Missing Mennonites and Misallocation of Care

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I recall my tears shed after the Nickel Mines school massacre, an incident where a man decided to take his disgruntlement out on some Amish girls, shooting them in the head one by one, before taking his own life. They were targeted, no doubt, for their innocence and vulnerability, what normal person would not be deeply troubled by such horrendous thing?

My emotion was wholly appropriate, especially for someone living in Lancaster County at the time, and yet was quite a bit different from my response to other very similar incidents. For example, when a deranged individual slaughtered dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I did not shed a tear. I can’t tell you exactly why that is, it was very similar to the public school that I had attended and a child is a child, but somehow I was simply more removed from the tragedy and had to contemplate why I would value the Amish girls higher than those other children.

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Of course, the key to understanding this is my identity: 1) I was born and raised Mennonite, 2) the Amish are the slightly more peculiar religious cousins of Mennonites and, 3) as someone with an Amish surname, they are actual (albeit distant) cousins in my case. Sure, I had never met those girls nor did I know their particular families, but I could certainly identify with their culture. I could see something of my own childhood, of my family and of my religious identity in them, I mourned my own loss of innocence as much as their suffering a terrible evil.

Sandy Hook, by contrast, while tragic and as terrible, involved people who were less connected to me and thus my reaction was more muted. It just was not as personal to me and therefore I did not feel the same depth of pain. Had I known a child in the school my reaction would have been quite a bit different and perhaps a bit more like the day the child of a close friend died—that is simply the reality of our limited human perspective: One death, if it is made personal to us, will overrule the millions worldwide who have died in similar circumstances.

“A single death is a tragedy; A million deaths is a statistic.”

For Better Or Worse, Nobody Loves Everyone

Many Americans, back in the days when bumper stickers were more common, had “God bless America” message stuck to the backs of their automobile. It was one of those ways a person could show their care for all of their American neighbors and regardless of party affiliation, religious identity, country of origin or gender. Nearly all reading that message (given that it was displayed on American soil and not shared worldwide) shared that same identity and thus should have felt equally blessed by the message.

However, there is that small, but hyper-competitive segment of the population, who (like Topper in the Dilbert cartoon above) simply can’t appreciate what other people appreciate and are determined to outdo their neighbors with their superior virtue. It is that spirit that seems to be behind the bumper stickers in retort to the “God bless America” variety, and proclaiming with great piety: “God bless the whole world, no exceptions!”

Of course, that “no exceptions” part at the end is necessary in case their less sophisticated neighbors, who only expressed love for those actually present and able to read the message, wouldn’t catch the drift.

It has made me wonder, does that same person never tell their spouse or significant other that they love them specifically?

Wife: “I love you, Barry!”

Husband: “I love all women, including you!”

Nothing smug or sanctimonious about that, nope, nothing at all demeaning of the other person either, it is simply a man with a far bigger love than that which can be exclusively reserved for one particular woman and is therefore extended to all women in the world.

Right…

Anyhow, I question if someone who claims to love everyone actually loves anyone.

Yes, certainly, the “God so loved the world” of John 3:16 doesn’t exclude anyone. We are also told that following after Jesus means that our loyalties to our family are secondary (Luke 14:26) to our calling to bring God’s love to the world. Still, we are also told that a man who doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) and also see love expressed for particular groups and individuals. So God loving the world doesn’t mean that our own love is not especially for some. In fact, while we are instructed to do good to all people, there is also special emphasis given:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Love starts locally. Loving our neighbors means caring about those who cross our paths, preferring those right in front of us over some theoretical duty to all of humanity that is never made manifest in real life. In the story of the good Samaritan, remember, it was those who were too important or thinking of responsibilities down the road, who didn’t attend to the suffering soul beside the path of their greater ambitions. In other words, it is the simpleton, with heart, who stops to help you jump start your car and not the self-important pretentious snob, with a global vision and yet can’t see what is right in front of them.

Bottom line: It is good to love those who are close to us and even to prefer investing in those who, like us, are members of the household of faith. If a person cannot especially love their neighbors across the street, whom they have met, then how could they possibly love those whom they have never met around the world?

For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20‭ NIV)

Of Igorot and Mennonite Tribes…

When uncle Roland, a man I had met during my stay in the Philippines, disappeared and was later found murdered in an empty lot, the call for justice went out across social media. It spread like wildfire amongst a certain part of the Filipino population and that being the members of his Igorot tribe. The amazing part is that this collective effort very quickly located the stolen van and only potential lead for this vicious crime. The people who located the van? They were Igorots too, they happened to be on holiday in the “low lands” and spotted the abandoned vehicle.

