midst.

Paul never lost or hid his core identity, but he did modify his evangelistic approach according to the needs of those he was trying to reach.  Quoting Swiss theologian Frederic Godet, Donald Metz wrote, “No observance appeared to [Paul] too irksome, no requirement too stupid, no prejudice too absurd, to prevent his dealing tenderly with it in his view of saving souls.”* The ex-Pharisee Paul, who initially preferred a very small circle, became the Apostle Paul with a greatly enlarged circle (and was always interested in enlarging even that as GOD gave him opportunity).

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Christianity is essentially a relational way of life (see Matthew 22:35-40) modeled perfectly by Jesus.  Being open to enlarging our circles and seizing opportunities to do so is in harmony with having an identity in Christ.  Insistence on maintaining small circles is not in harmony with who Jesus is and who believers are called to be.  Small circle mindedness is more suited to the Pharisees who had a very limited view as to who was or could be worthy before GOD.  Much of what we see and hear these days speaks to me about preferring small, closely contained circles.

For Paul, a Jew steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and the history of the “chosen” people, there was no shame in relating to someone weak in their understanding of spiritual things.  There was no shame for him in building a connection with the very culturally different Scythians and the proud, and sometimes arrogant Greeks.  He was as comfortable in the presence of slaves as he was with the free.  And despite the controversies over the last two millennia, his trust in and reliance on a number of women adds weight to his doctrinal statement that, in Christ, there is no difference between female and male.

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Paul was making (and continues to make through his GOD-inspired letters) the point that it is the will of GOD that all people become chosen people.  Isn’t that the real purpose and message of the gospel?  Willingly enlarging our circles to include modern versions of the culturally and socially different is an affirmation of our intent to not be parochial and small-minded with this wonderful gift, the path to abundant and eternal life GOD has given us in Christ.  It says, “Everyone I work with or go to school with, everyone I meet, everyone I see but do not know, is my neighbor and I want them to be chosen; and I am open to connecting with them.  Who knows; I just may win some.”

* Metz, Donald.  “The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians,” Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968, p. 402.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

When Will It Ever Stop?

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall.”  
(Psalm 46:4-5a)

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A friend posted a comment and question on Facebook the other day, seemingly out of frustration with the recent violence and terrorism in our nation that has resulted in bloodshed and loss of lives.  Her question was, “When will it ever stop?”  It’s a question I’ve pondered off and on for so many years; and quite frankly, don’t see it happening any time soon.

My question is: What if it doesn’t stop?  What if it never gets really better in a way I think she means e.g. peoples’ lives, property and aspirations are uniformly valued, there is an absence in the broader society of an us vs. them mentality, and concerns and differences are addressed civilly and in an environment of mutual respect.  To what extent has this ever been the case anywhere in the world on a sustained basis?  Aside from Antarctica, I don’t think there’s a continent on the Earth that can make that claim.  I believe even a cursory study of history bears this out.

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We live (and have lived) in a world in which people and nations operate according to a paradigm of scarcity.  In this paradigm, there are not enough resources for everyone, and there isn’t enough freedom for everyone.  A few have to be on top; they have rights that are enforced, and they get the bulk of the privileges.  This means that some have to be on the bottom; they have few rights (that are routinely and systematically enforced), and have even fewer privileges.  Then there are the remainders who are somewhere in the middle, often aspiring to get closer to the top, and so grateful they aren’t on the bottom (as far as they can tell).  There’s a reason someone came up with the phrase, “It sucks to be you!which is how a lot of people in the middle feel and treat those on the bottom.  Those on the top may not give those in the middle or on the bottom much attention at all unless they do things that become irritating, like complaining about justice, economic inequity, and equal protection under the law, to name a few.

Sometimes those who perceive the presence of inequity are really voicing fear of a loss of privilege and favor e.g. “there isn’t enough to go around for all of us; and you’re not getting mine (or ours).”  Belief in this kind of scarcity produces tension that, from time-to-time in history, has erupted into physical violence.  There can also be the psychological violence that is added on by those who are dismissive and who refuse to consider root causes, particularly if it is not in their interest to do so.  This is not new stuff.   It’s been a reality in virtually every human society.

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I don’t consider myself a cynic or a fatalist.  I don’t think everyone’s sole motive in life is self-interest.  I just think most people are nice people whose social engagement has a limited range.  Beyond the social issues that hit their personal radars as being important or where they believe they have influence which they should exercise, they are generally disengaged.  For instance, how many adults in an entire local community might have concerns about their local public school system?  Measure that against the number of people from that same community who regularly attend school board meetings.  I’m neither seeking to discourage others nor to profit or otherwise gain advantage from the circumstances I describe.  That would be cynical!  And I do have hope for the future…but as a follower of Christ rather than as an optimist in a humanistic sense.

