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On the Norway killer’s motive

26 Jul

I am shocked and disheartened by the atrocious acts of violence in Norway.  While remaining in prayer for the victims and their families whose blood cries out from the ground to a global community and ultimately a God who hears them, I’m trying to make some sense of the conversations that are ensuing about the perpetrator’s motives.

Some preliminary thoughts:  First, it is increasingly clear that Breivik was not a Christian fundamentalist in the classic sense, but rather a cultural fundamentalist and militantly so.  As this quote shows, Breivik was interested in Christianity more as a prop for his cultural fantasies or as a decorative coat of arms, than as any relational way of life that would personally challenge him.

“As this is a cultural war, our definition of being a Christian does not necessarily constitute that you are required to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus,” he writes. “Being a Christian can mean many things; That you believe in and want to protect Europe’s Christian cultural heritage. The European cultural heritage, our norms (moral codes and social structures included), our traditions and our modern political systems are based on Christianity – Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and the legacy of the European enlightenment (reason is the primary source and legitimacy for authority). It is not required that you have a personal relationship with God or Jesus in order to fight for our Christian cultural heritage and the European way.”

Still, how is this different than any other person who has or currently does evil things while claiming some kind of Christian identity?  While it may comfort us to know that Breivik’s Christianity was counterfeit, there are plenty of Christians who have or continue to engage in a compromised form of faith that lead into violent behavior.   Non-Christians see this quite clearly, and the seemingly dismissive focus on distancing ourselves from such pseudo Christians appears defensive and unhelpful.

It should also be said that, contra some of the sloppy language on this topic, fundamentalism as a religious phenomenon should not be so readily equated with violence.  Many religious people might fall under the classical definition because they take very literal views of their sacred histories, have strict laws of conduct regarding their faith, or have an exclusivist perspective vis a vis outsiders.  None of this suggests violence ipso facto.  The same might even be said of the kind of pseudo cultural conservatism or ethnocentrism Breivik promoted.  What distinguishes Breivik from others who may share some of his views is his bloodlust and violence.

What leads to violence is the stripping away of what I call moral friction:  the abrasive quality that moral conscience has against your own desires and thoughts. Such was the so-called faith of Andrew Breivik.  He desired a Christianity devoid of all moral friction or traction that might be abrasive against his violent tendencies.  This atrocity captures for us the capabilities of an evil and perhaps delusional individual.  Yet, with the politics of the person being largely incidental, this atrocity also suggests one potential consequence of living in an ideological echo chamber.  Christians, as people of various political stripes, should spend most of our communicative energies from this incident providing that moral friction for those in the public at large, who like Breivik, seek to have the ends justify the means.  Let’s spend our time making sure those in our communities are not subject to a Christian faith so culturally captive and compromised that it no longer is salt and light to one’s moral conscience.


A Meditation on Abraham and Isaac

28 Jun

This was adapted from a sermon I gave at Edgewater Presbyterian Church last Sunday.

Genesis 22:1-14

On this week that the acclaimed actor Peter Falk passed away, I’m reminded of his narration of one of my favorite childhood films:  the Princess Bride.  Playing a rough around the edges grandpa who reads the fairy tale to his sickly grandson, he gets into a debate with his grandson over the a twist in the story.  The grandson is stunned as his grandfather reads that the princess heroine of the story has abruptly married the villain.  “It can’t be true!  It isn’t fair!” protests the son.  To which Falk’s Grandpa responds, “Who says life is fair?”

That conservation echoed in my mind as a thought about the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to the verge of child sacrifice.  At first glance there is little in such a story strikes me as fair or encouraging.  Like many my compassion toward youth, especially innocent youth, is such that I cannot receive this story without reply, rebuttal or heavy conscience.  Here we have the God that threatens and the God that provides, the God that gives life and takes it away.  We see a Father who waits years to have a son, only to come so close to taking that precious life away in an instant. But I know the Scriptures are durable enough to receive doubts, questions and even complaints. Throughout Christian and Jewish history there have been various faithful interpretations that seek to probe beyond the surface to ask exactly what God is doing behind these difficult words. I want to share one possibility.

