Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Thoughts On Current Outrage Surrounding The NFL

I am on vacation in the beautiful, North Carolina mountains, and, because I have no guilt wasting time on vacation, I dedicated an exorbitant amount of time tilting at windmills on Facebook yesterday, and I rode away into the night feeling as valiant as Don Quixote himself. Dang it feels good to be a gangster. Am I right, Quixote?

Now I sit writing an article for my blog that I don’t have much intention in ensuring a lot of people read. Again, this is just some catharsis with no guilt for wasting time. I must admit, most of my blog posts are like this. Anyway…

I say most of this in jest, of course, because I have had several occasions in which someone has told me that my thoughts helped him or her and brought his or her thinking around on whatever happened to be the topic at hand, and I too have had moments like this myself. I’m just trying to be honest with myself. I know for the most part, my Facebook posts and blogs will do little to change the world.

I’m ok with that. Yet, I will add this: When I do have something burdening my heart enough that I write about it on my blog, you can be assured that it is something that I pray about and work at solving in ways I find more meaningful than simply jotting down some thoughts online. When I say I do not think my words will change the world, I do not suggest I do not want the world to change, and I do work on doing my part in being a problem solver.

Now, onto the matter at hand:

The hot topic yesterday was, of course, the NFL allowing its players to take a knee during the National Anthem. What are we to make of all of this?

I can say this: We won’t properly make heads or tails of this event if current emotional outrage drowns out reasoned discussion, and I see it on both sides. One side is saying, “You disrespect men and women who have died for you, you ungrateful piece of trash,” while the other side screams, “You are a racist pig wanting to silence minorities and you can’t even think your way out of a wet, brown paper sack.”

That is our first problem. People do not know how to disagree.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…  James 1:19

It takes time to understand an argument, but, in our culture, we take the shortcut of asking ourselves, “On what end of the political spectrum would this fall?” If the issue falls on the other side from where we stand (as we perceive it) it is automatically bad, and if it falls on our side (as we perceive it) it must be defended at all cost. No time to think in a fast paced world. We must make quick assumptions. We must prejudge.

So, whatever side one falls on, if one’s initial response is to quickly pick a side and call those on the opposing side “fools,” “idiots,” “trash,” “ingrates,” “morons,” or a bunch of other words I saw but won’t repeat here (let’s not forget Son of a bitch, coming from our most hallowed of public offices, however), then we have a problem.

They may be acting foolish, but have we even tried to first be listeners of their grievances? Have we been slow to anger? Again, people on both sides have been guilty of this. I cannot say that within my heart, I haven't had a few names for people, and for that, I am sorry.

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:22

The key to being able to learn is to avoid anger. I have to admit, this is hard. When issues of justice are at stake, sometimes it is not possible to go all Spock, full of reason with a great measure of detachment, but it is worth trying.

Let’s begin with the major claims being made:

On the one hand, and this narrative has changed very little, except for a little twist after POTUS called those NFL players who continue to kneel “Son of a bitch,” those NFL players taking a knee have consistently said that they are trying to bring attention to the fact that the nation, which is supposed to be about “liberty and justice for all,” is failing certain peoples. Admittedly, it did shift a bit in recent days to include a protest against Trump for his calling certain NFL players a derogatory phrase. But, the central message remains intact.

There are two groups of people: Those who have heard and believe this is, at least for the most part, the intended message. Then, there are those who refuse to believe the express explanation and suggest this is all about disrespect for the country.

(Now, give me time to be fair to all sides, as far as I think I can be without betraying my own beliefs, before giving up on me in the paragraphs ahead.)

It is a matter of proper dialogue and debate to give the benefit of the doubt to the person when he or she says, “This is what I mean.” Until it can be shown otherwise, not with small anecdotal evidences, but clear proof that an ulterior motive exists, it is proper for debate to let someone’s words be his or her words. Understand those words and attack them, not some made up conjecture.

On a number of occasions, the players have expressed that they mean no disrespect to the service men and women, nor are they trying to be unpatriotic. They are trying to do something for the nation (call out injustice within) not do something against it (support anarchy). The whole idea of kneeling was an attempt to show deference for the service men. When Colin Kaepernick first began this protest, he sat during the anthem. He then consulted a peer who had served in the armed forces and this peer told him that taking a knee would be more respectful for service men, while still getting his point across. He did just that.