Mennonites, like Igorots, also take notice when one of their own is missing or harmed. There have been several cases over the past few years that have exploded across the Mennonite online community and made a few individuals into household names. I mean who, in the Menno-sphere, can forget that young married couple, Marco and Mary Ann Kauffman, his life cut tragically short by home invader? Or the disappearance, and later reappearance, of Rodney Sweigart? When a Mennonite is in trouble it is natural that others of their religious tribe, even those who have moved on, respond with extra care and concern.

I was reminded of this once again when I could not resist sharing the story of a young woman, Sasha Krause, who vanished from a Mennonite outpost in Farmington, New Mexico.

Dozens of similar posts about missing persons have crossed my newsfeed, there is likely very little that my sharing (as someone on the other end of the country) will do to help, and yet there is this sort of tribal solidarity that compels me to take an interest, to be somehow involved and share. This young woman could as easily be my sister, my cousin, or any of the number of young Mennonite women whom I know and care about.

Tribal identities, like family identities, are a good thing in that they provide individuals with the protection of a group. The world we live in can be a very rough place and not a place that is very easily navigated alone. We, in the developed world, have a wide range of social programs that attempt to fill individual needs, but the best efforts that government put forward rarely come close to what can be offered by a community of those who share a religious, cultural or tribal identity in common. We have finite resources and prefer to distribute them amongst those who share our common biological heritage or cause.

The Two-edged Sword of Tribally Allocated Care…

Both Jesus and St Paul showed a heightened concern for those who shared their religio-cultural background. They certainly did not hold back in terms of criticism. In fact, their commentary on their Jewish people could be very easily misconstrued into anti-Semitism and very soon was quickly used that way once the Scripture became a subject of individual interpretation in the wake of the Protestant movement in Europe.

Likewise, when a concern goes viral on social media, especially when it involves a particular religious minority group, the feedback can quickly turn very negative. Prejudice can rear its ugly head, those with an ax to grind see an opportunity to promote their own grievances. There are always those who had an unfortunate encounter with that particular tribal group and it was the only bad thing that ever happened to them. So, in the minds of these offended folks, that tribe has become the root of all evil and representative of everything bad in the world. Those full of toxic bitterness will, in the guise of empathy and concern, sow their seeds of destruction.

Very rarely does publicly broadcast dirty laundry do much good when it comes from a tribal outsider without a real or personal connection to those involved. When you leave a tribe you pretty much lose any credibility within the tribe, you have made yourself an outsider by rejecting the group identity and therefore your opinion does not need to be taken seriously by the in-group anymore. To those in that in-group you will be viewed with suspicion, as an external threat to their group cohesion, and summarily dismissed. I’m not saying that is how it should be, that’s just how it is, people do not like judgments coming in from the outside and react defensively in most cases.

Tribal identities very often come with tribal obligations. Those who are showered with concern from within the tribe, even those who did not ask for it, in many cases are expected to give something back in return. Tribes have a sort of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” arrangement that can go terribly wrong when the devotion to an individual from the tribe does not match the commitment that is reciprocated or vice versa. Feeling betrayed by your own is some of the deepest pain a person can feel. Indeed the world is a very lonely place for those who have been neglected or abandoned by those whom they expected would love them.

But, worse than that, tribes, while easily able to spot sin in all other tribes, too often shelter their own abusers or never see their own shortcomings as a group. Some tribes will, too often, send into exile those who dare to confront or challenge their status quo of the group. This is one thing Mennonites and motorcycle gangs have in common, albeit in different forms, the criminals enforce a “snitches get stitches” code” and too often Christian denominations misallocate forgiveness (for only those who have learned how to exploit their system) rather than follow the order of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Expel the wicked person from among you!”

There is also something more insidious when tribes become too insular or only concerned with protecting their own and that being their lack of care for those that are outside of their identity group. This misallocation of care is up last on my list, but it is certainly not the least as far as things that should concern a Christian.

Tribal Misallocation of Care…

I understand why people prefer their own families and tribes. It is something we are biologically hardwired to do. Religions are forced to hijack familial language, like “brother” and “sister,” in reference to fellow members in hopes of capturing that level of relationship within their ranks.