At the beginning of the story it is said that “God is tested Abraham.”  I believe that test was more than simply a way to see if Abraham would sacrifice or kill for God.  It was a way for God to test Abraham’s ability to listen and discern two critical voices:  that of God and that of Neighbor – the essence of Torah and the heart of the Gospel.

To his credit, Abraham had two things going for him in this test:  The first is his posture of Alertness.  When Abraham says, “Here I am” to God’s calling it is the response of someone at attention.  The Hebrew rendering of that phrase, “Heheni” strikes an even more authoritative tone than the English. It is as if to say “Behold, I stand at the ready”.  “Heheni” is not just a word you will hear from the mouth of Abraham, but also from Moses at Sinai and the other prophets of Israel. That phrase illustrates an awareness of God’s presence and his willingness, even eagerness to attend to what God has to say.  It’s the kind of alertness of a mind on two cups of strong coffee.  But the real wonder is that Abraham seems to maintain it from the first call to take his son’s life, to the following call to refrain from doing so.  He doesn’t quit listening to God.

What is it that prevents us from having that quality of alertness and obedience to the voice of God?

Our minds could immediately point to the usual suspects, the 1001 daily distractions that can thwart our ability to hear and respond to God.   These are often as simple and ubiquitous as our smart phones, mp3 players, wifi or morning/evening commute.  Yet behind these distractions looms a larger issue.  Those goals and agendas that begin as God’s good word to us, have a rather insidious and mysterious way of pulling us away from the voice of God.  We seek to succeed in our work, be the best that we can be, thrive economically and own a piece of the American dream. I have also observed this dynamic in that pesky desire to Right at all costs.  To be right at all costs lures us into winning argument rather than simply being in relationship with people.  Defending the strategies and tactics of our favorite causes, we trample over the freedom to disagree.  What turns these worthy goals sour is the inability to consider that what God once called us to do is no longer what God is calling us to do in this moment.  Did you catch that?  The covenantal promises of God are most at risk most when we forget God is still speaking and that God has not spoken once and for all.  God’s ways cannot be determined by one utterance, but must be discerned over a lifetime, over generations.  So eventually that call to succeed must be open to God’s eventual call for Sabbath and rest.  That call to be right must be open to God’s eventual call to let go of arguments and be a people of grace.

Abraham was steeped in cultures in which child sacrifice was the norm.  And perhaps he traveled up to Moriah thinking this horrible, regrettable and ugly practice was just the way things were   After all this was a common Ancient Near East custom.  And yet, God was not done speaking on the issue.  Through the call of Angel, God desired to overturn and end this culture of child sacrifice.  I’m glad Abraham had the disposition to listen twice for in doing so he passed the test of listening to God.

But how about listening to his neighbor?  In this case that neighbor was a vulnerable son and mother who doted on him.  For someone who has devotedly and consistently listened to the voice of God, Abraham has a difficult time listening and attending to the voice of the vulnerable and the suffering.  Where is that Abraham who was so willing to go tete a tete with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18)?  Where is the Abraham that called God to account for being just and protecting the righteous?  He pleads on behalf of a city of strangers, but now suddenly can’t muster the courage to plead for the life of his son!  The Abraham of Genesis 18 had a great deal of compassion. Given his journey began in Ur and took him to many corners of the Middle East, perhaps his heart was especially attuned to the struggle, poverty and kindness of the many people he encountered along the way.  I have a feeling that quality of character looked promising to God seeking a covenant partner to bless many nations.  For some reason Abraham is not consistent in applying his compassion, and it nearly costs his son’s life and the covenant itself.