That is the narrative.

On the one hand, to say this has absolutely nothing to do with the anthem and flag is misguided. The protest time was carefully picked to make a very pointed point about our nation.

What these players, however, wish to say is that they believe in their hearts that the flag represents more than the military, as it should. They are not protesting these men and women who fight for the flag, hence, the knee instead of just sitting. They are protesting a certain part of our nation’s current state.

Along with partly being a symbol of the military, the flag represents the entirety of the country and her people (“And for the Republic for which it stands”), and these men do not think our nation is living up to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” In other words, they are not, in their hearts, trying to pull the nation down, but to call her up to what she is supposed to be about.

So, yes, the flag and anthem are a part of this, but they are saying that those who are calling them out for being unpatriotic are missing the point. I think this is a fair argument on their part, especially in light of recent events in which many who now cast blame on the kneeling players were making a similar claim just a month prior:

Consider the phrase I used a few times: “in their hearts…”

One month ago, people were saying: “In our hearts, the confederate statues represents something deeper than the hate you are making it out to mean,” and they wanted this argument to be heard.

Presently, many of these same people are saying: “I don’t care what you say is in your heart when you protest, I say it is hateful towards the military.”

We cannot have it both ways.

If all the flag can represent for a person is our military, then that person is dangerously conflating the two. The military does not own the flag. The military serves the nation for which it stands and protects her in service. Do I stand in honor of these men and women? Yes, I do. But, if it is demanded of me to do so in a compulsory manner, then there is a problem.

When we begin to demand people act and behave as we wish, we begin a slippery slope to all sorts of chaos. Remember, Richard Dawkins is leading a massive movement of secularists who believe religion in all forms is dangerous and therefore should be prohibited. When we tell people how they should express their deepest beliefs through certain prohibitions (I prohibit you from kneeling), then we join the ranks of people like Dawkins.

Now, for a moment, let’s switch gears.

On the other hand, to be completely shocked and angry that some people would take offense to the mode of protest is a bit misplaced as well. Many persons were raised to believe that patriotism is one of the greatest positions one can take in this life, short of their allegiance to God. (I happen to think these come too close to each other sometimes, but that, again, is the topic of another post). Furthermore, they were told that any deviation from standing with hand over heart during the pledge and the anthem is disrespectful.

The very intent of picking the time of the anthem as the time to protest was meant to cause a stir. So, that people are stirred up is understandable. What then needs to happen for those who would want to say, “Wait a minute, just hear clearly the reason for protest out before you get too insulted,” is for these persons to be very patient in giving this message. It may take a bit of time before the others can calm down. They were provoked.

If people are purposefully provoked, then the ones provoking might have to take a few lashes if they want to be heard.

It is not a terrible move to provoke people. Jesus was provocative, and he explained himself to those who truly wanted to learn. So, if you are going to poke the bear, be ready to explain yourself when he comes out mad as a hornet, and don’t be surprised that you may have to spend a little time calming the bear down (and not in a patronizing way either).

It isn’t fair to be provocative and then say, “What are you mad about?” On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to do something bold to awake the giant, either. Again, you just have to take the time to receive a little lashing, before you can be heard saying, “Let me tell you why I woke you up. I need you to hear something, and I could not get your attention nicely. I mean no disrespect, but I could not get your full attention any other way.

Could there be a better way? Maybe, but the point now is that it has happened, and if they stop now, the naysayers are going to do their “I told you so" dance… It’s a pickle for sure.

Now to my final two thoughts:

If you are the sort of person who will say, “I hear what they are saying, but I do not believe them.” In other words, you say that you have listened, but there is really nothing of substance to their grievances (i.e. minorities are not oppressed in any way), I would ask, have you done any research, or are you just not willing to believe our nation could overlook people? Having that sort of faith in our government then means you should never complain about anything going on in congress. If they have our best interest in mind at all times, then do not complain about healthcare, taxes, or abortions. Just read a little bit of history, and remember that the ripples of history don’t disappear the day, week, year, decade, or even century after they were made.

If I can say that my success is in part due to what my ancestors did way back in the 1700s, then others can say that oppression that only ended decades ago has some bearing on their life now. Furthermore, it is not just about what happened then. There are still injustices today (link below).

