Monthly Archives: November 2015

Refugees: boy on street

Guns, flowers, refugees… and why I am not afraid

You’ve probably seen it by now. A little boy and his dad are being interviewed about the recent attacks in Paris. He wants to move away to escape the terrorists who, he explains, have guns, prompting this (excerpted) exchange:

  • They have guns but we have flowers.
  • But flowers don’t do anything!
  • Of course they do. Look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against the guns.
  • It’s to protect?
  • Exactly. Do you feel better now?
  • Yes… I feel better.

Is this exchange inspiring or hopelessly naïve? Is the father simply lying to provide an illusion of safety, or does he have some kind of valid point? The questions of safety and danger are on everybody’s minds right now, especially as we in the U.S. weigh whether to participate in the sheltering of refugees fleeing from ISIS. What does the Bible have to say?

Illusion of safety

The little boy in this video has a tragically valid concern: getting shot. The father gives him a soothing answer, but is there a better answer? Something he could say or do to actually assure his son’s safety? Of course not.

We all want to feel safe, but we live in an unsafe world. If the little boy feels better because he has a flower, an adult perspective recognizes that as just a calming illusion. But we all are clinging to calming illusions. Some places in the world are more violent, some less so, and it is worth working to reduce violence, but also remember that, if you’re reading this, you live someplace with enough violence to worry about and it’s going to be that way for a while. The father could have said, “We have guns too and we’re going to keep you safe,” but we have more guns in the U.S. than any other developed country and violence still exists here. So as we advocate for our particular solutions, we must also figure out how to keep getting out of bed in the morning even if violence is never solved, and that is where the flowers come in.

How “the flowers” fight

From “love your enemies” to “do not resist one who is evil” to “all who draw the sword will die by the sword“, Christ’s response to violence is nonviolence and submission. There is no exception for us; we are commanded to take up the cross as well.

The whole point of forgiveness and love is that it takes the power away from the terrorists. It is not the result of stupidity, ignorance, or naïveté. There are other words for facing danger without fear. They are words like bravery, self-sacrifice, heroism… the firefighters did not rush into the World Trades on 9/11 because they were unaware of the danger.

Where, then, should we stand when there is a choice between heroism and danger? If we can save some innocent lives, should we not be willing to risk even our own lives to do so? Up to now, the whole argument on accepting refugees has been, “Is it dangerous or isn’t it?” To me, both arguments are nonsense. Resisting evil is always dangerous.

Into danger, unafraid

It was dangerous to operate the Underground Railroad. It was dangerous to confront Apartheid. It was dangerous to shelter Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, to inscribe the names on Schindler’s List, to harbor the family of Anne Frank. It was dangerous for Christ to go into Jerusalem. All of those people walked into danger with their eyes open. Many of them paid with their lives. I don’t think any of them had regrets.

The dustbins of history are littered with the names of those who chose their own prosaic safety rather than stand up to a monstrous evil. When we consign the innocent to their fate in Syria, we number ourselves among them. We buy our illusion of safety at the price of our humanity. Because the reality is, we are no safer for our refusal to help the victims. We are in constant danger regardless.

When attacks come, if we are marked to die, we should at least be buried in hallowed ground. We should cry out our defiance. We should plant flowers on the graves of our fears.

We should shelter the refugees.

We are still, above all, the home of the brave.

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Photo credit: Bengin Ahmad / Foter.com /CC BY-ND

Why I am a Christian

Nice, smart… Christian? My story of 21st century faith.

It’s been a bad week for real Christianity. A month ago, when Pope Francis was in town, headlines were filled every day with the Christianity that I see and practice— one that looks like Jesus, that uses words like “beauty” and “hope”, that says things like “think of the poor” and “stop harming the earth”.

What a difference a month makes.

The Christlike Christian has slipped back beneath the waves of the popular imagination, supplanted by that pugnacious character we all love to hate. Let’s call him “Smackdown Christian”.

  • He’s privileged yet full of self-pity, just itching to take offense. That’s why he’s up in arms about a Starbucks cup with no snowflakes. (I still question whether anyone is actually upset over this, by the way.)
  • He likes nothing better than to suit up as judge and jury over other people’s transgressions. That’s why he came out with a policy this week that bans, not only gay people, but their kids from the Mormon Church.

