Redemption In An Age Of Unjust Outrage—Should People Be Given Second Chances?

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was very well received and perhaps some of the reason for that being his call for redemption. Two of the special guests had been incarcerated during the Clinton administration (when things like “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes,” often disproportionately impacting minorities, became Federal law) and have been recently given their freedom.

The first mentioned was Alice Johnson who had been convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization (apparently not the CIA), sentenced to life in prison, and having their sentence commuted by the Trump administration:

Inspired by stories like Alice’s, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption.

The second guest mentioned, in relation to this redemption theme, was a man named Matthew Charles. Charles, with a face that beamed with gratitude, had been sentenced to 35 years in 1996 for selling crack cocaine in 1996 and became the first prisoner released under the “First Step Act” signed into law recently by Trump.

Like the President or not, this kind of criminal justice reform—after decades of excessive punishments—is something worthy of our praise. It is a first step back towards what once made America great and that being the opportunity to move on from our past failures, both individual or collective, and pursue a better tomorrow together.

Grievance Culture Never Forgives

Unfortunately, while legislative reforms are important, the President can’t undo a cultural progression away from Christian ideas of redemption and towards that of eternal grievance. Those sentenced by an outrage mob in the “court of public opinion” cannot face their accusers, they are denied any form of due process and are rarely, if ever, pardoned.

Media fueled public shaming campaigns, often at the behest of social justice warriors or their sympathizers, have destroyed careers mid-flight over a bad joke on Twitter—who can forget Justine Sacco’s sardonic quip about Africa, AIDS and race? One moment she was an anonymous leftist speaking cryptically about her white privilege to a small circle of friends and the next she is an international pariah for an allegedly racist remark.

Then there is Austen Heinz, the socially awkward genetic researcher and entrepreneur, who was driven to suicide by a bullying campaign led by Huffington Post, Daily Mail, BuzzFeed and other clickbait media sources.

His crime? He mentioned, off-the-cuff, some potential to change feminine scents, which was characterized as being “misogynistic” and “sexist” in one sensational story after another. Who knows what amazing breakthroughs someone as brilliant as Heinz could’ve produced in his lifetime had it not been cut tragically short by those who profit by pushing identity politics and division?

That’s not to say that there is no pushback against this sort of abuse. The wrongly accused boys from Covington Catholic High School are being represented in defamation lawsuits after suffering harassment and threats as a result of a media campaign, involving celebrities and other public figures, to shame them. One of the vicious commentators, Kathy Griffen, who called for their identities to be revealed and falsely accused them of using Nazis signs.

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Of course who can forget the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or ignore the current uproar in Virginia over a photo in Democrat Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface with a Klansman?

And that’s not to mention the two sexual assault allegations that surfaced since then against Virginia’s Lt Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a Duke basketball player. Reportedly Fairfax used his knowledge of a young woman’s prior rape allegation being quashed by university officials as a means to victimize her again since he believed she would be unlikely to report as a result of her prior experience.

In all of these cases the evidence and allegations are different. They all should be addressed on their individual merits and in the correct venues. But all are also in the realm of politics and from many years ago, which really does significantly complicate matters. Who or what many believe seems to become more of a matter of whose ideological team you are on or the potential political fallout more than the actual veracity of the claims being made.

Political campaigns have long relied on digging up comments, years old, served up out of context, is simply how the game has been played. That said, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the more serious allegations, it is one thing to accuse someone of being a racist, sexist, or liar (largely subjective judgements) and quite another to be accuse them of rape. The latter accusation is either objective reality or it is not, potentially criminal behavior, and definitely reflective of a serious character flaw if true.

Still, with the lessor offenses or with unsubstantiated allegations, at what point do we forgive “human frailty” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it), remember that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 2:10), “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:2), and move on? Should we ever treat human failure (real or alleged) like a permanent stain, a reason to always be suspicious of a person, or an irredeemable blemish? I would say no, based on the references provided above, but then…

Maybe Forgiveness Is Only For Some…?

One of the problems with how forgiveness is often used is that is used as a license for our friends and political/religious/tribal peers while simultaneously denying the same privilege to others. This is why a perceived smirk can become a national outrage while actual violence in malls is dismissed as “teenage boredom” and largely ignored.

I’ve long been against collective punishment for individual sins. I’m part of that generation who had Martin Luther King’s “content of character” rather than “color of skin” speech drilled into them and have always made a sincere effort to put that axiom urging judgment based on individual merit to practice. But I’ve found that this steadfast conclusion makes me a relic in the time of intersectionality, group shaming, unforgivable guilt for some and permanent victim status for others.

Perhaps this current generation is a correction to the overly optimistic outlook of my own?