 And, if you are the sort of person who would say, but they are rich and therefore have no right to complain. They should be grateful. I would warn that this comes very close to racism. “You can’t complain about minority injustice, because we gave you the ability to play football….” Really?

Did you hear that Saudi Arabia finally passed a law allowing women to drive? I guess those women have nothing more to complain about. They should be grateful to their benevolent nation, right?

For more on minorities and injustice read this:
https://chartwellwest.com/2017/09/27/__trashed-2/

Finally, if your love of tradition outweighs your willingness to listen to the other that is a huge conflict, especially for the Christian. If your love of country, flag, and anthem, means you cannot stop for a moment and listen when someone is saying they are in pain, you need to take time to reevaluate your priorities.

Pain often expresses itself in nasty ways. Think of a loved one who has gone through a mental breakdown. If their pain is expressed in shouts and screams that you do not like and may think are unwarranted, would you then say, “I will not listen or try to help.”

I am not saying that the pain of the minority community is equal to the above illustration. I am saying that, even if some do not like how it is expressed (by what mode and through which representatives), that should not mean we allow our anger at what might be perceived as an insult to control our response, which should always be first motivated by loving patience and a willingness to listen, despite what the other is doing.

Otherwise, tradition undermines love:


Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! Mark 7:9

Monday, July 11, 2016

Jesus, Race, and Culture:


Should The Church Confront Racial Issues?

There is a lot of pressure on the church today (especially upon pastors) to speak to the cultural issues with which we are currently struggling. Part of the issue for pastors is that there exists a multitude of opinion in the church upon these issues and how they should be resolved, if in fact they can be. Most of these differences have not arisen out of theological considerations, but out of political concern. Speaking about politically charged issues is a precarious situation for pastors to say the least, but is it an excuse to avoid the conversations?

Another pressure on pastors is that major sects of the church have historically avoided concrete, political rhetoric altogether, and some, both within and without, believe this is the way it should be. Does the church have a voice in the realm of politics, or does our separation of church and state preclude us from any influence?

Do we have biblical warrant to speak to the area of culture that includes politics?

On a broader cultural scale, recent arguments have arisen in which people are debating whether or not people of various groups have the capacity to understand the feeling, concerns, and overall experiences of another group. Can the church be truly multicultural? Does our message truly create transcultural conversation and healing, or are we doomed to continue to talk past each other, at least on this topic?

Is there any biblical precedence for speaking to each other about our own cultural (specifically ethnic) understandings, and will people be able to hear?

My Alma Mater, Asbury Theological Seminary rereleased a video in which Pastor Lisa Yebuah argues from Paul’s statement to the Church at Galatia (in which he states that in Christ Jesus there is no longer “Jew nor Greek,” v 3:28) that since barriers have been broken by the cross we can begin to hear across old walls. I love this thought. We must encourage the church to have real, authentic conversations so that we all can repent from our old ways and live in newness together. Faithfulness to the gospel recognizes our ability to hear and understand our brothers and sisters, no matter their particular affiliations in other communities.

In my recent book, The Other Side, I speak about learned behaviors and the possibility to overcome prejudice:

For the child, noticing someone else is different is first a matter of curiosity. Negative bias is introduced when this child perceives a negative attitude in those he or she most often imitates. The child does not become malicious at this point. He or she is simply following a basic rule of survival: If others in my community recoil from this type of person, thing, or situation, I should too.
           
If prejudice can be ingrained at such an early age, we might fear that there is little hope of overcoming our prejudices unless we begin by admitting that none of us are immune to receiving or perpetuating, consciously or subconsciously, negative stereotypes. We do, however, have another mechanism in learning about others that may move us beyond learned biases: an uncanny ability to empathize through the vicarious experience of placing ourselves in another’s shoes. When we have the opportunity to learn of others through hearing their stories and placing ourselves in their shoes, learned biases are diminished if not destroyed, and we learn, instead, to care.

Arguments or mere dialogue concerning the views of others will not get us to where we need to be if they are divorced from the prompting to step outside of one’s own preconceived ideas and into what it might be like to walk in the other’s shoes. Having the gift of “the mind of Christ,” it is possible to consider others before ever considering the needs and concerns of self (see Philippians 2:1-5).

Yet, is there any concrete biblical example of using empathy to promote understanding of the other? Can we use racial differences as a learning tool?