It’s thanks largely to the popularity of Smackdown Christian that my faith of hope, beauty and sacrifice has gotten such a dire reputation among outsiders. At this juncture, then, I thought it would be a good week to just talk about one real-Christian’s-eye-view of the faith, who we are, and what we stand for.

Why I’m not a Christian

Popular imagination holds two prevailing theories about why people are Christians:

  1. They learned the faith at their mother’s knee and haven’t questioned it since.
  2. They need it as a crutch for life; it makes them feel good.

Speaking personally, the pivotal moments of my faith journey came at ages 13, 26, and 36. All resulted from profound moments of personal crisis in which I was questioning everything, especially God. Have I found the right answers to those questions? Was I preconditioned to accept Christian faith by my upbringing? These are discussions I’m willing to have, but they are separate from the theory of unquestioned faith in an unbroken line from early childhood. The facts just don’t support that explanation of faith in my life (or, for that matter, in the lives of any other Christians whose stories I know).

As for “feeling good”: when I was single, I would sometimes fantasize that I had a girlfriend. The exercise left me feeling worse instead of better, because it only emphasized the gap between imagination and reality. Think about your own life: what things give you comfort? We Christians are just like you. We are not a different species. Our brains work the same way as yours. We cannot be comforted by imaginary wives or jobs or health, any more than you can.

It is no different with God. Faith flows from a body of life experience. It is not simply conjured up out of whole cloth for the way it makes us feel.

Why I am a Christian

As an Earth-science major at Stanford, I didn’t used to believe in faults. Growing up in California, I knew that faults were gigantic scars carving across the landscape, so the prosaic little swales that go for faults in most places didn’t impress me, and there was never any hard evidence. Finding a fault line, it turns out, is a process of building a case from dozens of tiny clues, any one of which is unconvincing on its own.

My faith journey has been like that too. Part of it was that time in high school biology when I learned about how DNA encodes the structure of a protein. Part of it is the feeling I get when I watch a sunset. Part of it is my study of the manuscript evidence for scripture. But the biggest part is having lived my life all wrong. One example: our society is sex-crazed and I absorbed that attitude in spades, with the result that I was miserable. At age 26, when I discovered the Biblical advice to flee from sexual immorality, every fiber of my being recognized the truth of it. I immediately made major changes in my life that offered profound relief, and I began to wonder what else the Bible had to teach.

From that point, I began a journey of trying out other pieces of Biblical wisdom in my day-to-day life. When a friend stole $2000 from me, I sent her $700 more; to my surprise, my anger evaporated as the whole thing became a loving gift, and the unmerited grace proved redemptive for her as well. When a misunderstanding led to a blow-up at a Christian tutoring center where I volunteered, instead of cutting ties to make a principled stand, the relationships were healed with the help of Matthew 18. When I went on a short-term mission trip to serve orphans in Nicaragua, I learned far more than I taught. The Biblical wisdom was radically opposite to everything I thought I knew, yet it proved life-giving in case after case.

Why I believe

Yet good advice is one thing— What about Jesus? What about the miracles? What about what some people call “the mythology”? Why believe in that just because the advice was better than what society has to teach? Why am I not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary? Because, in the words of Fox Mulder, “All the evidence to the contrary is not dissuasive.” The various books of the gospel are written and intended as actual history, and surviving copies are as well attested as any other ancient historical records (actually much better). The main rationale for setting them aside is just that the events they describe seem so unlikely. But is it possible that something amazing happened once, something wildly contrary to everything we understand about the working of the world? Of course.

Our entire lives— from air travel to cell phones to Google maps— are all wildly contrary to the understanding of every human being who has ever lived prior to 1800. Their best educated would tell you it is impossible to do the things we now do every day. The explanation is simply their ignorance. They were ignorant of the deep things of science. Is it not equally possible that we, for all our worldly knowledge, are equally ignorant of the deep things of God?

women torn off

For God’s sake: let a woman preach

One day I flew to Texas and I met a cute girl. I asked her to dinner, and that night, my whole life changed. That was the night I learned about Jesus. I’d grown up in a Christian church, but I’d never heard about a Jesus like this. Her Jesus was alive and real and revolutionary and transformative. Her Jesus didn’t nibble around the edges of your life; he was pervasive through the entire thing. That night she spoke words into me that breathed with life like nothing I’d ever known before.

