Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

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Judas is the most tragic characters of the Gospel account. Here was a man who was in the inner circle of those who had (at least outwardly) forsaken all and followed after Jesus. He was as close to Jesus as one could physically be, no doubt had done everything required of him, how did this man go from a chosen disciple to betrayer? And, more importantly, how do we avoid this same terrible end ourselves?

The Gospel accounts do not leave us without a clue as far as the motives of Judas:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:3‭-‬6 NIV)

Judas, in his sanctimonious rebuke of this woman’s extravagant display of worship, appears to be speaking up for the poor. But John slams Judas, saying he didn’t actually care about the poor, that he was really just a thief and stealing from the common purse.

We also know that Judas would soon betray Jesus for some silver coins.

Most thieves have justified themselves in some way and I’m doubtful that Judas saw his own motives in the same unflattering terms used by John and the other disciples. Judas probably had good intentions, at least some of the time, and probably saw himself as justified in what he did.

Moreover, Judas likely did not see himself as a villain at all. In fact, he was that devastated, upon realizing that his betrayal would lead to the death of Jesus, that he took his own life. There would be no reason for his suicide if his plan was to see Jesus killed. Nobody kills themselves because things went as they wanted them to go.

Why did Judas follow Jesus as long as he did?

There is plenty of reason to believe that Judas was like any of the other disciples and initially captivated by Jesus. However, he, like the other disciples, was likely looking for a political leader who would end Roman oppression and bring about an era of social justice or make Isreal great again. That is, after all, how the Jewish Messiah was described in Scripture:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord . He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is also, very literally, what Jesus told them:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 NIV)

The disciples followed after Jesus expecting to be rulers with him in kingdom soon to be established, where they would be able to bring an end to injustice and right all the wrongs in the world. They were Biblical literalists, that is what Jesus told them, and therefore that is what they anticipated would be the ultimate reward for their devotion.

These guys were not Sunday school teachers, they weren’t there to play church either, rather they were a bunch of sword-carrying radicals who followed Jesus thinking they would see the overthrow of Rome. They, like revolutionaries today, were motivated by political power and utopian idealism, that’s why they were so willing to give everything up to follow Jesus.

Judas was no different from the other disciples in this regard.

Why did Judas sell Jesus out at the end?

It is really easy to get behind a message of peace and justice—especially when you are promised a position of power.

Up until a certain point what Jesus said sounded like populist rhetoric. He spoke to the common people against the ruling elites. News of his miracles spread and got people excited. He gave the downtrodden hope that justice would reign. It is little wonder that the crowds of disenfranchised Jewish nationalists began to swell.

It is all fun when it is about affordable healthcare, free bread, and fish. People always like a vague message of hope and change. Promise them that their nation will be made great again and they’ll flock to you. Even today there are many willing to sacrifice their time and effort for political campaigns making similar promises. People will line up for a handout.

However, when Jesus began to talk strange, telling them to drink his blood and eat his flesh, we are told, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66 NIV) And, I mean, who can blame them? Jesus, when they started to get weirded out, only doubled down on this claim. It does not surprise that many began to express their doubts nor that this is when we start to hear more about a coming betrayal.

Judas, whether motivated by impatience or disillusionment with a leader going off the rails, seems to have sought to force the hand of Jesus. It could be he was also a bit upset having been shut down by Jesus for a point that seems very reasonable on the surface. Why, after everything Jesus had said, would they not sell the expensive perfume?

Of course, we also know that his motives were not as pure as his sanctimonious words would suggest. If Judas were honest, he was following Jesus primarily for the benefits he anticipated and just wanted more money in the bag he carried. It is, therefore, a tragically ironic twist that he received payment for his betrayal, despite not asking for it, and suddenly lost appetite for it at the end.

Why do people betray Jesus today?

Many who go to church and claim to love Jesus are truly his betrayers. They, like Judas, talk the talk, they may share their consternation for the state of the world, give up material possessions, and seem very spiritual and sincere. But beneath this righteous facade is a rotten core. Sure, they might say that they love Jesus, they may have even deceived themselves about their own corrupted motives, yet their real motivation is social standing, monetary gain, political power.