Stereotypes are not entirely baseless, statistics do bear out differences in attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of groups, which could be proof of systemic oppression or simply our own cultural and biological inheritance. There is a reason why many professional athletes are typically of one demographic and chess players are of another, it has to do with discrimination and yet is discrimination based on ability despite coinciding with differences in race or gender. So it is conceivable, as well, that some groups are more likely to become school shooters and for others to me more generally violent as well.

There is a time for generalization…

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:10‭-‬14 NIV)

There may indeed be tendencies of groups that should be called out. That said, I doubt very much that St Paul, in the passage above, is making a case for unforgivingness or collective punishment. No, I’m quite certain that he, as one who once persecuted and killed Christians before his dramatic conversion, understood very much the need for redemption or he himself would forever be condemned. Had he been held to the same standard of today he would likely be completely disqualified from leadership and certainly never embraced as a brother by those whom he harmed.

Forgiveness Is For Those Who Repent.

One of those other problematic teachings that I’ve frequently encountered (particularly in my Mennonite religious culture) is this idea that forgiveness should be bestowed upon all people regardless of what they do or how often. This is based in a misapplication of Christian examples in a way that too often provides shelter for repeat sexual abusers and others who have learned how to game the system.

This idea that forgiveness removes any sort of accountability for sin is dead wrong. Sure, Zaccheaus needed to be forgiven for his taking advantage of people as a tax collector, but he also needed to repent of his sin and repentance required taking responsibility (financial or otherwise) for the wrong he had done.

In other words, had Zaccheaus been a child-molester simply admitting the sin or even an “I’m so sorry” speech is not enough, he would need to also face the civil penalties for his actions and also the social consequences as well.

The plea of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not permission for those in the crowd chanting “crucify him” to go on murdering innocent people or an escape from need for repentance. Those in that outraged mob who called for his death would eventually need to repent and face the consequences of their sins like everyone else.

Forgiveness does not absolve a person from need to repent. Yes, there are times when we need to forgive those who have offended us without them repenting, we should always give a second chance (even 70 x 7 chances) to those who do truly repent (ie: have confessed and also paid the penalties for their sin), but this idea that forgiveness means complete freedom from consequences or removes the need to repent fully is not at all Christian—repentance is a requirement.

So, yes, we must forgive as we want to be forgiven and we should also not hold a grudge against those who have wronged us, but there is no indication that those who do not repent will be forgiven by God and we owe it to them to tell them the truth. Furthermore, according to 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, we should not even associate with a person who calls themselves a Christian and continues to live in unrepentant sin.

So, returning to the question initially asked…

Should People Be Given Second Chances?

The answer is both yes and no.

Forgiveness is something conditional. Jesus called for repentance, saying “go and sin no more” to a woman whom he forgave, and using a parable of a man forgiven a great debt who did not forgive to illustrate the point that forgiveness can be revoked for the unrepentant.

Second chances are for those who acknowledge their error (and repent) or can’t be found guilty of wrongdoing after the matter has been addressed in the appropriate manner.

There should also be allowance for growth—people do mature and change. There should also be some tolerance given to all people, because nobody is perfect, we all have our flaws, and would probably look pretty bad if our lives were put under the microscope of the outrage mobs. However, this tolerance and allowance should not only be for those who are on our team.

For example, we cannot say that blackface is the unpardonable sin of racism in one case and then play it off as a “coming of age ritual” (it certainly wasn’t for me) because our own guy got caught. We can’t treat a boy’s expression as a “facecrime” (thank you, George Orwell) worthy of national contempt while totally ignoring the grown men yelling homophobic and bigoted things (or worse, describe their hateful and intentionally provocative slurs as “preaching about the Bible and oppression” (*ahem* CNN) while simultaneously heaping condemnation on a boy for wearing a MAGA hat and an awkward smile.

That said, I would expect more from a fellow Christian, raised in a good home and under good instruction, than I would from some random dude on the street. Jesus did say that more will be expected from those who are given more (Luke 12:48) and that may mean we hold some to a higher standard. And yet we should also be aware that our own judgment is clouded by prejudice, that we don’t see everything a person is going through or the disadvantages they’ve faced in their lives, and therefore should err on the side of forbearance in all cases.

So there is no simple answers.

I do believe that our culture, due to social media, click-bait stories and a progressive decline in moral values, has veered dangerously away from forgiveness and redemption. We should definitely think twice before joining an outrage mob, we also need to do whatever it takes to keep partisan politics and tribal identities from perverting our judgment, and we should always give as many second chances to others as we would want for ourselves.

No matter your politics, you very well could be the next less-than-perfect person turned into an unforgivable villain by the mob, so keep that in mind next time you see a sensational headline, read a poorly concieved Tweet or watch a video clip without context.

“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

Legalism: Knowing the Letter of the Law but Missing the Spirit

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This is part two of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia.

Ever get angry after being cut off in traffic?