Was she wrong? Should she have done that? Many churches quote scripture that says “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to have authority over a man.” So should she have simply left me where I was for fear of teaching me something?

In reality, most Christians would quote other scriptures to limit, restrict, or reinterpret this verse and make an exception for this case. So why not a larger exception? Why not allow our society’s many well educated, gifted, female writers and speakers an unrestricted hall pass to teach what they know? As a high schooler, best-selling author Rachel Held Evans was once told, “‘Rachel you’re such a great speaker; it’s too bad you’re a girl.” Blogger Jory Micah was told, at age 18, that her desire to serve God as a pastor was sinful.

On the question, “Should a woman preach?” I would submit that such answers :

  1. Result more from evangelical culture than Biblical truth
  2. Are inconsistent with our practice, even in the most conservative of congregations
  3. May turn a blind eye to the actual reality of what God is doing
Culture vs. Truth

The Bible is long, and there’s a lot in there. How do we choose which parts of it to talk about the most? Ideally, our discussion of topics from the Bible would be in exact proportion the the frequency of those topics within the text itself. To do otherwise is to risk a distortion of the actual Biblical message. Christ himself addresses this tendency when he says, “What sorrow awaits you. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). We can fall into sin, even in perfect obedience to God’s law, when obsessive legalism  leads us away from the real point.

Yet this is the reality of our time. We attack certain topics with an energy and enthusiasm out of all proportion with the Bible’s text, yet remain oddly silent on other topics of greater Biblical importance. If the need to suppress women’s teaching gifts were an important doctrine, then why— with just the one mention in 1 Timothy— does the Bible devote only 0.016% of its verses to the topic? That would work out to a full Sunday sermon a little less than once a century. Some argue that the particular obsessions of American culture require more frequent responses from Christians in those areas. Yet in this, too, we Christians reveal our cultural biases by what we omit from such scrutiny: everything from covering women’s hair to honoring our leaders to refraining from anger.

Practicing what we preach?

The fact is, even in conservative congregations that would never hire a female pastor, women are teaching men every week. Just walk into the Sunday school.

The injunction in 1 Timothy explains Paul’s resistance to women teaching on the grounds that Eve was deceived, and sin was the result. In Paul’s eyes, we may conclude, a female teacher is more likely to lead us into sin. Yet if we are to protect ourselves from deceptiveness, who is more vulnerable than a young child? If our genuine concern were for sound doctrine, the Sunday school should be the first line of defense. That it is not reveals a different motivation is at work.

The same inconsistency appears in other areas as well. Of the same church where her potential as a teacher was so casually dismissed, Rachel Held Evans writes, “The only time women spoke in church was when they were missionaries. I didn’t understand why that was allowed, but teaching from the pulpit was not.” Again, if our true concern were the validity of what women have to say, should we not be equally passionate for the protection of men abroad?

Rather, it seems to me, our insistence on male pastors results more from simple bias against women in certain roles than from some kind of principled stand on Biblical truth.

Which side is which?

What emerges again and again from women in ministry is the conviction that they are called to it by God, that the scriptures used to dissuade them have somehow been misunderstood. What if they are right?

Misunderstanding scripture is possible. While scripture is infallible, we are not, and in the history of the Church, conventional wisdom has often been wrong. That can happen to us as well. For a non-controversial example, it would be a gross error to read 1 Timothy 4:12 as a blanket negation of the need to respect our elders; in fact, many other places in scripture urge us to respect our elders. What if we have made the same mistake in using 1 Timothy 2:12 to overrule all the many Biblical teachings about the importance of recognizing our gifts and putting them to work for the kingdom?

Consider this thought experiment: imagine a God who might break out of expectations (that has happened before), who might choose a vessel for his message that confounds conventional wisdom (that has happened before too). Imagine that messenger is sent among a people who refuse to listen (also has happened). What would God’s judgment on those people be for their failure to listen and receive? When someone claims she has a message from God, if we dismiss her out of hand because she doesn’t match our expectations, we do so only at our own mortal peril. She may be right; we may even find ourselves fighting against God.

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Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Foter.com / CC BY