How do you know if you or someone else is a Judas?

Here are some of the tells…

#1) A Judas spreads gossip and backstabs…

A few years ago, when I most desperately need allies, I got wind of a rumor being spread about me. A young man, who would always be nice to my face, claimed to have overheard me saying something absolutely ridiculous. His claim was utter unadulterated nonsense and had the potential to be very damaging to my reputation.

Fortunately, not everyone took his word for it. A true friend asked me “did you say…” and gave me an opportunity to respond. I confronted this ‘brother’ (always so sweet to my face) for his backstabbing and got a quick apology as I recall. However, they did not seem too remorseful. In fact, while saying sorry to me, they went off on the person who came to me with the slander—which led to a second, slightly more animated, confrontation.

Gossip spreads like wildfire in many churches, it is easy to share salacious tidbits about other people, that may or may not be true, and sometimes a thrill that comes with it. Those who ply this trade often use the guise of friendship to obtain information and then piously disseminate their tales as prayer requests or concern. However, like Judas, the reality is that they are backstabbers and truly motivated by hidden jealousy or desire for social gain at the expense of others.

Gossip is a betrayal of Jesus. It is a kiss of Judas. It is a sin listed with murder and hate for God.

#2) A Judas engages in shady business…

Jesus told his followers to “let your yes be yes” (Matt. 5:37) and to “give back to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” (Matt. 22:21), but that does not stop many professing Christians from telling lies or trying to game the system in their favor. In fact, I’ve been severely disappointed in a few business transactions, with people trained to know better, where the other side reneged on their word.

In the worse cases, I’ve elected to take the approach of Psalms 26:4: “I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.”

Everyone works for a profit and there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get the most bang for your buck either. However, there comes a point where being shrewd in business crosses over into screwing other people over and goes from saving money to being a sin. Sadly, many faithful church attendees do not only flirt with this line, but they are so fully engaged in their lust for monetary gain that their word means nothing—they actually prefer making money over their commitment to Christian love.

This is a betrayal that takes many different forms, from the televangelist trying to exploit the vulnerable to the person who is miserly in regards to compensating employees, conveniently forgets a verbal agreement when another offer comes in, and otherwise can’t be trusted unless the terms are put in writing. And then there is the tax fraud, those who feel they have a special right to avoid payment and engage in questionable accounting practices to save a few dollars. Sure, a person should not pay more than they owe and yet it is very sad many have given Christians a bad reputation.

A handshake should not be necessary for a Christian to keep their word, let alone a legal contract, and stinginess in business is not a virtue. Jesus told us to give freely, to give the shirt off our back along with our coat if asked, and it certainly is not easy to truly live this out. However, if you can’t be a man of your word on Monday, then you are wasting your time going to church on Sunday morning. If making money is your primary objective during the week and justifies doing almost anything to win, then you have betrayed Jesus—you cannot serve two masters.

#3) A Judas believes that the ends justify the means…

One of the most egregious errors of the disciples, including Judas, was to assume that Jesus came to establish a worldly kingdom where they would rule with him. Their confusion about this left the disciples feeling devastated as Jesus hung on the cross. It could be the very thing that led Judas to betray Jesus as well.

Judas could’ve been attracted to Jesus because of his greed. He saw an opportunity to fleece the crowds (and his fellow disciples) and eventually decided to cash in. However, that seems more of a bond villain explanation and would leave most of us off the hook. More likely is that Judas was motivated (at least in part) by a political ideal, became a bit disgruntled with what he saw as slow progress, and intended to force the hand of Jesus.

Many today are like Judas. They see the objective as being a worldly utopian ideal. They attempt to use the teachings of Jesus as some sort of political roadmap. They seek to use the government to enforce Christian morality and subjugate their neighbors. To them, Jesus preached “social justice” or some other political machination and believe that any means of accomplishing their ends is acceptable. They weaponize Bible verses to gain an edge on political opponents, they constantly confuse the duties of church and state and their unloving attitudes turn many off to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus did not come to advance an ideological agenda nor to establish a new political order. His message was one of personal repentance and led by showing an example of self-sacrifice. He said, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and did not resist the unjust leaders even knowing it would cost him his life. He did not demand that his rights be respected nor did he ever urge his followers to become political activists.