I’ve observed (and years before a book with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria in the title) that my high school cafeteria would segregate along racial lines.

Tribalism has long frustrated me as a force of division and strife. What side of the OJ Simpson case someone came out on, for example, had much to do with a person’s race. The evidence available was the same, yet 67% of black Americans (polled in 1995) thought Simpson was innocent while a vast majority of whites saw him as guilty, that gap has since narrowed. But what that shows is how our perspectives are skewed by our tribal identities and the potential for terrible injustice this presents. The same is true of other identity divisions, such as gender or political affiliation, we tend to see only what is good for our tribe.

Over the past few years wished that I could somehow harness some of the tribal love that is on display in the various GoFundMe campaigns involving one identity group or another. An American, with the right group connections, can easily raise thousands or even hundreds of thousands and despite having insurance, government programs, etc. Meanwhile, a far greater need overseas will often only get a mediocre response because the people don’t look like us, we don’t know them, or simply cannot identify with their struggles being too far removed. That and, given the number of scams out there, we can’t trust outsiders.

Still, we should consider those less fortunate, those less fortunate than the unfortunate members of our own tribes, and love them too. That is the greater implications of Christian love, that our love will erase some of those disparities in care. If we truly believe Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” and that we (as a church) “are all one in Christ Jesus,” then will we ever be satisfied with misappropriation of care based in those listed identities? Can a person be a feminist, a nationalist or an activist for lessor identity groups and a Christian?

When a Mennonite goes missing or is harmed it is easy to understand why other Mennonites take special notice. The idea of having equal love for all of humanity, even those whom you never met, is silliness. That said, when our tribal identities mean indifference or lack of equal empathy for other people whom we encounter who are outside of our group, then we are also putting our Christian identity second. It means we have made an idol of ourselves, our own identity, and should consider the words of Jesus:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. (Luke 6:32‭-‬34 NIV)

Tribal Expansion…

Love starts locally, it means loving our own tribes. We must learn to love our own, those close to us are sometimes the most difficult to love or hardest to hold accountable. We should love our Trump-supporting neighbors as much as we love the Congolese refugee, the Democrat party loyalist as much as we do the unborn. Christian love has a global reach, it must reach across partisan lines, and should always make us wish to expand the borders of our tribe.

I believe Jesus would weep as much for Muslim children killed by a drone strike as I did for those Amish girls. God loves the missing or exploited Filipino worker overseas, who is only known by their family, as much as the Mennonite online community hopes for the safe return of Sasha Krause. We have our favorites, but God does not.

Christian love, in purest form, turns a world full of misfits and outsiders into one family where everyone belongs and nobody is left behind.

My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.

You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination.  We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.

Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded.  The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.

The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program.  A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.

Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program.  They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.

That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits.  As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.

However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.

What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?

It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders.  My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.

Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either.  I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin.  Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.

Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles.  We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.

Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church.  Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities.  We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.

American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well.  We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application.  This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

That might be hyperbole.  It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity.  It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first.  Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.

Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways?  Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences?  At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?

At some point there needs to be some introspection.  If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is.  Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves?  Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?

I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬12 NIV)

Strong words.

When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.

Finding the universal church…

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ (Ephesians 4:4‭-‬6 NIV )

The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles.  What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ.  It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God.  It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.

There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first.  My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church.  In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.

I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds.  Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group.  And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there.  But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.

“And who is like me?”

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I’ve heard the good Samaritan story many times before.  I even blogged about it a couple times because of the important message it contains about salvation.  But this weekend I’ve gained some new perspective on this account and wanted to share it.

First some context…

The good Samaritan story is the answer Jesus gave to a legal expert who had asked him how to obtain eternal life.

In Luke’s account we read that Jesus, rather than attempt to explain, answered the legal expert’s question with some other questions:

“What is written in the Law?”

“How do you understand it?”

To that the legalistic man answered by quoting Scripture:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”

“Love your neighbor as yourself…”

Jesus tells the man that he had answered correctly and further affirms with a statement: “Do this and you will live.”

However, the expert was not satisfied.  Luke tells us that he sought “to justify himself” and inquires further: “And who is my neighbor?

Here’s the twist…

I’ve never realized the full connotation of that question.  The question actually came loaded with more arrogance and elitism than is reflected in our modern reading of the language.  The word “neighbor” was understood to mean a close associate and thus the question asked was more to the effect: “And who is like me?