I know I do.

Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!

However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.

That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?

People believe they see things as they are.

We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.

This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.

Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.

We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.

Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.

The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.

Legalism abuses the intent of the law.

Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.

That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.

#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.

Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10‭-‬14 NIV)

The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3‭-‬5 NIV )

We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.

He avoids their trap:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6‭-‬11 NIV)

We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?

It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?

Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.

#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:

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. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.

What is the true intent of the Biblical law?

To save us from ourselves.

Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.

Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.

It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.

The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10‭-‬13 NIV)

Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.

The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.

Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14‭-‬15 NIV)

That is black and white. So is this:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.

Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…

One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.

James further expounds:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8‭-‬13 NIV)

Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!

Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…

Who then can be saved?

It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?

There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.

We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.

If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.

If we want God’s mercy we should be merciful.

The Church Brotherhood Lie

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I once had a conversation with a Mennonite man who idolizes his wife and children.

I told him he was unloving towards me, and, as one careful to meet his religious duties, he was perplexed—what more could he do?

He remarked that he can’t love me with a romantic love (I never suggested to him that I wanted a card on Valentine’s Day) and then asked me how I wanted to be loved by him. 

So I asked him for brotherly love and quoted an example from Scripture:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

He thought that was preposterous.

He loves his wife very much, he has made his own biological offspring his main mission in life, and for him to love me more would be impossible.

He did not truly love me as a brother and could not because he lacked authentic faith.

Why do Mennonites fail to deliver true brotherhood?

Mennonites take pride in their greater commitment to each other and the concept of a brotherhood of believers.  The comparison they like to make is between themselves and those whom they dismiss as being nominal Christians.

The assumption seems to be that church attendance equates to brotherhood.  And, since we compare favorably to those who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, we are doing well.  Besides that, we continue to go through the motions of servanthood (with a ceremonial foot-washing) and even do it twice a year.

But honestly, that is pathetic.

People only compare themselves to those downstream from them because they are making an excuse to be pathetic.

If you want to be more than pathetic you compare yourself to the perfect example and pursue that.  Mennonites fail to deliver on true brotherhood because their own pride blinds them from the possibility that they are falling short and could actually do better.

They lack the faith to break with their religious status quo and shoot for the impossible.

What is true brotherhood?

It is a shame conservative Mennonites shun competitive sports.  If they had learned to commit to others like high school athletes must dedicate themselves to a team then they might know something of the potential for brotherhood.

I have a cousin who just returned from his years of active duty in the military.  He says that while the challenges were tough, he will miss the comradery and brotherhood.

In practical terms, this means falling on a grenade to save your buddies (or just something as mundane as taking the time to run a lunch out to a brother in arms who forgot his) because in the military the good of the individual is sacrificed for the good of the team.  The individual dies when they enter the brotherhood.

The church I’ve been a part of for decades is a disappointment.  Many of the so-called leaders are apologists for complacency and promote faithless religious devotion.  Instead of being advocates for others (like Paul was for Onesimus) and helping them to carry their burdens as is Christian, these frauds teach that more Bible reading is the answer.

I’m sorry, but vacant promises to pray for each other twice a year while splashing water on each other’s feet is not brotherhood.  Telling me that a book is some kind of magic elixir cure for all needs is spiritual ignorance.  And the book that these phonies claim to revere says this is not the case very clearly.

What Christian brotherhood should be according to Jesus.

It does not take a high level of reading comprehension to find the central point of the New Testament.  The point is to have the kind of faith to live out the self-sacrificial example of Jesus.  What this means is following the command to love each other so the world can see clearly that we are his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34‭-‬35)

Jesus defines this command to love further:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:12‭-‬17)

The idea of dying to self that is expressed in the teachings of Paul is often taught as if it is some kind of religious devotion devoid of a practical end.  As if we prove our love for God through emptying ourselves of any and all desire.

But the self-sacrificial love of Jesus is not aimless or vague, it is being “devoted to one another in love” to honor others above ourselves (Romans 12:10) and practicing brotherhood.

Be real or I’m not interested in your words.

The reason the church falls short is because it has compromised love for the brotherhood and made it secondary to family, business, or other personal ambition.  But Jesus did not teach individualism.  He did not promote patriarchalism either, and instead taught us to be a brotherhood.

The relationship of David and Jonathan is a picture of true brotherly love:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1‭-‬4)

Our devotion to brotherly love should not come second.  Unfortunately there are many in the church who are not willing to come to the aid of another the same as they would their own family.  There are many who put their religious agenda and protecting their own biological progeny above all else.

That is the case with the man I had the conversation with.  He is regarded by many as a model citizen; his children do all the ‘right’ Mennonite things and are treated with favoritism, but his family is a bunch of religious self-seekers—like their dad.