Furthermore, Jesus, in his answering the indignation of Judas pertaining to the woman’s extravagant display, by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) is making a statement about his purpose. He did not come to right every wrong nor to overthrow those who oppressed his people through force, but rather he came to show God’s love and bring salvation from sin to the world.

Jesus may have used physical means, like miraculous healings, and had real compassion for all human needs, but his goal was always to prove who be was and promote spiritual ends. This is where many fail to comprehend. Some cynically use the teachings of Jesus cynically to advance their political agenda, whereas others very sincerely attempt to use politics to try to advance a Christian agenda, but both are examples of an “ends justify the means” logic and completely anti-Christian.

Christian ends are never severed through means of violence. Political ideologies—all justifications for use of government coercion—may pose as love, moral virtue, and application of Christian teachings, they are often packaged insidiously and hard to detect. However, like Judas on his high horse about the woman’s worship, it is only ever counterfeit—Christians moral ends never ever justify immoral means.

It makes little difference whether someone uses Jesus to advance political ends or uses political means to try and obtain Christian ends—both are a betrayal.

A something other kingdom…

In the end, what Judas and the other disciples lacked was comprehension and faith. Whether Peter swinging a sword at those arresting Jesus before fleeing and denying him, to Thomas doubting even after hearing the good news of the resurrection, the disciples grossly underestimated who Jesus was and sold themselves very short in the process.

Many who profess Christ today are no different than the disciples. They are motivated by things that really do not matter and may, in fact, put eternity in peril in the same way that Esau sold his birthright for a pot of stew. Lifelong church members, baptized at birth or a young age, will be held to a higher level of accountability than their unbelieving neighbors, and could end up crying “Lord, Lord” and told to depart at the final judgement. We need to decide now if sharing juicy bit of slander or a few dollars saved by means of dishonesty is worth our soul.

There are many more fearful, who have this idea that the trials we face today are unprecedented, who disobey Jesus because they do not see him as powerful enough to save them—like he did those Hebrew boys who faced down death when the fires of Babylonian tyranny burned hot. To them, to those always peddling doom amd fretting about the collapse of Western Civilization, maybe consider this story out of war-torn Syria: “Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State.

Does it matter if the world as we know it burns and Christ triumphs?

Even in betrayal Jesus brought glory to God in a way nobody expected—he defeated death by death, the grave could not hold him, and he rose again on the third day as he had promised to those who could not comprehend. It is because of that I will to forgive those who have betrayed my trust. Yes, they should be called out. Yes, they should repent and confess their sins as well. But the resurrection changes everything, those who truly believe are able to forgive all offenses—because to do otherwise is to be a betrayer of Christ.

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Sailing Against Unfavorable (or non-existent) Winds

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On March 30th, 2015, I published a blog, “Sailing Beyond Safe Waters,” to express my determination to go beyond the safe harbor religious tradition and cultural obligation to truly live in faith.

That was when my blog was only viewed by my family and close friends. In the time since my audience grew exponentially and my life took some completely unexpected turns. Perhaps needless to say, I did leave that safe harbor (where some continue their cross harbor pleasure cruises make believing that they’ve entered the ocean of faith) and have charted territories completely new to me.

In the past couple years I’ve experienced the high seas of fear and doubt. There have been those moments of terror and panic too, when the winds howled, threatening to overwhelm the very timbers of my being, and the waves of a hopeless reality crashed hard. But I continued on, determined to break through, clinging to hope, and facing down the impossible.

Then there was that night when the main mast of my determination snapped, my ship of faith had been capsized by a rouge wave, and all seemed lost. The the debris of my dreams lay scattered across a swath of water a mile long and wide. It was the very thing those harbor pilots (who fancy themselves as seafarers for having seen the mouth of the harbor once or twice) had warned me against when had set out. If they cared, their faithless answers were vindicated with my failure.

