Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Breitbart Values and Mine

Just when I had repented, on hands and knees, for wasting hours listening to political ads, speeches, and talk show wisdom, and promised God I’d follow only holiday sales commercials in the weeks to come, I got sucked in again. I was victimized by the editor of Breitbart, the “news” outlet of Donald Trump’s office gopher, Steve Bannon.

It was really a harmless article in response to Kellogg’s boycott of Breitbart. "Kellogg's decision to blacklist one of the largest conservative media outlets in America is economic censorship of mainstream conservative political discourse. That is as un-American as it gets.” The site said it has a community of 45 million loyal readers “who are also a powerful consumer group that reflects the values of mainstreet (sic) America.” (David Ng, L A Times)

I’ve recently struggled to define my own values. Now I see the suggestion that American values can be reflected by a media outlet. So I wondered what those values were, and whether I embraced them.

Hunter Lewis suggests that value systems are often based on emotion. “In particular, they all share three features, corresponding to three basic emotional needs. First, they all focus on a particular group of people, a “chosen” people to use the biblical metaphor. Membership in this group automatically provides emotional security. Second, they all propound a particular way of life or a particular way of organizing society, belief in which provides an emotional identity. For example most of us identify ourselves not just as Americans (members of a group) but also as defenders of an American “way” of democracy and free enterprise. Third, they all require an emotional stimulus, usually expressed as an enemy, a devil, … often another group of people.” (Lewis, H. A Question of Values, p. 87)

To say than one consumer group shares the same emotional values, let alone reflects those of main street America, is a stretch. It is more likely that the person or organization propounding the values is the one being defined. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, a proposal of values is the art of telling others what they have to do to get along with us.

So what values do the folks at Breitbart embrace? Social Darwinism comes closest: the religion of selfishness, winning, and power. “Life is about survival; survival is accomplished through power and dominance; the purpose of life is therefore to gain control of others through whatever means are available, however brutal or coercive, because might is always right” (Lewis, H. p. 208). Or as Ng noted on a visit to Breitbart headquarters, “The door to the main conference room is emblazoned with the hashtag #War — a mantra Breitbart instilled in his team.”

My values are different. George Nye, a colleague and mentor, probably expressed them best in a recent Facebook post:

“While reflecting on how to hold a steady course & make my way thru a "brave new world" of fake news, hatred, violence & betrayal, a reminder came to me: To know what is right is important; but to have the interior power to do what is right is even more important. That power comes from my acceptance of the truth that the 1st Commandment really is 1st. That command is my ultimate authority; all others are lesser authorities which must fall in line under that one. Then, come what consequences may come from my current surroundings, I shall do that which is loving, honest, just & compassionate to the best of my ability, regardless of what others choose to do, in order that I may stay the safe course thru the dark waters. For you & I are citizens who, for good or ill, help shape who we will be as a community, as a people, as a nation.“ (George Nye, Facebook 12/04/16)

I deeply suspect that Breitbart values differ from American values. I’m certain Christian values differ from main street America’s ethics as well. We’ve walked into the prophecy of Jefferson Airplane:

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen's off with her head (Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”)

No war for me, thanks. I’ll stick with George.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Safe Places, Sacred Spaces

It took me awhile to get the symbolism: a safety pin for a safe place. Some of my friends have embraced the idea: “…people across America are attaching safety pins to their lapels, shirts and dresses to signify that they are linked, willing to stand up for the vulnerable. It’s a matter of showing people who get it that I will always be a resource and an ally to anyone and everyone who wants to reach out,” said Kaye Kagaoan, 24, a graphic designer from the Philippines who lives in Brooklyn. “When I saw it on Facebook, it was so simple. It resonated with me.”

But safe places are just a first step toward sacred spaces, which are more biblically defined. They surface in the Old Testament where God has been deemed present. In Genesis we’re told that at Bethel “Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it.” (Genesis 35:14) And when Joshua crossed the Jordan at the border of Jericho, he “set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’” (Joshua 4:20-22)

New Testament thinking is a bit different. The spaces aren’t geographically defined like in the Old Testament (even tho’ Israel today is rife with memorials, monuments, plaques and inscriptions: “Jesus walked here!”). Instead it is more the sense that a sacred space is one where Jesus resides; where God has been, or is, present. 