I wonder what makes us fail to hear the voices of the vulnerable?  Perhaps it’s a kind of compassion fatigue, in which we’ve heard too many voices pleading on behalf of them.  Because we think we only have so many resources to go around, we stop listening so to ease the guilt.  Does it make a difference if we hear the voices of the vulnerable themselves rather than just their advocates?  I’m not sure.  Nigerian author and Catholic priest Uwem Akpan wrote a series of short stories entitled Say You’re One of Them and what is most impressive about the work is that it doesn’t just plead for at risk children throughout Africa, but allows them to author (as much as possible) their own stories.  In one of the stories, I was struck by how much a young girl, Monique, and her little brother Jean, were talked at instead of listened to.  Granted the people talking at them often (though not always) had their best interests at heart, their voices were nevertheless overpowered by the clanging speech of adults.

It isn’t just the children of Akpan’s stories that have no one to turn to who hear their voices.   There are children on the streets of American neighborhoods that find themselves in the same predicament.  Those children and the vulnerable in their distressing array hide openly in our homes, apartment buildings and workplaces.  Maybe you too have a quiet pain that has not been uttered or voiced. Like Abraham, we are occasionally inspired to act upon these voices, but like him these moments become fleeting as we experience “fatigue”.   The great treasure of Christian community is that it reminds us that the author of the Universe is not done with us despite our fatigue.  God never quits on and continues to use people who don’t always “get it”.  Take solace in the fact that God did not quit on Abraham despite his inconsistencies.  God never quit on Israel providing the people prophets whose voices were as God’s own.  God in Christ Jesus never quit on a band of fickle disciples, nevertheless pouring the Holy Spirit upon them on Pentecost.  Genuine community also reminds us that God will provide the additional ears needed to hear the important voices when your ears or my ears fail.  Church can indeed be a place where our conscience is nourished and becomes viaticum on the road of life.

Hope beats Optimism: Blogging Lasch’s True and Only Heaven

20 May

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) is perhaps one of the most prescient and perhaps undervalued social critics of recent history.  The True and Only Heaven’s still provocative conclusions strike at the heart of America’s current political gridlock and cultural anemia.  It puts flesh on the problems people across the political and social spectrum seem to suspect, but can’t fully describe.  That problem is the nature of our society’s belief in progress, and how the way that term has been defined and acted upon, has created an untenable order in American society.

Lasch notes three developments in the modern history of progress.  The first is a search for a utopian end of history.  The second is a belief in the inevitable conquest of rationality and reason.  These two incarnations have been widely panned and objectively repudiated in the upheavals of the last 200 years (i.e. wars, health crises, natural disasters).  However a third version prevails:  the belief in the inevitable, unending improvement to our standard of living.  Fueled by technological innovation and economic efficiency, improvement has become the new progress.  Lasch traces the roots of this thinking to the thought of Adam Smith, the patriarch of modern commerce.  Smith, according to Lasch, popularized the connection between consumption and the economic engine of production, which afforded ever increasing security, comforts and material abundance.  Smith believed because of their sheer numbers and productive potential that it was not so much the wealthy elite, but the striving middle classes, whose consumption and investments brought higher standards of living.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economists and social critics Lasch introduces us to like Brooks Adams and Simon Patten were likewise extolling the virtues of inconspicuous consumption, especially among the broad masses of the middle and working classes.

In the wake of the Great Depression, it would be influential figures like John Keynes who would make this a matter of governing policy for leaders across the political spectrum.     felt that savings and investment should take a back seat to spending, because it was the latter that drove increased production through increased wants.  To overly save was to lack confidence in the future and history’s inevitable, if slow march, toward greater freedom and prosperity.  Such a system as Keynes advanced and many states accepted also had additional benefits in assuaging class divisions, neutralizing the Marxist threat.  Cultural benefits were also accrued. Americans would experience a flourishing of the arts and entertainment like never before, heralding a golden age of individual freedom.   This perspective became so common and pervasive that even in the ascendancy of Reagan conservatism and later Clintonian centrism, it has prevailed in one form or another.