However, my distress calls did not go unanswered. I was not alone on this ocean and there were those, who had also left their own safe harbors by necessity or choice, as determined to not let my journey end. It was their help that some of the more important items strewn about (things like meaning and purpose) were recovered from the wreakage.

Those on the ocean either know their need of others or they perish in the first big storm that they encounter. It is only in trials and tribulations that you know who your true friends are in a world of imposters. I’ve learned, by sailing beyond safe waters, that it is only the opinions of those who are there for in times of crisis that truly matter.

Finding the wind for your sails…

The time since then has been one of trying to rebuild identity around something more stayed and keeping doing those things that I’ve done right. I’ve been able to do some personal inventory and think of those things that really matter most to me.

My life, all things considered, hasn’t been bad. I have rental property, a great job, freedom to travel, ideas for the future and a precious bhest. That said, despite being enthralled by the beauty of Orthodoxy, it has been difficult to recover that basic faith—the faith that took me out of the safe harbor into the expanse of the deep—and I’m not sure if it is something that can be recovered.

I’ve been towed along by the obligations of life and a commitment to love with the impossible love in particular. I’ve taken the freedom of not having to try to navigate the waters of romance (having basically settled that question) to take on some other challenges. I’ve found that it is much easier for me to take risks now, leading to some small investments and exploring some others.

Still, the bigger pieces of my new life (post-storm) have yet to fall into place. The sails are unfurled on this vessel of faith, a vessel now shared with someone else, but we wait in the doldrums of the present, scrubbing the decks repeatedly (or, rather, doing the dishes and chores for a household of one) while hoping for that favorable wind that will carry us from this purgatory, of a life neither completely here nor fully there, and finally carry us to the paradise over the horizon.

It is important to be ready for when the wind returns, to have the capacity to take full advantage of that moment. The hard part is having the right mentality about the present reality to get to that moment and be ready to be underway—sailing again.

The Terrible Irony of a Person Who Hates People

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One of my biggest pet peeves?

How so many people hate people.

They see encroachment on animal habitats, destruction of the environment, our nature, and imagine the world as being better without people.

Sure, I do understand the sentiment, I do not want to see something good be ruined. And I believe, for the good of humanity and all other living things, we should be caretakers of this amazing planet to the extent that we are able.

However, without us to observe, what would be left to make the judgment that the world is better or worse without us?

Without a Capable Observer—Does Anything Really Matter?

Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the existence of anything is a matter of there being a capable observer. Rocks or even simple organisms show no sign of being capable of appreciating their own existence—let alone beauty or the universe.

Our existence in time and space is something profoundly mysterious no matter what you believe about the origin of life—created in six days or over the span of 13.8 billion years—it is incredible.

But we are unique in this capacity to use words to describe our existence. We are, by all appearances, alone in this ability to contemplate our own existence or at least able to do it at a level unmatched by anything else known. Dolphins and elephants are, indeed, very intelligent yet, at very least, lack our vantage point as observers.

The Contradiction of a People Hating Person

Those who claim to prefer the creature over humanity are truly at odds with themselves. Not only are humans the pinnacle of the complexity of life on this planet, but we are also special for our ability to appreciate that we or anything else exists.

In other words, no beholder means no beauty, because beauty is not something out there or independent of an observer—beauty is rather a concept of mind that depends on the existence of the observer as much as the things being observed. What is out there only exists to the extent that something is able to assign value or appreciate that it does exist.

People who hate people underappreciate the wonderful mystery of their own consciousness and completely fail to comprehend that their observation is what gives all things value.

An amoeba may exist independently of us in some form, but it lacks the human mind to process things like future and understand the result of actions or consequence—which is the basis of the moral reasoning and the very thing that can cause some to view themselves (or just other people) with contempt.

Maybe it isn’t that people hate all people so much as they are narcissistic and simply hate every other person—with exception of themselves?

Narcissists Only Value Their Own Consciousness

It does seem that there are many people, who see themselves as being worthy of resources because they are (in their own minds) enlightened and special in comparison to others.