In other words the expert wanted Jesus to affirm his own understanding of Biblical text that gave him a legal loophole and means to escape the inconvenience of a broader interpretation of the law.  The expert wanted to love only those who added up according to his own religious standard.

Jesus, now having exposed the real intent of the expert’s questions, responds with a story about a traveler who suffered misfortune.  He had been beaten, robbed and was lying by the side of the road.  Two religious elitists approached and then crossed to the other side of the road and passed without making any attempt to help.

Jesus goes on to describe a Samaritan (a tribe who the legal expert would not associate with) who went above and beyond to help the wounded man and then asks the expert: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Jesus turned a question “who is like me” into an opportunity to reorient the questioner…

The expert, obviously trying to justify his own selective love, had asked who to love.  But Jesus does not directly answer the expert’s question.  Instead he takes the conversation from a question of who to love to a question of how to love and described a love without preconditions or prejudice.

To love God means to look past differences of race, social status or religion and love like the Samaritan.  It is a message extremely relevant in a time when we are told some lives matter and others not so much.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean sanctimiously calling out those who we deem to be racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted—as a means to wash our own hands of responsibility for those things—and then being on our way feeling smugly justified.

It means laying our own tribal identities at the foot of the cross, loving those different from us as freely as the good Samaritan did, and being a fulfillment of the ideal in Galatians 3:28…

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

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)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

Jesus Always Trumps Politics

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I overestimated. 

I had assumed my own conservative friends would spot a charlatan and choose a candidate with their own supposed values. 

Trump’s rise came as a surprise to many on the left.  However, the bigger surprise was probably for conservatives who are principled, conscientious and consistently liberty-minded.

Trump is everything conservatives have complained about in liberals.  He’s divisive like Barack Obama, a serial womanizer like Bill Clinton, arrogant like Al Gore and a waffler like John Kerry.  Yet somehow it is all okay when Trump does it? 

Why? 

Well, I suppose it is because Trump is one of ‘us’ and is ‘our’ guy…? 

Which, in translation, is tribalism or identity politics and the same thing conservatives have claimed to loath in liberals.  This loathsome behavior has now become acceptable to some self-described conservatives because it suits their political agenda.

When you can’t beat them join them?

Conservatives, in fear of being marginalized and feeling unheard by the political establishment, have abandoned traditional conservativism en-masse to follow their own audacious Pied Piper who promises to give them a voice again.

Conservatives can no longer blame liberals for dividing the nation with a man as divisive as Trump as their choice for leader.  They can no longer point a finger at Hollywood for promoting evil when they themselves pick an obscene and angry man to represent them.

No matter what the outcome of the election (Trump, Clinton, or other) it is safe to say that irrationality has won, tribalism has won, and we all together will lose.  Something once anathema to American greatness has now come to define us both right and left.

Trump’s ascendency as a ‘conservative’ is a watershed moment.  Now no side can claim moral high ground.  Conservatives are now as guilty of rank partisanship and hypocrisy as their rivals.  They fall for fear-mongering propaganda as quickly as anyone else.

So where do we go from here?

First we must identify the problem in us, not them.  Jesus said that before we judge others we must judge ourselves, because how we judge others is how we will be judged (Matt. 7:1-5) and this is something that should sober up any honest person conservative or liberal.

Both sides identify the same problems. 

Both see the divisiveness, bullying and irrationality of the other side.

But, can we see it in ourselves?  Have we actually heeded the warning of Jesus, seen our own hypocrisy and repented?

Or do we hold onto our imagined right to a sanctimonious judgmental and entitled attitude?  Do we think it is okay for our side to be divisive because they are?  Is it fine to be a bully when it suits our own agenda?  Can we abandon a rationality of self-sacrificial love and somehow save ourselves?

#1) Simple labels lead to more division and greater irrationality.

Trump wins using what Scott Adams (who makes a case why the billionaire celebrity will win) has explained as the “linguistic kill shot” or taking an opponent’s most notable attribute and redefining it in a memorable and negative way. 

The presidential characteristics of diplomacy and reasonableness embodied by Jeb Bush were turned into “weak” and “low energy” by Trump.  Ben Carson’s political outsider status, unique life story and calm demeanor were turned into comparison to a child molester and a cause for mistrust.  Ted Cruz, a skilled debater and political strategist, he demolished by calling into question his credibility.