However, Lasch was skeptical of these models.  He saw inherent moral and social dangers in the democratization of consumption being the foundation of America’s political economy.  He notes how divorced the concept of citizenship has become from the role of consumer or producer.   Disappointed in the response of the ruling or political classes to this looming threat, Lasch felt that influential conservatives and liberals, cast under the spell of progress in one form or another, were no longer capable of critiquing it.  Instead they were perpetuators of a broken system, which thought it was no longer answerable to the inexorable forces of history and morality.

The ideology of progress found throughout periods of Western history is no less present today.   One might recognize it in the form of the facile optimism that characterizes hyper-globalists.  It even insidiously burrows itself in anti-poverty or human rights movements when they act as if liberty is an end in itself.   Even in the complex universe of entertainment and consumerist culture there exists a drive toward upward mobility that has millions of Americans joining one “rat race” or another.  Lasch would likely peg recent political ideologies like “national greatness”, whether in liberal or conservative guise, as flawed, futile attempts to rescue republican, heroic virtues from the banality of our consumeristic, postmodern society.  By contrast, Lasch believes that only popular movements which call upon our moral energies and understand the tragic, consequential nature of life itself that seem to offer the hope and improvement which believers in progress truly seek.  Ultimately, says Lasch, “hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things in not flouted with impunity.”  That is an outlook which surely takes the long view.  In the next post, I’ll dive into a few examples of where Lasch observes hope and justice on the move in social history.

Practice, Practice, Practice

15 May

I grew up playing the piano.  My instructor, Mrs. Oriente, gave me her own variation on that stock phrase every musician knows well:  Practice makes Perfect.   Adding a layer of challenge to those words, she would iterate often, “Perfect Practice makes Perfect”.  The point she tried to make was that one should take a practice session as seriously as the official performance itself.  Practice is the process of habit formation, and if you practice bad habits consistently, they will be reflected when it is time for you to perform.

Mrs. Oriente’s sage advice came to mind as I heard John Weborg’s homily during the closing worship of our Spiritual Formation class at North Park Seminary last week.   For the past academic year, I have participated in a spiritual formation group spanning two courses.  We met weekly, reflecting on the various rhythms, seasons and practices of the spiritual life.  We spoke candidly about our struggles and our successes.  Chief among the disciplines we engaged was holy, careful listening to one another.  Let me say how much of a privilege it is to have people you barely know earnestly pray for and listen to you.

So in light of this experience, John encouraged us to be faithful in practicing spiritual disciplines.  He offered an eloquent and insightful testimony to the contribution the Pietist tradition in Christianity makes to elevating the role of practice in our theological discourse.  Practice is its own form of interpretation, of the bible, of faith, and of life.  In John 7:16-17, Jesus says it is by “doing the Word that you will know my message is not of me, but from God.”  When it comes to God, or any source of ultimate compassion or purpose, our society is skeptical, we are prone to look twice, or maybe several times, before committing or trusting to such radical ideas.  But as any number of daily decisions we make reveal, we act in trust and faith daily on matters which we from another angle have no business doing.   Stepping on a morning train, receiving lunch from a cook we never see, driving through afternoon traffic we necessarily act to get through the day.  We put our trust in things we can have no assurance will pan out well.  First we act in faith, then we reflect to seek understanding.

I think this idea of first practicing the Word in order to interpret it is something the global Christian community sorely needs to do with greater frequency.   Even as we are divided by theology, practice and ideologies, we need to see our interactions with others as an act of investment in the Gospel we have come to know through Christ.  Even among my own tradition, the Presbyterians, who are now taking new approaches to ordination, church governance and confessions, I hope that we might take this compassion, generosity and commitment we all talk about and truly practice it among one another.  Oh that those we disagree with would nevertheless say as Paul did in Philippians, “It was good of you to share in my troubles” (Phil. 4:14)  How many of us can say we share the burdens of those who our opinions and theology adversely affect?  Do we walk the second mile with them in daily life?  If we cannot practice in this way, then exactly what kind of Good News are we sharing? It may be a hard kind of love to practice, but trust me, if practiced that is the kind of love that can raise the dead.