This aggrandized perception of self is possibly due to their own inability to imagine others being equally (or more) intelligent, as consciously aware or moral as they are, and otherwise equal. Their deficiency of imagination is only made worse by a culture that promotes a notion of self-worth that is independent of love for humanity in general.

Whatever the case, it leads to self-contradiction, it leads to a person who values themselves and their own moral judgment while not recognizing this capacity in others to do the same. It is basically a person who loves their own consciousness so much that they can no longer value perspectives that do not mirror their own and thus hate (rather than appreciate) anyone in competition with them for resources.

A people hating person sees other humans as being greedy and abusive, but fail to comprehend their own jealousy and control freakishness. They judge humanity as a whole without turning the criticism back on themselves or understanding that they themselves, with the mundane choices they make on a daily basis, are as responsible for the large scale problems as the collective whole.

A person who sees others as morally or otherwise inferior to themselves it is on a path to self-destruction. Pride coming before the fall is not karma—it is consequence. A person can become so blinded by their own arrogance and contempt for others that they are actually worse than those whom they condemn. They cannot learn or grow and are bound to hit a wall at some point when their own hatred makes their own life unbearable.

In some cases, when coupled with young male aggression, they become school shooters.

But in most cases, people who undervalue people simply live as one led by the nose by their own confirmation biases and emotions. They see themselves as having all the right answers, as always being the good or righteous person, and are really just egotistical and hypocrites. They may feel entitled because of their inflated self-worth—but are deceived. Like Cain who slew his brother Abel (as means to deal with his own cognitive dissonance as a result of his sacrifice being rejected), they are truly an enemy of themselves.

Why Care About What Will Eventually Burn Anyways?

Another deficiency of a person who hates other people is their inability to comprehend the reality of the universe as it is. Both an atheist astrophysicist and religious fundamentalist should be able to agree on this and that is that the universe as we know it will eventually end. Solar physics (evidenced in the stars) and Scripture point to fire as being the ultimate end of life on earth.

Even if some life were to somehow escape that consuming fire it too would cease as the cosmic clock spring of thermodynamics (behind all movement and life in the universe) became completely unwound. That, the “heat death of the universe” may be billions upon billions of years in the future, but it is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning and everything we know in this life will cease. There will be no stars flickering, no photosynthesis, no warmth or entropy—all will have expired.

But we do not even need to go that far out in time to understand the reality of life. Take a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sometime, consider for themselves all of those various forms of creature that went extinct and went extinct long before humans could have played a significant role in the environment. Nobody cries over Pakicetus nor laments the complexity of the ecosystem that it lived in, so why be upset about Pandas or Polar Bears following the same path?

Certainly, we should be concerned about the decline in the diversity of life, especially as rapid as it has been in recent centuries. That said, there have always been periods of expansion and contraction, usually related to cataclysmic events such as comet strikes or super volcanos, which will happen whether we campaign to “save the whales” or not. Which isn’t to say that we should care any less than we do, but we should probably care differently knowing that it is all temporal regardless.

Which leads into a question, if all this will end one way or another…

What Really Is Important?

Humans are magnificent creatures. We are the only creature capable of planetary destruction. But also creatures so extraordinarily capable of perceiving the future and contemplating things like value. It is our unique abilities that make our complex moral reasoning possible, where we can examine our own actions (collectively or individually) and pronounce judgment.

We are more responsible, but only because we are better at understanding the consequences of our actions and are able to adjust our behavior accordingly. We make priorities. We decide, in our own minds, what is good or bad, what is worthy of our love and what is deserving of our hate, whether flamingos matter more than fetuses.

We determine what is important.

So what is most important given that everything in this universe has a definite expiration date?

If there is anything timeless or beyond this universe, more important than life itself, what is it?

For me the answer is love.

If anything can escape our temporal existence it is love. Love transcends. Love allows us to show grace to the other creatures on this planet which are most like ourselves and that being all of those other fallible human beings. It is true, people are often unappreciative and wasteful. But hate for other people is really only self-loathing (removed a few steps) and to underestimate the value of our existence as the observers most capable of appreciating the beauty of this world.