The language of brotherhood should not be used lightly.  Don’t call me a brother or sister unless you are actually willing to treat me as one.  I don’t like being lied to.

Sir Charles is right…

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What Charles Barkley says about tribal mentality (watch the video) is spot on.  We are all susceptible to in-group favoritism, which is to prefer those we most identify with over those who we do not, and, with that, we can lose our objectivity.  Sadly, when issues are framed as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (rather than on the basis of a careful and impartial analysis of the facts) the only result can be more polarization and division.

It is not just a matter of dividing over racial identities either.  Identities can be built around many things.  We can prefer or judge more harshly based in gender, class, education, religion, nationality, political affiliation, brand, friendship, familiarity and basically anything that can be used to create categories of people.  We don’t always side with those who are most like us either.  Regardless, who a person identifies with or against is a reflection of their own priorities and these often seemingly unconscious preferences are worth our conscious examination.

When the allegations against Bill Cosby started to become a story I was originally skeptical of his accusers.  I cringed because I had thought of him as a sort of role model of fatherhood.  I imagined his status as a wealthy celebrity may make him vulnerable to those seeking to gain financial and a sort of odd offer that could suggest a money motive behind the charges made me wonder even more.  Still, why would I assume Cosby is innocent and assume over a dozen women are guilty of trying to extort him?  It could be that I’m a man like him who would fear the same happening to me.  It could also be that the accusers are anonymous people as far as I am concerned and Cosby a public figure I thought I knew.

In contrast, a few years ago when the charges against Jerry Sandusky were made, when he was accused similarly in what became a media frenzy, I assumed he was probably guilty and without much consideration of his possible innocence.  First off, he lacked cuteness factor and, as awful as it is, appearance is a factor in our judgment of guilt or innocence. In my mind Sandusky looked the stereotypical part and that prejudice despite my knowing appearance is not evidence of guilt.  Second, despite being a Penn State fan, Sandusky was not on the coaching staff for a decade and I did not recognize him.  Besides that, his TV interview was awkward and, while actual proof of nothing but his awkwardness, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Black men often suffer the same image problem that causes people to be suspicious rather than sympathetic.  It is unfair, but not an inexplicable prejudice and definitely not helped when the causes célèbres are young men who died in violent confrontation.  It is not helpful to the cause of overcoming racial prejudice that solidarity centers around skin color rather than unquestionable character.  It is not fair to the vast majority of black young men for them to be lumped together with every other black young man and especially not helpful they be categorized with those involved in tragic violent encounters.

The idea that every black male is equally likely to be killed is based in an erroneous assumption that race is the only important factor in predicting outcomes.  Statistics do not tell individual stories and many factors other than race influence risk.  Factors like single parent homes, participation in gangs, drug use and many others can add to risk.  Factors like education, positive attitude, good community and others can reduce risk.  So, rather than categorize by race only (as if that’s all that matters) and feed a tribal mentality that is already too prevalent, we should look beyond as well. We should encourage unity around the ideas that reduce risk for all young men regardless of their race.

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

A first step towards light and away from darkness is to reconsider our own tribal identity.  It may say nothing more when she does it than when I do, but I did find it interesting that Whoopi Goldberg is skeptical of the allegations against Cosby and yet did not rise to the defense of Sandusky who faced far fewer accusers.  To Goldberg’s credit, she did separate the acts of the retired coach from the Penn State community, which is more fair than demanding morally responsible and mass punishment for those who had no way of knowing.  But why do we not treat both accused men the same regardless of appearances?

But I do digress.  This is my advice for moving in the direction of light and unity beyond racial identity.  This, for those afraid of young black men, means to identify with the young black men who do not fit a violent stereotype and should not be defined by the negative statistics.  It means judging less in appearance, less collectively and more on individual merit.  For those who fear police, this means obeying the law even when in disagreement, treating officers with respect even when not understanding their requests of us and seeing them as unique people to be treated as individuals rather than as part of some monolithic thing to shower our contempt upon.

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It is the image of Devonte Hart giving a hug to Sgt. Bret Barnum that show the real path out of darkness and to light.  Let’s follow their lead and be a new tribe bigger than skin color and prejudice.  Leave fear and mistrust behind even if it makes you more vulnerable.  Give people who look different from you the same benefit of doubt you give to those who look more like you.  Be willing to go the second mile for those who seem as a threat to you and live to be a light to the world.  The world needs more hugs, fewer demands and chockholds.  We need to love all people as we want to be loved.

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2:8-9)

Anyhow, this is probably as much as I want to say about racial tensions, I have probably said more than enough already and I pray my words are understood as intended.  May God bless his children of all colors, genders and social statuses with abundance of love for each other.  May we love each other as God loves us and be leaders in love rather than reactionaries in fear.  We need love and understanding beyond the tribal boundary and that which is only made possible through having the mind of God.