Of course, this is not anything new, political partisans and activists have long tried to define their opponents in a negative way.  The language in the abortion debate, for example: Those in favor self-identify as “pro-choice” while those against call themselves “pro-life” and both imply the other side as against life or choice.  It presents an intentional oversimplification of a complex topic.  It is often language representative of a false dichotomy and strawman argument.

This was also the most frustrating part of the healthcare debate early in President Obama’s first term.  You were either for a massive new government intrusion into the healthcare industry or you were pigeonholed as a cold hearted and angry racist. 

It was not conducive of a constructive dialogue.  It marked the end of any chance for bipartisan cooperation and in many ways forced otherwise reasonable people to choose a side.  Many conservatives have apparently decided to embrace the labels rather than rise above them. 

Perhaps it is because there is enough truth to the accusations against conservatives?  It does seem, in retrospect, that some of the opposition to Obama’s policies may have been partially rooted in bigotry and prejudice.  This could be in need of correction.

Political correctness came to be for a reason.  Unfortunately, the purveyors of political correctness have not overcome the same tendencies that they identify in others.  They, like those whom they deride as racists and sexists, have resorted to their own forms of the same ugliness.

Trump has mastered this art of oversimplification of opponents.  He uses language that creates a negative image and the more the identifier is resisted the more it is reinforced at a subconscious level. 

Trump relies on irrational human tendency to judge ‘outsiders’ collectively.  This leads to more mistrust, creates deeper division and leads to more tribalism.

#2) More tribalism (or identity politics) will never make America great.

Trump promises to make America great again.  But in reality he represents a more advanced stage of the cancer destroying our strength as a nation.  Namely the problem is tribalism (or identity politics) and this is not helped more angry partisan rhetoric.

Just the other day I was told (by a left-leaning friend) it was “politically toxic” to get lunch at Chick-fil-A.  And on the other side we have Joshua (coffee cup controversy) Feuerstein and a less than meek spirited woman marching through Target (submissive man and family in tow) demanding people leave or be in league with the devil.

Tribalism blinds us to the sins of those with whom we identify with and leads to a vengeful self-perpetuating tit for tat cycle.  Both sides have convinced themselves the other side is getting what they deserve when the government encroaches on their freedom.  It might be described as revenge for what their tribe did to ours, but it is really just hatred and hypocrisy.

Democrats described conservatives of being unpatriotic for opposition to tax hikes and other liberal policies.  Now Trump supporters have turned tables and claim you aren’t a patriot unless you support their vile mouthed candidate.  This is utter nonsense, nevertheless it is believed by many on both sides—it keeps us divided, easily manipulated, and weak.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

Abraham Lincoln paraphrased that bit of Scripture in his House Divided speech to point out the double-mindedness of those seeking to be on both sides of the slavery issue.  Lincoln lost that round, nevertheless his point was well made and our own prideful hypocrisy today (on both sides) must be addressed or we will fall.

The tendency to demonize or marginalize those who disagree is expression of identity politics.  Rather than respect each other we are driven to mistrust.  Rather than build a common unity around our shared values, we are encouraged to divide into competing tribes of race, gender or religious affiliation.  The result is a predictable never-ending conflict where nobody ever wins and everyone comes out as loser.

We cannot promote divisiveness, demagoguery and disunity then claim to love a nation that values freedom.  We cannot expect tolerance for ourselves or our tribe while demanding others share our opinions and being completely intolerant of those who do not.

#3) The answer to abuse and bullying is not more abuse and bullying.

Every abuser feels justified.  Men, child molesters or rapists, will often blame immodesty of women and the innocent for their own sinful lusts.  Likewise looters and rioters feel their own violent outbursts against are excused because of police brutality or other historic injustices.

People bully and abuse others because it works.  It may even get Trump elected according to some.  It is easier to manipulate others into compliance with fear of violence than it is to convince them with a rational argument.  The civil conversation is over when the mob arrives shouting demands with torch and pitchfork in hand.

Trump has encouraged mob spirit in his political rallies.  His supporters gleefully cheer on rough treatment that they feel is justified and it is dangerous. 

For years conservatives have put up with the disruptions and disrespect for those expressing their perspective, so perhaps some of us think this makes it right for us to act out?

It might be cathartic to see some elbows thrown on behalf of our own perspective.  However, repaying evil with evil is a path to greater evil.  It is a positive feedback loop that produces greater evil with each cycle.  It is a march towards civil war and a path to our mutually assured destruction.