It is important that we love other people. Sure, there billions of us and it is really hard to love those faceless masses sometimes. Still, other people have as much right to exist as anything else in the universe, we should appreciate them that they are conscious, like us, and love them as we want to be loved ourselves. Without love, nothing is really important and our existence, this tiny snapshot we get of the universe as humans, is meaningless.

Wrestling for the Meaning Behind the Chaos…

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A few years back, while in the throes of a struggle that would inevitably change my religious identity forever, I pondered the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious visitor through the night. In the book of Genesis we read the account of Jacob grabbing hold of the strange angelic man, refusing to let go even after serious injury that would leave him crippled for life, and finally declaring: “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”

The man, identified in the passage as God, does bless Jacob. He also gives him a new name, “Israel,” that means “man who struggles with God” because of his life of contending with everyone and Jacob, now Israel, limps into the new day forever changed.

That story resonated with me.

The tenacity of Jacob mirrored my own a few years ago.

My mom had always told me that my name meant “strong-willed” and she paid the price for her declaration with an intensely determined son—a son who would who, after traumatic birth, needed that will to fight and would go on to contend with his parents and everyone else in the stuggle to survive.

Unlike many religious folks who seem to think that “contend for the faith” means something akin to wishful thinking, always waiting for God to do something and general agreeableness, somehow I got in my head an idea that it means grabbing hold and never letting go until we are blessed by God. It is Jesus who likens sincere faith to a persistent widow who relentlessly pursues justice for herself against an adversary until her plea is heard.

My struggle to find the meaning in my struggle, documented in prior blogs, did not end within the Mennonite denomination as I had hoped. My hope against hope, all of the seemingly meaningful coincidences in my pursuit of the impossibility (like when she literally walks by me and reads “with faith all things are possible” at the same moment of my doubts), ended cataclysmically—my priorities instantly changed from a struggle to find meaning to a fight for spiritual survival.

Since then I’ve kept very busy, have been awestruck by the beauty of Orthodoxy and have found a good reason to venture out of Milton—which I’ll tell you more about that at the right time. But, despite all of that activity, it has been very difficult to regain that sense of meaningfulness that propelled me to pursue, with reckless abandonment, that special purpose. It is harder now to believe there is anything that is truly knowable or that the narrative we create for our life is reliable or ever more than a delusion.

People believe many things, some of those beliefs inspire them to incredible accomplishments, and the power of belief cannot be understated. But the connections we make between events or the significance we assign or attribute to things, that is something that takes place in our minds, it is not objective reality, and is open to debate. In other words, we must decide for ourselves whether something is simply causality and just a coincidence or Divine Providence.

Things like confirmation bias and conspiracy theories are pretty easy to discern for those not blinded under their spell. However, the problem is that everyone seems to think that everyone else is under a delusion (except for themselves) and believes that they somehow see reality for what it is. Whether Mormon, Mennonite, Muslim or atheist, we all have our reasons for what we believe and can all find the issues with what the others believe. And, yet, amazingly enough, many somehow remain confident that their own conclusions are correct.

I can’t really claim to know much of anything anymore. Everything I believe could be a product of my need to create a meaning for my existence. Trust of my own ability to discern meaning took a huge hit a couple years ago with the rejection of those who I had entrusted with my spiritual well-being. They dismissed my judgement, my experiences and my visions (never even gave them serious consideration) which has left me no choice but to reconsider. My hopes and their ‘realities’ could no longer be reconciled.

The good news about my predicament is that I’ve finally done something I could never do before and that is live completely for the good of another person. In the absence of an overarching narrative and without any greater meaning behind events, I’ve been free to simply live. I can go to work, go to church, love the people whom I love, and can survive just fine that way without need of anything more.

Still, I would love to give confident answers about hope and meaning to those suffering through terrible tragedy or illness. And do want to more fully embrace Orthodox Christian faith and grow spiritually through the examples of the many who have walked the path of suffering and salvation before me.

However, sometimes, after wrestling through the night, we need a break. The meaning behind the chaos of life can come later date and we just need to survive. Whether my faithful pursuit of impossibility (or my grabbing hold of God refusing to let go until being blessed) will ever bear meaningful fruit I do not know—maybe, maybe not?