I don't always have this awareness. Not, more often than not. I'm learning, however, that the rewards of having a disciplined awareness are great, and possessing it lays the groundwork for the moral actions required of a Christian. "Such a space is essential for moral action because it is within it that 'questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what is not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.'" (Volf, M. quoting Charles Taylor in Captive to the Word of God, p. 48)

Thus a sacred space is a safe place, but extended: one where those who are different are accepted and even loved, certainly, but also where enemies are forgiven, nonviolence is practiced, and God is proclaimed through the ministry of Jesus. Sacred spaces are where Christians are agents of Christian practices. We are hospitable, but we are also agents of love, restoration, and justice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reflections on John 4

A Reflection on John 4

Jesus asks an expert in the law, “How do you read?” (Luke 10:26) He might well have asked the corollary question, “How do you listen/speak?” After all, speaking and hearing in conversation is more than an exchange of facts. It is a way of framing our culture, relationships, and identities. Conversations are central to the life and ministry of Jesus. Eugene Peterson points out that “Jesus’ words flourish into conversations and discourses … with all sorts of people.” [1]
As my friend and mentor Barnett Pearce said many times, it is helpful to look at conversation to see what is done and made. This differs from looking through a conversation to determine what is said and what facts are behind it. Walter Brueggemann points out, “We have become critically knowing and busy with explanation … insisting the Biblical text yield dogmatic certitudes it does not offer.”[2] By looking at the text and not through it, we can focus on its mystery, and discover how people do or do not provide ways to move forward in their relationships.
The meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-30, 39-42) is presented by John as a person-to-person conversation. Jesus’ request for a drink of water leads to her request for the water he offers. “She begins to realize he is no ordinary man and calls him at first a prophet (v. 19), drawing on Samaritan traditions, and then a Messiah (v. 25), a term which takes her out of her own traditions.”[3]
In this conversation the woman shifts her perception of Jesus as “a Jew” (v. 8) to “the man who told me everything I ever did.” (v. 29) It is her sense of curiosity about water and worship, and the willingness  of Jesus to address her as a person rather than an object, that allows the conversation and thus their relationship to continue, constructing a new social reality. As a result many more Samaritans “became believers.” (v. 42)
By approaching dialogue in this way we observe several questions and responses that lead to a new cultural situation. When Jesus asks for a drink the woman might have said, “No. You are a Jew.” Instead she opens the door to move forward by asking, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (v. 9) She is intrigued with his response about living water and how it might benefit her.
Jesus explains that this water “wells up to eternal life.” (v. 14) When she doesn’t understand the distinction Jesus challenges her about her husband, and she identifies Jesus as a prophet. Then she goes further, inquiring about what kind of worship is valid. Jesus responds by saying, “A time is now coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (v.23)  She “knows” that Messiah is coming, and Jesus reveals, “I who speak to you am he.”
Compare this to the many times in John where responses and statements truncate relationships instead of moving them forward. The man Jesus heals of blindness is met by the Pharisees, not with curiosity but with animosity. Their adversarial responses result in “they threw him out.” (9:34) Likewise Jesus is accused of blasphemy (10:33), effectively ending any further relationship with him.
In our adversarial political system it is common to find truncating responses. Democrats, Republicans, and Socialists alike find many ways to converse. Too often they spend time thinking of ways to refute what the other person is saying, solidifying their own positions instead of listening to the other. They do not attempt or consider how to move forward; instead they set the existing relationship in concrete.
The same is true in our church conversations. Too often suggestions for new approaches to music in worship, building renovation, or leadership structure are met with “That won’t work;” “We can’t afford it;” or “We’ve never done it that way.” These responses, devoid of curiosity or an effort to gain deeper understanding, allow neither the conversations nor the relationships to move ahead and construct something new and better.
Interfaith dialogue is often just as barren. We frequently enter it with broad, unfounded assumptions about what the other believes and intends. “Christians want to deprive us of our culture – That’s what they’ve always done.” “Muslims wish to invoke Sharia Law in the United States and take over the country.” Actions are performed with little or no consideration to what the reaction of others might be. “We draw cartoons of Muhammed because we’re entitled to freedom of speech,” without thinking about the violence that may result when others find the drawings deeply offensive to their culture, relationships, and selves.
As with Brueggemann’s description of textual criticism, the same can be applied to our conversational approaches. We have become critically knowing and busy with explanation.  By doing so we empty them of their unfamiliarity – and mystery. The woman at the well and her community are left with a multitude of questions they might pose to Jesus as he returns with them to Sychar. “Can you tell us more about the nature of living water – about what worship means to you – about what it means to you to be the Messiah? How do you understand spirit? Truth? How might we Samaritans and you Jews settle our differences and act more respectfully to each other?”
The same sort of curiosity can equip us to be inviting in our political and religious conversations. To do so it’s necessary to take a breath before we make or respond to a statement and ask, “How can I move this conversation – and our relationship, forward, instead of saying something that will terminate it, demonize the other, or prove them wrong?” We make our social worlds in our conversations, and we can strive to make them better.