The spiritual practice I undertook this semester, honoring the body, taught far more than I even wanted to know about practicing such a difficult kind of love.  Truth be told, I failed at the practice more often than I care to admit.  More on that in the next post.

Waiting for Justice

10 May

In the hours and days that have followed Bin Laden’s death, there has been no shortage of words or lack of conversation about the meaning of the event or exactly how it, if at all, it should be celebrated.  I must say the fact that we are even having a conversation about how to feel after the operation that killed Bin Laden is itself a sign of growing moral maturity.  It is a welcome sign of our willingness to sit with multiple even conflicting or contradictory emotions.

Events like these, which arouse feelings of trauma, relief, and vindication often require of us a broader range of emotional response than we are often capable of mustering in the heat of the moment.    Upon hearing the news, many of us helplessly vacillated between exhilaration in triumph and anger in wrongdoing.  These emotions are part of what makes us human.  They can serve as a very necessary first step in dealing with very real grief.  Truth is I too feel the relief that this man has been found and forced to account at some minimal level for the atrocities he authorized.  I felt gratitude bordering on vindication to know a perennial menace to women, men and children has been silenced.  I’m thankful for the courage and intelligence of the special forces team that did this operation with relatively little injury to themselves or other bystanders.  But I know that we cannot stop there.  These emotions no matter how justified will not uncover the full meaning of this event and what has happened to us over the past decade is beyond them.  Joy and Anger must yield to more profound emotions which can only be accessed by asking questions not answerable in soundbites.  How do we mourn our own losses and the wounds which continue fester?  How do we properly remember the end of a violent life? How do we appropriately express gratitude and relief?

We are not bereft of resources to answer such questions and broaden our sentiment.  I say this as a Christian to my countrymen and women of all backgrounds: as a society, we Americans desperately need the full range of emotional expression and historical perspective that I have found in Christian faith properly understood.  If Christian faith can serve a purpose here, it would be in helping us to appraise this event from every angle and express ourselves in a fully human way.   In light of our tendency to gloat in such accomplishments, I take the biblical references from the prophet Ezekiel and Proverbs to be humble in the face of an enemy’s defeat as wise council, not because I’m a curmudgeon who has a penchant for sobriety, but precisely because such council takes the long view of these things.  There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes said, “nothing new under the sun”.  This is not the war to end all wars and the price of liberty continues to be eternal vigilance.  To gloat is also to miss the depth of what has been loss even in this overcoming.  Yes, Americans as well as people across the world have lost an enemy to peace, a murderer of loved ones. In his wake, a whole region also lost its pride.  In his wake, an accomplished family lost a son, father and brother to the insidious powers of evil.   What’s more, the defeat of someone for their unjust actions always reminds the conscious observer that we all too must account for our wrongdoing.  As one friend put it, remember the words of Hemingway, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”.   You do not have to be counted among the world’s mass murderers to take stock of your own wrongdoing.   When you see what happened to Bin Laden remember there are manifold ways in which life makes us account one way or another for the things we leave broken.  The wrongdoing to which we fail to attend comes back to bite us.  So let us see this event as a plea to make peace and make right while the hour is still here.  Especially for those of us of faith this should be an opportunity for great soul searching and prayer.

The second area of clarity for me is that true Justice involves more than the killing of one man.  I have seen much ink (digital and otherwise) spilled over the word justice since last night.  Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly an element of justice in a mass killer paying in kind for their actions.  There is an element of justice in moral cowards not being able to hide forever from the great pain they have caused countless others.  Yet, these can only be approximations of a deeper and more significant kind of Justice.  I believe in an ultimate Justice that not only calls killers to account, but redeems the very lives they so cruelly snuff out; for the lives of each precious victim are their worth so much more than one villain’s head.

Another kind of justice might also have been possible, one in which Bin Laden repents, surrenders his life and offers every penny of his resources and his influence to help repay and redeem the thousands of lives whose deaths he orchestrated.   The Christian, as Jonah did with Nineveh, must always pray even for the redemption of our enemies.