But what I do know is that there was one precious soul on the opposite side of the world who refused to let me go, an Orthodox priest was there at just the right moment to provide some direction when I needed it most, and whatever meaning there is behind all that I’ll leave for y’all to decide…

On Cynicism, Courage and the Real War On Christmas

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A week ago someone had called my grandpa and identified himself as being my younger brother. He needed to be bailed out after some kind of traffic law infraction. My grandpa, not one quick to give vast sums of money over a phone call, quizzed his ‘grandson’ and inquired as to why he did not ask his parents first. The spoof caller answered that he wasn’t getting with his parents, at which point it was obviously a scam and my grandpa hung up.

The other day my grandpa called to inform me that someone had just called claiming to be me, his eldest grandson. This time he hung up without hearing another word.

On the same day my grandpa told me about this I had a plea for help, on social media, from an orphanage in Pakistan. Their profile pictures featured a bunch of dear children and those images momentarily tugged at my heartstrings. However, there was no way to verify who they really were. So, I tried to kindly explain my brotherly assistance was required elsewhere. When continued to repeat the request for a Christmas donation, like a broken record, I blocked them. I’ll probably be slower to accept a similar friend request in the future to avoid the need to try to reason with someone only interested in my wallet.

The communication era has brought the world together in ways unimaginable a century or two ago. And, with that development, predatory hoards from around the world can now invade our personal space at any given moment. The marauders no longer need to travel in longboats over dangerous seas, they simply pick up the phone and pretend to be your grandchildren.

This is frustrating for me. There are so many legitimate needs, including that of my family in the Philippines, and these are the real victims of the scammers and schemers. Those who exploit our kindness and generosity do a great disservice to the people around the world who work hard, experience hardship, and could use a little help. It is easy to become callous and uncaring under the deluge of requests. But we must have the courage to care even when there’s a chance of being exploited.

What is the real war on Christmas?

Political activists are constantly claiming a war here or a war there. The left claims that not providing women with free stuff constitutes a “war on women” and the right, not to be left out of the grievance culture fun, whines about the words “Merry Christmas” not being on Starbucks cups—who can forget Joshua Feuerstein’s coffee cup fury and the backlash?

But the real war on Christmas has little if anything to do with corporate marketing and tit-for-tat politics.

Christmas is not about compelling others to use a particular greeting or ensuring that religious displays are allowed in public spaces.

Christmas is a celebration, for the Christian faithful, of the most incredible gift ever given, that being the incarnation of God’s logos in the person of Jesus Christ and the opportunity for our divine adoption. This miraculous birth, to a virgin mother, represents a new hope for humanity and a reason to change ourselves. The true Christmas spirit is our being filled with this same spirit of love and giving of life for the good of others that Jesus embodied.

Turning Christmas into the latest battleground of a broader culture war is to entirely miss the point. Giving Starbucks hell isn’t going to further the message of glad tidings and joy, that’s for certain, and is not likely to win any hearts or minds either. Pettiness is never going to convince a skeptic to consider the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a distraction at best.

The commercialization of the holiday also takes away from the true reason for the season. The birth of our Lord and Savior wasn’t really intended to inspire stampedes of shoppers hoping to wrestle a few dollars of savings from their neighbors. But Christmas has become a marketing boon for retailers and they (along with the rest of our culture) push people to spend money they don’t have for things they don’t need—things manufactured using underpaid foreign workers while the bulk of the profits enriching a few globalist elites. It is a scheme nearly as exploitative as the telephone scammers, but completely legal.

However, those two things (culture wars and commercialization) are mere symptoms of the bigger disease and the one thing that can undermine the Christmas spirit in us—the soul-eating disease called cynicism. If Christmas has a true enemy in this world it is cynicism. Cynicism is a cancerous attitude. It is natural (albeit unhealthy and inhumane) response to a world full of self-interested people and corrupt institutions. The cynical person is one who has seen behind the curtain, who may have been taken advantage of once or twice and is now too overtaken by their skepticism to truly love their neighbors.