It would be nice if we could, finally, meaningfully address these issues…but what if we don’t get there?  What if the answer to Rodney King’s question, “Can’t we all get along?” is too enigmatic for us to be able to respond affirmatively with certainty.  What then?  The history of humanity isn’t all that encouraging, despite those modernists who continue to insist that education, and particularly science and technology, is the key to a brighter future for all.  For all of the strengths with this path (and there are many), there are still too many exceptions in the way that smart has been used that prevent this from being a reliable rule on which to place the weight of one’s faith.

Thinking about these issues brought me back to Psalm 46, something I’ve read and meditated on often.  Aside from its immediate context concerning the ultimate security of Jerusalem, it more broadly reminds us that those who are in GOD’s hands have no reason to fear, regardless of how the externals appear.  The psalmist uses powerful, dramatic imagery to make the point:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging…

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (vv. 1-3; 7)

 When will it ever stop?  I believe it will one day…possibly in this world, but most certainly in the next.  And when it does, it will bring with it a new paradigm, one of abundance for all who abide.  Then no one will denied because of fear or greed or for any other reason.

 

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content.

When Identity Clashes With Evidence

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”      (Hebrews 11:1)

Some time ago, I published a piece which made a case for leaving room in the Church for those who valued their tribal, language and/or national identity.  This call for space was, in part, an acknowledgement that these markers reflect our respective cultural comfort levels, and are valid from a Christian perspective to the extent they do not presume superiority of one to another.  Despite differences in tongue, historical culture, or church emphasis, there remains “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).  These identity markers must be subservient to Christ if identity is to be Christian.

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Last night (I am drafting this on a Monday afternoon) I was working my way through a book review I regularly read, and came across a statement in a review of a book which analyzes contemporary identity politics (I’ve paraphrased the comment to make it a little more readable): Identity attachment accepts arguments only from an authority closely tied to that particular identity, because evidence is always subordinate to identity.1

The author means, by “identity attachment” the way some folks assign a psychologically pleasing definition or set of characteristics to themselves and others in whatever particular group they are jointly members of.  The “evidence” the author references are the facts which may contradict the preferred definitions of a group.  An easy example might be a view that says: men don’t have a need to express their emotions.  Men who like  being perceived as stoically unemotional can easily buy-in to this view, despite ample evidence that the emotions of men run just as deeply as those of women, but are often expressed differently.  Different expression is not the same as no expression.  Sadly, gender self-bias may just scratch the surface of the ways “identity attachment” is manifest in the circles in which most of us travel.

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 Buy-in to unsupportable views of self is encouraged by persistent fellowship with those who think similarly.  The result is group-think identity that ignores the facts because the facts inconveniently undermine the preferred way we want to think of ourselves, particularly when someone we regard as an authority figure encourages us to do just that.  Another way to state the author’s point is that some people choose to ignore truth because they prefer the distortions promoted by another person, persons and/or institution.  This, according to the book’s author, is the basis for the kind of reactions in attitudes and behaviors that advance divisions among people.  There certainly appears to be sufficient support for this in the world’s socio-political environment, both in empirical evidence (i.e. sensed and observed) and by data-driven evidence.

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An important issue for me is the implication(s) for the effective functioning of the body of Christ if the identity attachments of its members are not rooted in and submissive to Christ.  Even now, I hear the voice of Paul in my head warning against divisions and factions in the Church (Romans 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 3:3; 11:18-19), calling it carnal and therefore not worthy of Jesus Christ.  This is not to denounce identity attachment as being fundamentally non-Christian; we need not deny our humanity nor how that humanity is expressed outwardly.  I clearly have my culturally-based preferences, and gravitate to and enjoy them often.  It is, however, a denunciation of identity attachments when they, knowingly, contradict and attempt to subvert the will of GOD.  That is called sin.

There is a little-discussed branch of theology called “Theopolitical” which views theological beliefs through the lens of social and political structures and considers political beliefs that may be implied in Christian teachings.2  A commonly used example of this is the use of Paul’s teaching on submitting to leaders in government because they are placed in authority by GOD (Romans 13:1).  This argument is used by many Christians as an endorsement of their preferred political leader(s) as having GOD’s favor.

