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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.

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.

Jesus my redeemer

23 Apr

As I went through the day and thinking of the walk to Calvary and the crucifixion, I noticed something. I noticed that growing up evangelical, so much of my faith as about Good Friday. All the numerous number of worship songs about Jesus and the cross or his blood swam in my head.  It’s so much about how God redeemed us terrible people by Jesus dying on the cross.

And I can already hear my good ol’ not-so-evangelical seminary friends chiming in here saying how that theology is “inadequate” and even “wrong”.  That it leads to this naval-gazing type of Christianity where it’s all about ME and MY sins and how God is freeing ME, redeeming ME and so individualized etc etc.

Hold your horses everyone, I’m not here to fuel the war between liberals and conservatives even more- I think politicians and Christian leaders do a good job of that already. 🙂

The reason why I bring this up can be summed up by a recent This American Life story I heard on NPR.

There was this man who grew up in a small town in Tennessee in a Baptist church. Well, he grew up, went to college and discovered that the world was very big and that there are many view on God and the one he grew up with in his Baptist church was too simplistic. He then went on to study theology at a theological institution that remained unnamed and was looking for the opportunity to return to his small town in Tennessee and prove his family wrong about their views on God and Christianity.

So a few years fly by- and he finds himself in his small town talking to his father. He’s just waiting for dad t say that one thing that will open up an opportunity for him to jump in and prove to his dad why his dad’s theology is wrong.  And he got his chance- he jumped on it and ranted about it for half hour and his dad didn’t even interrupt him. At the end his dad said, “son, I am so proud of you. You are very intelligent and I’m sure you make a great scholar. But when I met Jesus, I was on the verge of a divorce with your mother and contemplating suicide.  And look at where I am today. Son, I admire you for your intellectual ways to explain God, but that does not mean the God I experience isn’t real”

And that was the end of the conversation.

I think that we liberals and we evangelicals (yes, I’m bi-whatever the word is!) have to understand the Jesus’ death on the cross plays a role beyond what we’ve decided our theology tells us it is.

The death of our Lord Jesus Christ is a mysterious as it is real.  The role it plays for me in my life is complex but this I know for sure.  That I do believe that I am redeemed by his sacrifice and with that sacrifice that I accept, I am no longer my own. I live to exemplify his life, which was a life of service for the poor and seeking justice for those in bondage.

That is what I meditated on today as I remembered my redeemer being nailed to the cross.

the waiting

21 Apr

This has been a long lentent reflection in the making- mostly, I have to admit because I just haven’t had time to write but also because this has been on my mind for the last week or so.

Last Sunday in church I struggled through the service because I couldn’t get myself to be in the moment and celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem because I knew what was coming. As we walked around the santuary waving our palm leaves that were dry because they were probably imported from Florida or somewhere like that, I couldn’t help but think, “I can’t celebrate right now, I knwo what happens in 5 days!” And through the whole service I struggled with this contradiction that I felt of the great mourning that was to come yet we were celebrating. I found myself waiting for Good Friday, and being defined by Good Friday. 

The truth is we live in a world that feels much like Good Friday without Easter a lot of times.  There is so much death, so much hopelessness and waiting for a better tomorrow without knowing what that is in our world.  But with the knowledge that Good Friday is coming and that death happens, we must be able to celebrate the goodness, the triumph of good over evil, how small or big that may be.

As we walked around our sanctuary for the second time and kept singing  “Come all ye people, come and praise your Maker” I realized that that alone was enough reason to celebrate. Whether Good Friday, with all its deepest sorrows and fears, was coming or not.

Sometimes I can be quite the “Debbie Downer” (as my family members like to remind me) because I see the “Good Friday” side of  life which sometimes overshadows the joyful, triumphant side of life. And I realized, as I walked around the santuary waiving my brittle, dry palm leaf that it’s in the faith, its in the believing that the joyous entry of Jesus will someday triumph over all things that make this world a place of death, fear and sorrow.

We are called a people of faith because of this. We have hope because we have the promise that Palm Sunday happens even if there is going to be a Good Friday, no doubt.

So even as we wait, we wait in hope, not in fear.

community

29 Mar

I’ve had this really great opportunity to participate in a leadership training program in LA last week.  What I’ve learned from here and from my wonderful close-knit network of friends and family is that they are rooting for me.

I think in this world of competition where people are in fight or flight mode, it’s easy to forget and or take for granted the communities that we have- the people who love us and support us and want us to succeed.

I think when we’ve had negative experiences with people whether its betrayal or some other kind of hurt, it’s hard to focus and think of the wonderful positive spaces that is created by people who support us.

I’ve had the privilege of sharing this positive space for growth and reflection and it reminded me that I have the opportunity to create that same space with other people in my life.  I just need to be more intentional about it.

I want to spend the rest of this lent season, and even beyond lent season, being someone who helps create a safe people for people to reflect and be encouraged.

Our hearts are restless

14 Mar

Today, I kept thinking about my yesterday’s reflection on desire.  One of the things I have desired over and over again over the years is rest.  I was reminded of Henri Nouwen’s desires for rest in his book “The Prodigal Son”

I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced… The son-come-home was all I was and all I wanted to be… I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could fee a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.

This was the first time I had read the story of the Prodigal Son as someone who was looking for rest. I had always been told the interpretation of this story was that the son was a sinner returning and repenting. That interpretation is very clear in the parable itself, but Nouwen’s self-identification to this son resonated with me.

Lent is a time that we try to refocus, re-center ourselves “back home” in the embrace of the One who is waiting for us.  We run around frantically looking for ways to satisfy our heart. And nothing quite satisfies as finding rest in God. Today I am challenged to remember that my rest, my peace comes from God as Saint Augustine says in the opening of “Confession”:

Our hearts are restless until they rest in you oh Lord.