Jesus seemed to think so. In fact, in a very subversive manner, Jesus forces some of the religious elite in the Jewish community to do just that as he taught the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” found in Luke 10:25-37:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

In this text, some of the religious elite of the Jewish community, a community who highly valued their own ethnicity and import of their specific knowledge, confronts Jesus. Specifically, a lawyer, an expert in Torah, challenged this Rabbi, another expert of Torah from another angel, to ask the key to right living.

Jesus expertly draws out of the lawyer the key to right living and challenges him upon it: “Do this (what you just claimed to be right) and you will live.” However, as soon as Jesus challenges him to do only that which the lawyer had already admitted was the ethical way of life, the lawyer begins to make up excuses and counter argues his own point, by asking, “When is enough, enough?”

Jesus then launches into his subversive illustration. He first has the community see themselves in those who encounter a terrible situation. First, a gang on a very well known and dangerous road robs and beats an unnamed traveler. Even though the man is unnamed, it seems Jesus is most likely referring to a Jewish person. Everyone listening would be able to empathize with the beaten man. As the man is lying in road left for dead, two persons of the Jewish religious community pass him by. Again, everyone would have recognized the two well respected people types here. They are feeling the finger of blame being pointed at them.

Then Jesus talks about an “other,” a Samaritan. It is no secret that in this day, there existed a lot of racial tension between the Jewish people and the Samaritans. Why this tension existed is a lesson for another time. From an early age, Jewish people were conditioned to dislike the Samaritans. So, Jesus makes this member of the “out group” the hero. He is challenging racial norms in the day. Here is what they would assume to be a religious mutt acting in accordance with ethical living.

His final question is one that forces the audience to consider empathy, not just of the beaten man, whom everyone feels sorry for, of course. Instead, his question has them consider the three passers by, including this “unworthy” Samaritan. Who among these men did the right thing? In other words, how do you understand their actions? If in their place, what would you do?

The lawyer is forced to answer, and his reply is telling, “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan was right.” Instead, he simple refers to him as “one.”

Jesus was intentionally being political, showing the hypocrisy of the elites in society. (Remember that for the Jewish people specifically; there was no difference between religious leaders and political figures, at least for their own local context, which Jesus uses here.) Jesus confronts their racism and forces them to see the humanity in the other.

No servant is greater than his master, and if Jesus shows us an example of leading through hard conversations concerning race relations and doing right to others, we too must speak of these things. No matter what others in our church say about our right to speak on these issues, no matter what the world believes is possible or impossible for racial healing, we must trust our leader, our King, and the King and head of the church was one willing to break down barriers through hard discussions upon race.


I, for one, choose to follow Jesus. I will listen to my brothers and sisters who happen to come from other backgrounds. I will validate their concerns. I will try and help them see my concerns as well, and together we will serve those beaten up by a world that wants to rob them of their dignity.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Christian and Capitalism

Note to reader: If you decide to begin reading this post, I ask you read to the end. At times my discussion might seem to be leading to some less than savory conclusion (This will be true for people on both sides of this discussion), but if you give it time, you will find points of sharp contrast. I at first attempt to be an equal opportunity offender, but in the end, try to give ideas the serious Christian can meditate upon, even if my suggestions do not finally solve all of our issues at hand.

            Preliminary considerations on current discourse:

The topic I endeavor to wrestle with today is one that people feel very passionately about. It is a polarizing issue, with hardnosed, traditionally-conservative Americans holding to one side, heralding this American institution as the unquestionable capstone of success for our once great moral society, while the self-styled, edgy progressive Americans hold to much the other side, questioning the very soul of this institution and vehemently proclaiming their verdict that it is responsible for all sorts of global evils (of not essentially all) and is in need of complete renovation.  

I am speaking of capitalism, and the closely related consumerism upon which it thrives (and I choose to speak about capitalistic consumerism, not to simply address capitalistic consumerism. Instead, think of this one example as perhaps the quintessential example of the difficulties we face today in any and every public sphere. While I will not mention this again, until the end of this essay, keep this at the forefront of your mind as you read).

As for the dichotomy of opinions, I do not think the Christian community has to feel beholden to either extreme. I want to explore how Christians may choose to live in the turmoil, but first, let’s explore the existing tensions before offering a step in the right direction.