What is often missed (or ignored) is that while Paul’s teaching stresses the inherent goodness in a believer’s submission, he offers no explicit statement about inherent goodness (or lack thereof) in the authority to whom submission is to be given.  The focus of Paul’s teaching is on the believer who is to demonstrate faith in Christ by submission; the focus is not on the person in authority.  This is why Jesus was able to say, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17).  Perhaps it is also why men and women like Nebuchadnezzar, Jezebel, the Herods, Herodias and her daughter, Pontius Pilate, Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the various despots and petty dictators currently in positions of political authority today were/are allowed by GOD to be in power.  The Christian response to these may be just one component of faith being tried over the long course of history (see Job 23:10).

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A danger of “theopolitical” thinking that encourages identity politics is that it can facilitate little difference between the attitudes (and sometimes behaviors) of those inside the Church from those outside the Church.  When this happens, those who are called to be the salty, peculiar people of GOD, actually better resemble those around them who are in need of saltiness and the peculiar influence of GOD’s holy presence.  This happens much easier when the goal of faith, and the way it is practiced daily, is about belonging to a group(s) whose socio-political worldview is under-girded by the local church, or in the least, not challenged by the local church.  The goal of Christian faith has always been union with GOD (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17), nothing else.

Settling for belonging to a community of faith with whom we identify without also wholly identifying with the holy Christ and being led by the Spirit of holiness is an immature and shallow faith that is easily dented and is less than the worthiness of His calling.  My first pastor called this “living beneath our privilege.”  Beyond that, it can lead to expressions of heresy.

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It is here that our other-than-in-Christ identity can, if we’re not careful, assume equal status with our proclaimed faith in GOD.  This is a violation of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd commandments…to start with.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is an excellent illustration (Luke 10:30-37).  Both the priest and the Levite saw the seriously injured man, but took no pity on him.  Jesus seems to stress their position and status in the Jewish community, that is, their identity, to make His point.  They were VIPs, and we can assume that they were very well aware of it.  They either ascribed to themselves a superior view compared to this man or so negative a view of him that made his need insufficient to warrant their valuable time and attention.  We can also suppose that this man was a Jew because he was traveling from Jerusalem.  If he was a Jew, his outer clothing may have identified him as such, making the decision by the priest and Levite doubly damning.  The evidence of the teachings of GOD were subordinate to their identity as important people.  It fell to the despised Samaritan to demonstrate the royal law of love.  We can consider this as Jesus’ take on identity politics.

 In ascribing to our other-than-in-Christ identity positive traits aimed at supporting our superiority, we also seek to define those outside of our identity.  Our sense of superiority allows us to assume we can define others, and we do.  We find ways to minimize them in our eyes, and we may even attempt to project those views outwardly.  We assign to them traits that, when revealed, can range from subtle discounting all the way to pernicious hatred.  We seek to legitimize our views and attitudes with arguments that, though sometimes well-crafted and seemingly astute, ultimately reflect human wisdom that is at odds with the logos of GOD.  And we all have done it, and we have all experienced it.  We all have been group stereotyped, sometimes in multiple ways.  I’m thinking of at least four ways in which I’ve been subjected.

I believe this is the spirit of anti-Christ at work in people who we would otherwise say are good people.  It is that spirit because it subordinates the explicit expression of GOD’s will with views that ignore the commands of Christ in favor of those which support our preferred way of seeing ourselves and others.  This amounts to ignoring the evidence for faith in Christ Jesus, His teachings, His commands, and the redeeming, sanctifying work He accomplished at Calvary.  Anything that does this cannot be considered Christian.

I understand why this other-than-in-Christ approach to identity has so much appeal.  It feels empowering to those who feel disaffected and disenfranchised (somewhat like the Zealots of Jesus’ day).  With that, we must ask the question, ‘What is the origin and source of this powerful feeling?’  If it is not of GOD (and hopefully I’ve made the case that it is not of GOD), then it is to be disregarded and discarded, for Christ’s sake.

Identity politics which pits, whether with great subtlety or brazenly, tongue against tongue, tribe against tribe, nation against nation has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Where it exists, may GOD root it out!  Where we may have been complicit, may the Holy Spirit convict us of it, lead us to godly repentance, and give us a hunger to be united in Christ.                                         

1. In a review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Reviewed by David Frum in the NY Times Book Review, July 7, 2019.

2. Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology. “Theopolitical Theology” by Nathan Kerr, p.536.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved for text content unless otherwise noted.