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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.


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.

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.


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.


23 Mar

I’m at a training in LA this week (hence the sporadic nature of the posts!) and yesterday as a team building exercise, we played a simulation game and the point of the game was to travel through a desert to a mountain, mine as much gold as possible and come back home. That was the basic idea. The instructor mentioned that 20% of teams who have played this game have died in the desert because  they ran out of food or water.

As soon as we heard that statistic, I think some of us panicked and were determine not to die in the desert and our decisions are driven by this sense of survival- or the fear of death.

The interested thing I observed about our group, hindsight was that we ended up with much more food and water than we needed and not as much gold as we could’ve gotten. And this is all because we were so afraid of dying.

In our debrief we talked about how we might have played the game differently if we had thought about the 80% who lived rather than the 20% that died.

I felt like that was a fairly good indication of my life sometimes. That my decisions are made as a reaction to information and sometimes that reaction is the fear or something.

Today’s lent reflection for me was to think about how to create that space to purposefully live my life that is focused on that 80% of potentially living rather than the 20% of potentially dying.

Jesus did not live the last month of his life out of fear of his upcoming Crucifixion.  And that is an example he has set for me to choose life with a purpose and not be driven by my circumstances.

Removed from suffering…

15 Mar

Over the last few days as I’ve been thinking about how I can really reflect on what is going on around the word without sounding trite or overly spiritual without any sense of connection.  I guess I have this hesitation and reluctance because of the enormity of the events- the earthquake and Tsunami the Japanese people have endured, the danger and tension that Libyans are experiencing.

There are plenty things in my life I guess I can say is a form of suffering so at some level I resonate. But the truth is, one does not know what it’s like to live to a earthquake and a tsunami that takes our your entire town unless you’ve lived it.  I think we tend to over-react in our emotions or are completely disconnected and I guess I don’t know how to find a healthy medium.

Many theologians and christian leaders have tried to explain or justify suffering.  There are different logics and reasoning people use- and I can follow along in the moment but can’t really retain it since I can’t even seem to give one example right now!

But I think what I keep coming back to is that I’ve witness, experienced and seen so much suffering in this world and yet I believe a Good God. A God who cares and loves this world. And yes, sometimes that might be hard to explain.

As I sit in the comfort of my living room with electricity, heat and yummy dinner, I feel really removed from suffering- whether it’s the millions of children going to bed hungry and/or cold, or people fearing for their lives or grieving the loss of a family member.

In this moment, it’s hard to say that seeing all this suffering is making me think of how grateful I am for my comforts. That just seems wrong to compare my comforts with others’ sufferings.

But I am grateful. Not because compared to others I have more, but despite the fact that I can’t really even figure out how to process all the things going on in this world and have the “perfect” Christian response to it to post of my facebook, I am accepted and I am loved.

As a lent reflection its a hard one to connect because I really don’t want to minimize the suffering of people around the globe today by trying to connect it to my suffering nor do I want to connect this sense of relief which could be interpreted as grace because I am not the one suffering.

So today’s lent reflection is going to have to just hang there in a limbo- as sort of an expression of my struggle to identify with the suffering.

I pray for mercy and grace for all those suffering around the world and that those of us who are privileged in our comfort are able to engage in responsible ways to make a small dent in the world for change. Even though I feel removed from suffering in other parts of the world, I can work hard in the world that I am connected to and try and make a small dent in whatever ways God has allowed me to.

Mother Teresa puts it all in context for us:

We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.


13 Mar

During this time of lent many of us are focused on desire. Whether it is fasting and giving up physical desires for spiritual desires, or starting new things that will help satisfy our spiritual desire, we are focused on desire.

I think human desire is a very strong thing. We look at our world in turmoil around us- Muammar Gaddafi’s strong desire to stay in power up against the desires of the people of Libya for democracy.  We just witnesses a few weeks ago, what the desire for democracy by Egyptians and Tunisians accomplished.

After a horrific earthquake, you see people around the globe and their desire to help Japan in their recovery.

I reflected on how strong this thing called desire is and where it has taken me through life. Some times following my desire led me to bad places and other times to good places.  I think as followers of Christ we hope to follow the desires God has placed in our hearts.  Sometimes this takes so quietening of our souls. With the world around us luring us to desire things of the world, we need to create space to desire God.

And as I think of re-centering myself to desire God more than anything, I am reminded of what the Psalmist wrote:

As the deer pants for streams water, my soul pants for you.