On the one hand, capitalistic consumerism has proven itself as the best job-creating economic engine ever devised, and creating jobs is certainly something of which we as Americans must be proud. On the other hand, the critique that many of the jobs created are minimum-wage labor jobs that keep many families close to the poverty line, while their employers thrive well beyond normal extravagance, is not without warrant.

Even so, calmly looking at the institution on a more long-range timeline, instead of just focusing in on the ills we can note today, we can see that since the birth of this modern economy, the world as a whole has become a much, much less impoverished place. The poverty of the minimum wage worker is, relatively speaking, a much more bearable poverty than the poverty of the past, where minimum wage was an unimaginable blessing. (Note to my friends who struggle with the real issues of living under or near the poverty line in the endnotes[1])

Is the situation perfect? No. Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? That would be foolish. Should we reevaluate the norms in hopes of improving the system? Yes, of course. If the system has not yet produced the outcome we want, but has shown promise, we must be mature enough not to be reactionary, as the current progressives are being. And those traditional thinkers who have been touting the merits of capitalism for a very long time, maturity also demands the humility to refuse to equate good with good enough. We should allow the question: Can we do even better?

Both sides need to realize that, on the one hand, it is not as if this system has had failure to launch, but, on the other, it might be time for some maintenance and upgrades. However, my point in this post is not to merely say, let’s have dialogue. This first bit is just trying to define the issues and implore all of us to admit the need for dialogue, while not overreacting. Now, we move on to a much more ominous issue:

In the end, the fact of the matter is the system will never be everything we all want it to be, even if we agreed to work more hand-in-hand. While we might be able to preserve the free market, while simultaneously closing the income inequality gap, bringing even more people around the world into a comfortable place amongst the middle class (as capitalism has done time and again, although that line my be trending downward today), a problem still remains, a problem that many people on both sides tend to overlook:

The ethics of consumption…[2]

Who decides?

As we move to a more global society, we inevitably move towards a more postmodern pluralistic society. In smaller groups it is easier to decide what set of truths to which the society is willing to commit. But, as technology continues to expose us to an ever-larger society, as we can now run to the Internet for the market place of ideas (i.e. Reddit, Facebook, YouTube), an agreed upon epistemology for even the smallest community grows difficult. An agreed upon societal ethic, which was, according to many of an older generation, much clearer in the past, even if imperfect, is growing more and more out of reach everyday, and it is hard for this writer to imagine a reversal, unless we somehow pushed back against globalism, a very powerful force on the world stage today. So, who chooses to set parameters for negotiating societal ethics in a global society?

No one.

However we might feel about the structures of the market place, one thing most people from both the right and the left can agree upon is that we do not want someone else dictating how we (more precisely, I) behave in the market place. We may all feel, “I don’t mind if I, or someone who thinks just as I do, was put in charge to dictate what can and cannot happen. I have my head on straight, but I do not want anyone else to have that job.” The right (stereotypically) wants the government and its regulations to go kick rocks and stay out of the private sector, while the left (stereotypically) wants the religious community to go jump off a cliff before they tell them what they can and cannot consume. Global pluralism simply adds to the number of disagreements.

Which brings me to the issue I really wish to address…

While we can debate the merits of capitalistic consumerism until we are all blue in the face, as long as we as a majority want the freedom to consume as we will, (or at very least, do not want anyone to have control except for the group we want) then no set of laws can provide the ethical boarders of all our consumerist behaviors. The market remains remarkably silent about what I should buy, in regards to a moral right or wrong, but is extremely outspoken on what I should buy, in regards to what will make me “happy,” because it is not the market that dictates what it supplies, but the consumers’ demands that tell the market what to provide:

The market does not concern itself with whether my choice is rational, whether it is identical or consistent with choices I made yesterday or may make tomorrow, nor does it concern itself with any purposes I may have in making my choice or any consequences of my choice insofar as these do not themselves involve market decisions. In deed, as far as the market is concerned, I exist only in the moment of making a single commercial choice.[3]

Is this a flaw in the market? Not necessarily, unless we want the market to also provide us with our moral compass,[4] which most of us do not, because that would mean that someone or some group would be in charge of making those decisions, and I may or may not hold their same convictions (Think about how much we already complain about the EPA and FDA).