We can’t overcome evil with evil.  We must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21) and forgive.  Real moral leadership leads by example rather than use of reciprocal violence and political force.

Jesus trumps partisan politics.

Politics is about power.  Political leaders often use fear to motivate and threat of violence to manipulate those who stand against them, they feed discontentment rather than promote peace, but this is not the way of Jesus.

I’ve heard some exclaim: “We’re electing a president not a pastor!”

This is double mindedness.  Those who believe a thuggish leader is necessary to control their neighbors should not be surprised when the same rationale is used by their adversaries to subjugate them.  It is not reconcilable with Christian love.

Jesus is the answer or our profession of faith is a lie.  Jesus is the right example of leadership, is the only appropriate basis for measurement, or he’s not our Lord and Savior. 

And, furthermore, if the standard for leadership established by His example can’t be reconciled with politics, then I recommend those who claim to be Christian choose their master and remove themselves from the process entirely or admit their unbelief in Jesus.

A President is indeed like a pastor (read more if interested) to a nation.  His morality and ethics will is the example for the nation (or so that was the claim of conservatives in response to Clinton’s infidelity) and cannot be ignored.  We cannot separate the character of a person from their politics nor can we seperate our own personal morality from those whom we choose to represent us.

Politics, or at very least the politics of division, violence and tribalism, is antithetical to sincere profession of faith in Jesus.  Politics that leads by force rather than example is a direct contradiction to what Jesus taught.

“Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

That quote is the final answer given by Jesus to a legal expert (perhaps the equivalent of a Constitutional conservative today) who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus first ask what the law says, the man responds with a summary of the law—love God and love your neighbor.

But the expert, evidently unsatisfied, wanting to be justified, pushes for further definition and asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?”

It is at this point that Jesus tells a story of the ‘good Samaritan’ who treated an enemy (his political and ethnic or social rival) with loving care and respect.  Jesus does not answer the question of who is our neighbor, instead he answers how to be a good neighbor.

That is the way of Jesus.  We are to love our enemies, to lead others by showing them by example how we wish for them to treat us and through this overcome evil with good.  This brings unity and love rather than more fear and divisions.

If there is no candidate attempting to lead with Christian love?  Stay home election day and pray.  When given a choice between two corrupt and unrepentant people?  Choose neither! 

We should choose to transcend the tribal political warfare.  We can love our neighbors as faith requires without casting a ballot. 

So, when in doubt, choose Jesus and love your neighbor.

What does Charleston say about us?

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There are many who react to the church shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.R. Church by blaming availability of guns and decrying racism.

But one thing missing from the discussion, that is a victimhood mentality and the idea that all people of a particular race are guilty because of the acts of a few. 

When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the doors of that church he was armed with two ideas: 1) his tribe (white people, women, etc) were the victims, and 2) their tribe (black people) were collectively responsible for black rapists, perceived injustice, etc.

It was the ideas that this depraved young man harbored in his heart that were dangerous.  However, these ideas are not unique to him or just to unreasonable and angry white men.  These are ideas accepted accepted in mainstream thought that divides people into falsely dichotomous categories.

Who kills the innocent? We do!

Ideas that white is equal to privilege or black is equal to victimhood are equally dangerous.  When we feed the martyr complex and victimhood mentality we are giving license to those of an even more deranged mind to take it a step further. 

The problem with Roof and those like him (of all races, genders, etc) is not what they do—but that they feel justified to do it.  We can fret about availability of guns and a multitude of other factors, but until we address the heart issue we are only treating the symptoms.

We won’t stop a person bent on evil and destruction with more legislation.  If anything more law will only create the next inequity and give some other person reason to feel disenfranchised.  But what we do need is to unravel the false dichotomies and prejudice assumptions that fuel hatred.

Being on the ‘right’ side of history…

We are urged to be on the “right side of history” yet the problem is that everyone (including Roof) feels they are on the ‘right’ side and justified.  Jesus encountered this in the Pharisees who thought themselves better than other people and superior to their own ancestors:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”  (Matthew 23:29-31)

There are many sanctimonious today who think they are superior to other people.  They may decry the injustices of the past, support punishment for those they hold responsible and blame, but they themselves often as guilty or more of similar abuse.

Is an anti-abortion activist who calls women entering a clinic names or murderers a provider any better than those they accuse? 

Is a person who labels others as “racist” or “homophobic” or “hateful” in response to a disagreement over opinion less abusive than a person who uses the n-word?