Pastor Mike

[1] Peterson, E. Christ plays in ten thousand places. 2005: Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2] Brueggemann, W. The word that redescribes the world. 2006: Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress.
[3] Coloe, M.L.  God dwells with us. 2001: Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Je suis Christian

Recently the streets of Paris, and those of other European cities, erupted in violence, and in the case of Paris were filled with protesters soon after. Over a million people, according to some estimates, proclaimed unity with the editorial staff of a contentious newspaper; they had been murdered by “radical Muslims” who claimed to have avenged the prophet Muhammad. It was certainly a moving sight to see so many individuals holding up signs and lit candles in unity with the victims of that attack.

According to some commentators, the magazine Charlie Hebdo is a satirical periodical that poked cartoon fun on several occasions at the Muslim faith in general and at Muhammad in particular. They also pointed out that the publication was an equal-opportunity offender. All religious groups were fair game and were lampooned on a regular basis. Not having read the magazine and not speaking French, I have to take their word for it.
And while not everyone in the crowd could say with a clear conscience, “Je suis Charlie,” most could affirm that free speech was the central issue, and no one should be killed for exercising  that liberty. H.A. Hellyer went even further by saying that discussions around free speech, what is or is not sacred, are not the point. They ought not be discussed on the back of a massacre that is far more insulting to the sense of the sacred than any cartoon could be.

“The world faces a radical, extremist ideology that has a number of aims. The killing and murdering of innocent people in France is a facet of that. The killing of others within the Muslim world is another; the creation of a cultural war between Muslims and non-Muslims is yet another; and the deterioration of civil liberties within France and elsewhere is another still. The international community at large must recognise (sic) all of those facets and be clear: we won’t play the terrorists in a game where they make the rules. What they did in Paris, as they do in Yemen and elsewhere, is criminal – and the full force of the law must be brought to bear upon them. We must not sacrifice one iota of the ethics that underpin our societies. That is what they are really trying to get us to do. We must not let them succeed.”[1]
I agree. But there is a Christian perspective here that may add another voice to the discussion. As the Apostle Paul sought to bring people of different backgrounds together under the umbrella of the Christian faith, he found them quibbling about all sorts of things: dietary laws and national holidays were primary points of contention. Paul concluded that regardless of what he saw as acceptable under Christ, he wouldn’t flaunt his beliefs in a way that would make others “stumble.” (Romans 14:13) He said, “All things are legal, but not all things are helpful.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

If Charlie Hebdo has a point to make and exercises freedom of speech in the process, that is one thing. But it seems that the main intent is to aggravate everyone within reading distance, which can have the effect of stretching some to the breaking point. The Muslim extremists are cowardly, violent and immoral, but there is no point in making matters worse than they are just for the sake of provocation. That kind of behavior not only inflames the radicals (who seem to be constantly inflamed already) but it also serves to alienate  the moderate Muslim community, dissuading them from speaking out against terrorists and in fact, encouraging them to join such movements.
Free speech isn’t absolute. In France it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. In the US it’s illegal to threaten public officials and to foment riots. It’s against the law to distribute pictures of child pornography or to commit character assassination. The actions of Hedbo don’t promote free speech. They simply endorse foolishness and invite reciprocity. It seems good to recognize the behavior for what it is and not give it further credence.

Pastor Mike