Christian virtue and the “wider world”

Something that’s been on my mind for a while now is the subject of Christian witness — virtue, character — and its relationship (reaction to, impact on) “secular” society.  Do people of faith really have anything significant to add to efforts for peace and justice when so many of the non-faithful are already out there in the trenches? I say we do. In fact, I maintain that the struggle for human rights and justice are based in issues of faith — the world is not as it should be, humans have dignity and beauty, we should seek to bolster the well-being of others, love, etc.  I’m not entirely convinced that humans would come to these conclusions were it not for faith and religion.

This is (partly) the argument N.T. Wright makes in his new book, After You Believe. The following passage gets us down the path a ways in the discussion of Christian witness in “secular” societies:

Those who are called to reflect God’s image through their own work must give attention to the task of working out, in a highly contested contemporary world, what that restorative justice ought to look like and how we might help bring it about. This will mean engaging with political debates and processes of various sorts, campaigning on key issues, and highlighting oppression and injustice wherever they occur. The Western world has supposed, for two hundred years and more, that splitting off questions of social justice from questions of God and faith would give us a more just society. The revolutions, totalitarianisms, and all-out wars of that period have proved us wrong. But to put God and human justice back together again will require a sustained effort, not only by individuals but by the church as a whole, developing the corporate virtues of justice-work that will become habits of the church’s heart and will appeal to the conscience of the wider world. (Wright, p. 231)

Put another way, to eliminate religious speech and expression from the public square (as we’re seeing in many European countries) is to cut off the branch on which human rights rest. Christian witness has a place at the table in conversations about justice and the betterment of society. A crucial place.

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The role of doubt

Just posted over at Sojo. I like this one. Chime in with your thoughts.

God is Big Enough to Take Our Doubt and Anger

by Steve Holt 04-23-2010

“To believe is human, to doubt divine.”

Those words are central to the self-described “incendiary theology” Peter Rollins preaches. Amid a Christian culture known all too often for its belief in absolutes and pervasive positivity, Rollins completed a pre-Easter tour in April to give these communities the permission to doubt and lament. The 10-city “Insurrection Tour” didn’t take place in churches, but pubs.

That’s because a message touting doubt, questions, and skepticism is often not welcome in our sanctuaries. Pubs and bars, however, serve as venues for discussing life’s toughest issues nearly every night of the week.

Folks in the pews, Rollins asserts, doubt all the time. They have terrible days, feel oppressed and cheated, and wonder if there’s anything to this Jesus-y stuff. And then they come to church and hear motivational pep-talks and putridly positive prayers and music.

Not only that, Rollins maintains that churchgoers expect their churches to do their believing for them. Though it isn’t their reality, we eek our good feelings of faith off of our pastors and liturgies. But what if our pastors themselves stop believing? Well, last month, Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University released a study entitled “Preachers Who are not Believers.” One full-time minister the researchers interviewed, “Adam,” self-describes as an “atheist-agnostic.” Here’s how he says he handles his job on Sundays:

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.

He went on to describe why he sticks it out saying and doing things he doesn’t believe:

I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go.

How did we get to this point? Simple. We don’t allow each other to voice our questions and doubts. Church isn’t a place for questions, but absolutes. It’s certainly no place for shades of gray — black and white are our colors. We certainly don’t get this from the narrative of scripture, where we find a motley cast of characters who are quite comfortable expressing doubt and anger — even to God. Rollins paraphrased Kierkegaard, who, in his commentary on Job, advised the troubled man to yell at God because God can take it.

But the Insurrection Tour gave me hope for what is possible when faith communities not just allow doubt to enter, but embrace it. I was touched by the hauntingly beautiful poetry and music of Pádraig Ô Tuaman that reflected the pain and lament of the human soul. Johnny McEwan’s moving beats and graphics complemented Rollins’ provocative words and rounded out a night of spiritual exploration unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The church desperately needs poets and artists whose creations not only reflect the joy and beauty of life, but the pain.

What I and Christians everywhere need is the permission to be human, living and struggling daily with the range of human emotions. Sunday morning services — with their “love songs to Jesus,” as Rollins terms them — would have us believe that Christians are “in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” This is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny.

What if, little by little, we started to believe that God is big enough to take our doubt and anger? What if we changed our culture of false pretenses? What if we began to not only share our struggles along with our joys, but were present to lend an ear to a struggling friend, without judgment? What if our hymnody, sermons, and prayers began to reflect more fully the range of human emotions, including doubt, fear, and anger?

We will become healthier and more effective ambassadors of love when our gatherings — from the kitchen table to the Lord’s Table — become places where we can struggle with the existence and character of God. Because while a conclusion is the place we arrive when we’ve stopped thinking, struggling — even with faith — assumes movement. And in the kingdom of God, movement is rarely a bad thing.

Museum of Russian Icons

Checked out the Museum of Russian Icons with a friend today, and I highly recommend it!  Aside from the moving and beautiful art, the architecture and layout of the museum was incredible.  Religious or not, you won’t regret taking a day to explore the place.  It’s in Clinton, MA.

Clinton Comments on threats

Bill Clinton raises some interesting points as to some of the reasons why the Tea Party (as well as more extreme protesters) are coming out of the woodwork under Obama’s watch. Watch this.