I say, no and no. 

The solution to hate is not to be hateful.  As Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed: “An eye for an an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”  What he observed is the same as when Jesus quipped that those who live by the sword will die by it (Matthew 26:52) or ‘what goes around comes around’ in essence.

We make a difference by being different…

Everyone has reason for their own abuses.  Many of the most abusive people in history believed they served a righteous cause.  Many people can identify the sins of other tribes or the prior generation, but few seem able to see their own abuses.  We prefer to keep the spotlight on those whom we perceive to be worse than us than we are interested in searching out the wickedness of our own hearts.

Ben Carson spoke well:

“You know, we have a war on women, race wars, income wars, age wars, religious wars. Anything you could imagine, we have a war on it… And we’re giving people a license to hate people who disagree with them.”

We need to stop arming ourselves with contempt and be committed to loving as we wish to be loved.  It is easy to love our own and hate others, but divine love seeks unity rather than encourage division.  It sacrifices self rather than perpetuate cycles of violence.  It brings grace to the fight even when vengeance feels justified.

Grace saves us…

It is the Spirit of love like that of Marcus Stanley, who was shot eight times but lived, and chose grace in response to hate:

“I don’t look at you with the eyes of hatred, or judge you by your appearance or race, but I look at you as a human being that made a horrible decision to take the lives of 9 living & breathing people. Children do not grow up with hatred in their hearts. In this world we are born color blind. Somewhere along the line, you were taught to hate people that are not like you, and that is truly tragic. You have accomplished nothing from this killing, but planting seeds of pain that will forever remain in the hearts of the families that lost their lives and countless hearts around our country.”

Let’s not fall victim to those who would divide us into categories, but instead seek the unity of all people only possible with a love that tears down walls, bridges divides and believes when others say it is impossible. 

May those seeds of Roof’s hate stay dead and the love of Jesus in Stanley’s gracious response grow in us.  The answer is not more or less guns nor petitions against flags and protest, it is less hate and more Jesus.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)

Baltimore: Race, Rage, and Reality

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As fires rage in Baltimore, my thoughts go to the many good people of all races harmed by those who excuse their own destructive and abusive behavior. Mob violence only adds to injustice.

A (Completely Open and Honest) Conversation About Race and Violence

Many, including President Obama, have urged a conversation on race. I have avoided speaking in terms of black and white because I didn’t want to feed existing prejudices. Unfortunately, by my silence, I am also feeding into a dangerous ignorance about the root causes of violent behavior. There is a real elephant in the room when it comes to discussion of race and statistics, here’s a part of it:

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It seems to me there could be a connection between that and the disproportionate violence here:

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And this is how it breaks down as far as who is murdering who:

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Media Fueled Ignorance and the Bigger Threat to Black Lives

A few weeks ago I read an article, “I Fear for Our Black Men,” and then began reading the comments in response. I was shocked. Instead of shared sympathy from other black women there was a lot of anger towards black men. From what I gather the complaint is that when a police officer harms a black man it is an outrage and a cause for civil unrest, but when a black man beats his wife or girlfriend nobody cares:

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Why do we focus on stories about men being victims of police and yet ignore a far bigger problem of women and children victimized by men? Police brutality, while a matter of real concern, is a drop in the bucket of violence in general society and the black community. And the real disproportion is how much attention is focused on their failures rather than the bigger problems. It is straining on the gnat while swallowing the camel.

Which leads me to the topic of government and media complicity. Much is said about disproportionate arrest statistics or incarceration rates. But very little is mentioned about the disproportionately higher levels of violence I highlight above. Apparently we are supposed to obsess on the race only as an explanation and ignore all other factors—factors like resisting arrest, criminal records, dysfunctional homes, etc.

Why Not Build Identity Around Good Behavior Instead of Race?

I would rather talk about behaviors than race. I would rather good people of all races identify with other good people of all races. However, since shared race is how some people choose to build their identity, then I need to address the issue of racial tribalism directly: If you take the side of a person simply because they share your racial tribe identity, then you need to take complete ownership of the bad they do as well and you are a partner in it.

But I would rather we didn’t do that. I say we lose the tribalism motif. I say we stop focusing all of our attention on race and historical grievance. I say we start to address current behavior instead. That is fairer. It is fairer because the vast majority of people (all races) are not criminals. If we are not criminals we should not lump ourselves together with bad actors and defend them simply because we share their skin tone.