It is often the disillusioned idealist who becomes a bitter, critical, and faithless or cynical. Cynicism is, in that sense, a product of those who exploit trust for financial gain, a result of fatigue of being hit from all angles, and a retreat to a position of disengagement. But it is not dispassionate, as it often claims to be with a shrug, nor is this retreat from personal involvement a moral high ground. No, in reality, cynicism is an excuse for being uncaring, cold-hearted and self-centered.

The clever trick of the cynic is to be uncharitable while presenting oneself as being someone concerned about morality or morally upright for being able to identify the evil intentions of others. But the reality is that cynic is a hypocrite merely using the abuses of others as a cover for their own true self-interested indifference. They might cite scams as a reason why not to care and yet will always have another excuse waiting in the wings if that one isn’t applicable. They are simply unwilling to give of themselves.

Truly the cynic is a coward. They are too cowardly to do good in the face of evil, to be vulnerable and take a chance of being exploited. They are also too cowardly, fearing the social cost of revealing the full truth of their real underlying lack of concern for others, to make a full commitment to the evil they truly envy and yet claim to despise. The irony of the cynic is that they are as selfish and as much a part of the problem as the people that they claim has caused their cynical condition.

Caring requires courage and courage requires commitment…

It takes courage to have life experience and not be cynical. I’ve held back on giving to many charitable causes because some of them did seem more like self-interested scams. There is definitely a case for good stewardship, we should be “wise as serpents” because there are “wolves” (Matthew 10:16) who would devour us and lay waste to our hard-earned savings. It does the world no good to empower criminals or encouraging laziness in those who could learn to help themselves.

However, the dividing line between a person desperately in need of love and one merely taking advantage of the generosity of others is razor-thin. In fact, in many cases, there are overlapping motives in those asking for help, some genuine and others corrupt, and knowing how to respond requires a great deal of wisdom and discernment.

For example, a single mother, raised by the system, may indeed be inclined to take advantage of the charity offered and especially the half-hearted kind that comes out of religious obligation rather than a full commitment to love. They might simply intend to get what they can get before moving on. In those cases, it is easy to dismiss such a person, to conclude that they are unwilling to make the changes necessary to be free of their current circumstance, wash our hands, and move on.

Unfortunately, while there is a time to let people learn from their mistakes, the salvation of those who are mired in generational poverty (or otherwise unable to help themselves) often requires an investment that is beyond reasonable. In other words, it takes an investment of faith rather than of mere religious obligation. It requires the courage and commitment to look beyond the risk of being exploited and to unconditionally love another person before they have proven themselves worthy of our help. Faith means being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Had God waited for us to be worthy of his love, he would not have sent his son, we would still be waiting for a Savior and be hopelessly lost in our sin forever. The true Christmas story is God showing us how to love by becoming personally involved and being completely willing to sacrifice himself as an example for us to follow:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-7)

Christianity and cynicism are completely at odds with one another. They might be similar in that both see the chance of being taken advantage of and exploited, but are completely different in how they respond to that chance. The cynical person lives based on fear and uses their knowledge of the risk as a reason to do nothing for those in need. The Christian, by contrast, makes a commitment to do good despite the strong possibility they will suffer great loss for their efforts.

A Christian must go to war with their cynicism, they must help that diseased man heaped at their doorstep, they must aid the broken traveler discarded along the path they trod and must make an unreasonable commitment to overcome evil with good. That is how soldiers win wars, they understand the risk and are still willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. It takes courage to overcome our fears, to give ourselves as a sacrifice for the good of others, and live out the true meaning of Christmas.

Be courageous and don’t let the scammers and schemers turn your Christmas spirit into cynicism!

Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was a literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based in a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

Sex Obsession: Pornography and Purity Cultures

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It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.

Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.

This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.

Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.

This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.

Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:

Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin

Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.

It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:

  • Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
  • Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
  • Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.

We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.

Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations

There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.

Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.

I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!

Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.

Both Have Diminishing Returns

Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.

Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.

We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.

We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.

Both Render Us Impotent

The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:

“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”

That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.

Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.

In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.

It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.

Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.

Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23‭-‬27 NIV)