What do you think?

Wearing my Jesus Goggles to the Tea Party

The post below appeared today on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. You can also read my more newsy recap of the event at Blast Magazine.

by Steve Holt

100415-tea-party-t-shirtsTea Party Express – the traveling band of conservative speakers, entertainers, and organizers — stops in Washington, D.C., today on its nationwide effort to “vote them out of office” in the 2010 mid-term elections. Sarah Palin, one of the most galvanizing conservatives in years, has joined the Express in an attempt to bring more mainstream conservatives into its ranks. The Alaskan drew several thousand fans, opponents, and gawkers to the Tea Party rally on Boston Common Wednesday, and I decided to head down to experience it for myself.

I did this for a couple of reasons. A big reason I went was to hear Mrs. Palin — to see what all the fuss is about and to bask in her aura. I was not disappointed. She gave the crowd what it came to hear: hard-nosed political rhetoric softened by her trademark small-town colloquial wit. She even worked a “drill, baby, drill!” into the speech, though strangely, she made no mention of President Obama’s move last month to expand off-shore drilling for oil.

My main reason for attending, though, was to be among the people. I have found myself characterizing the Tea Party in conversation without having ever attended a rally, and I wanted to get a clearer picture of who makes up this group comprising roughly 18 percent of Americans. Specifically, I wanted to come at the event with my Jesus goggles on, asking whether this is a group for folks who call themselves Christians.

I knew Tea Party supporters were a patriotic bunch, so the red, white, and blue didn’t come as much of a shock. What surprised me a bit was the support of militarism and American exceptionalism. Last summer, the Tea Parties formed around a largely economic platform: Washington is spending too much money and needs to stop. A good chunk of these folks, including many supporters of then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, were against excessive spending on defense and interventionism around the world. So I was surprised when nearly half the program was spent praising our troops and America’s interventionist campaigns overseas. Palin walked right into the debate over American exceptionalism, stating that as the greatest nation on the planet, America is, in fact, exceptional. (Implying that we can do what we please, thank you.)

This is a curious stance for Palin, a devout Christian. When Paul tells the Galatians (3:28) that they are “neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek,” he is telling them to remember that in Christ, they are one – regardless of nationality. Do we erase all national affiliation when we follow Jesus? No, but we affiliate ourselves first with the kingdom of God, which changes everything. Militarism – even in the name of “freedom” – is wrong for the Christian, in all cases, at all times.

Which brings me to the concept of “freedom.” This really is the operative concept within the Tea Party movement: freedom from excessive taxes and government intrusion of all kinds. This freedom, signs and speakers proudly announce, came at a price – the price of brave American soldiers in 250 years’ worth of foreign and domestic wars. But they opportunistically omit that our freedom also came at the cost of Native Americans, foreign and domestic soldiers and civilians, and our natural resources. I would argue that a Christian cannot blindly accept freedom that sacrifices lives and our Earth, not when the very core principles of our faith were violated to achieve it.

Finally, here’s a reflection I had Wednesday night upon reading the results from the first scientific poll of Tea Party supporters, released yesterday by the New York Times and CBS News. Before Wednesday, information about the group was largely anecdotal, so this poll gave the first clear picture of the demographics and beliefs of a typical Tea Party supporter. This person is likely supportive of the movement on idealogical grounds rather than economic grounds, which, as I mentioned earlier, was the platform for the group’s beginnings. Most likely to be rich, white, and older than 45, Tea Party supporters largely oppose what they perceive to be policies that disproportionately favor the poor over the rich. In other words, most point to differences in class as the reason why they support the Tea Party. Some even go further, citing fear that Obama will favor blacks in his political agenda.

As a Christian, this is troubling. That the fear of someone’s money being taken and given to the poor would drive them to organize in this fashion – and with so much anger, which I did observe Wednesday – should make us pause and rethink our collective moral compass. Capitalism set forth by Adam Smith exists for the common good of all people. Many in this country are being left out of that equation, African Americans being a notable example. We must, as a country, ask ourselves why this is. Surely it’s not because all of them are not trying hard enough to succeed. This might be my biggest issue with the Tea Party movement: at its core, it is selfish.

Are there good people who are involved in the Tea Party protests? Of course. Do they have legitimate concerns about waste and spending in Washington? You bet. Are militaristic, homogenous, often angry protests the best method for airing their concerns, especially for Christians?

I don’t think so.

Stay-at-home-Dads

As a man whose “role” in our family is quite atypical of the 1950s Leave-it-to-Beaver scenario — I work from home, I work for myself, I will most likely share childcare duties with my wife, etc. — I was seriously chapped when I first saw Mark Driscoll’s comments on stay-at-home dads. (watch here) I wondered who, if anyone, would stand up and say, “No!” to his narrow-minded, scripturally bankrupt and ultimately misogynist statements.  Honestly, I haven’t heard anything about the statements since they were made a few years ago, until I read Nicole Wick’s response this week.  She does a great job of poking holes in Driscoll’s interpretation of the two (!) scriptures that he uses to justify his judgments of any non-traditional way of arranging a family. She works from her own experience as a working mom whose husband stays at home with the kids. She makes a very, very good argument.

I’d love to see Driscoll engage Wick’s response a little bit — if he’s man enough.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

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