Beyond the realm of what ifs and possibilities, the reality is that before Bin Laden’s death, his own destructive ideology has been on life support.  The fatal blows have come courtesy of the masses who march peacefully for political liberty and economic opportunity on the streets of Iran with the Green Revolution, Yemen, Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, and now Syria.  And on these streets we have another measure of justice, an ideology sown in hatred has been supplanted by one sown in non-violence and self sacrifice.

I wish our leaders were more forthcoming that the Justice our hearts seek cannot be meted out in by people in the centers of power.  No government, no matter the size of its military or treasury, has yet produced the power to resuscitate the fallen nor can any adequately remunerate the pain of the bereaved.   A military success can if we are lucky give us breathing room to do the difficult, but more durable work of peace.  It is this limitation of government and war that one of the 20th century’s most celebrated military heroes understood well.  General Douglass MacArthur, speaking after the ceremony marking the surrender of Japan, closed his remarks with this warning: “The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character… It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”  May we who are able to witness such an event as this, heed that call.

Funny, but kinda True

10 Aug

Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I was bemused by this little explanation by the eccentric philosopher Slavoj Zizek of the limits and perils of philanthropic charity.  His piercing critique aims at the heart of our conceptions of what makes us feel good about charity and unmasks its hypocritical posture.  But I actually have a little Christian critique of Zizek here, I’ll be blogging about shortly.

Looking for New Space

10 Aug

A constant theme I sensed flowing through the plenaries, presentations and caucusing during the APPARI conference this year was problem of place.  Whether it was through their own personal experiences or through scholarly discourse, people were searching for a safe place to identify themselves ethnically, culturally and politically.  This theme became evident on the very first night.

During the opening plenary, we saw three generations between Roy Sano, retired UMC Bishop and Stephen Yamada, and his cohort Joshua Joh, college and high school students respectively, talk amongst each other about contrasting strategies for securing a place to fully be oneself.  Bishop Sano remarked the tendency for cross-cultural types to see themselves as “neither/nor” when it comes to being acculturated to different social environments.  He, on the other hand, preferred to regard himself as “both/and” able to in his particular situation, adapt to both the Japanese and American cultural worlds. Similarly, Stephen and Joshua acknowledged the ability to adapt to both American mainstream and other ethnic cultural worlds, but also revealed the preference not to do so.  Instead, the objective they struggle to attain is to inhabit a cultural world where they can fully be themselves.  They seek a kind of “third space” where acquiescence and social isolation are not so necessary.

This elusive search for new cultural spaces, so well articulated by these young men, became a theme I observed in the sentiments of many in this conference. When it came time to reading papers, I heard some like Samuel Perry at University of Chicago wondering if there was space for Asian evangelicals to do more culturally adaptive fundraising.  I heard Hanna Kang from Irvine discuss Asian Young Adults looking to transfer skills developed in an evangelical context to the Episcopalian Church because there is an overabundance of underused “space”.  During the last panel, Peter Cha and Soong Chan Rah grappled with the emergence of new evangelical ethnic churches.   Cha discussed his work with second generation returnees to ethnic churches who are nevertheless uncomfortable with the traditional status quo and desire to carve out a territory in which ethnic enclaves become socially inclusive and active in their religious life.

My hunch is that in these various anecdotes we are witnessing the emergence of a kind of cross-cultural America.  People may be intentionally seeking it.  They may unwittingly be falling upon it.  Or in some cases they may be deliberately trying to avoid it.  Yet more and more people are finding themselves at cross-cultural intersections in American ethnic and religious life that are difficult to avoid or erase.  New things are being forged here, old things are being contested.  What I love about APARRI is that there is a convivial group of scholars genuinely trying to map and then understand this new phenomenon.  When we talk about racial and ethnic groups in America, the terms that readily come to mind are oppression, marginalization and discrimination.  Increasingly though, these negative terms are giving way to more constructive endeavors like hybridity, liminality, double and triple consciousness.  My hope is that these ideas will continue to be discussed in varied and wider circles.