 Many of us want the market place to provide goods that are developed or grown with some sort of ethic in mind, if we are so inclined to be ethical in our shopping, but we do not want the church or state (or any institution for that matter) to tell me what that ethic should look like. I should be able to choose to go to this market or that, depending on what sort of guidelines to which they hold themselves accountable, because, then it is more likely I will find one that I can agree with that it would be if one were imposed across the board.

And, yet, as we leave all possibilities open, even while we might hope that all the various market places would follow some sort of ethical conduct, being realistic we know that as long as people want less than wholesome products someone will provide them for consumption, and even morally inclined people have to face the temptations of these products (online pornography is a leading example).

Before we discuss how then Christians should perhaps pursue ethical choices in the market place, we need to ask, because some may wonder, is there really a deep need to be ethically engaged as we shop? Can consumerism really go all that wrong?

Consumption gone wrong

For those who are morally inclined, unregulated consumption can go wrong in so many ways. The sex industry probably exists as the best proof positive of this reality, but certainly is not the only example. Consumption can become a god, not to which we simply pay our tribute, but to which we become enslaved.

No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person[5]

Yet, the free market makes this enslavement to desire, not only possible, but also alluring. Many people are not free from the addiction of consumption. Addiction ranges from drugs and alcohol to compulsory buying from QVC.

As an extreme example, consider the following excerpts from my previous blog, “On The Consumption And Abuse of Women:”[6]

Just because we live in a nation that has made it easy to consume what we may, does that mean we should? We live in a world in which the highest value is placed on that which can be consumed. Consumerism is heralded as right and good, because it somehow represents “freedom,” but thoughtless access to wants is not freedom, but just another form of slavery, a slavery whitewashed to appear to be a sign of our blessedness.

The things that people can use are the things our society values most. While consumption is a natural part of life—food must be harvested for sustenance, and water must be gathered for hydration—blind consumerism is the perversion of this reality. It is a reality in which we cannot come to appreciate that which should not be consumed or used. If it cannot be used, it is looked over: 

There are some men for whom a tree has no reality until they think of cutting it down, for whom an animal has no value until it enters a slaughterhouse, men who never look at anything until they decide to abuse it and who never even notice what they do not want to destroy.[7]

While the stars remind us of our limitedness as we can only see their beauty, but cannot touch it, our world is filled with men who obsess over leaving this celestial ball for the consumption of another. We can no longer see our dependency on this earth as our reality, because we can think of nothing more than to consume it; so, we will have to find more and more to consume. Likewise, beauty is no longer a reminder of the goodness of a God beyond us, but a mark for consumption. 

It is only a small step then to abusing the beauty of humans, especially, but not limited to, women and children. After years and years of considering the value in things only by how well they can be used, it is no wonder we begin to forget that some beauty is simply meant to be appreciated, not consumed. If this is true, then this also speaks to our sense of self-worth, how we value our own existence. We no longer appreciate the gift of “being,” but only see our worth in what we “do.” 

So, women (and even our precious children) also get caught up in investing in the evil that leads to their own destruction. If men (and women) only value what they consume, women (and men), to find worth, give others more to consume of themselves, because they wish to have worth. Dress becomes more and more revealing, giving men more to consume, and posing for pornography becomes a means to feel loved and valued, because, as we all know, many, many men will consume you if you put beauty out in such a way that it can be used, used, in this sense, for base gratification.

Eventually, lusting for visions of shorter and shorter skirts no longer feeds the spirit of consumerism. We must see it all. Soon enough, “tasteful” nude shots no longer gratify this spirit, only the obscene. Then, there are men who reach the end of this pleasure, and they seek to touch and to physically consume this beauty, and sex trafficking has then been given more reason to exist. 

We are all guilty and in need of repentance, even if we do not consume what others may. We may only consume, without regret, food to excess, television to excess, or drink to excess, but it is all the same spirit. We are teaching each other that blind consumption is acceptable.

Of course there is an almost infinite gulf between short skirts and sex trafficking, and we should not in any way shift blame of sexual abuse from immoral men to women who choose to dress in whatever way they desire, but that is in some ways my point. We all know that the sex industry is evil, but where does it begin. Where do we begin to say “no”? We cannot really think we are ever going to be able to legislate a perfect balance, can we?

Who decides the line?

No one.

My point is that consumerist choices do have consequences on those who consume, and the consequences are heart-shaping consequences that law (in any form) falls short of controlling.[8]. Too much McDonalds will ruin good health, and a lifestyle of gluttony can lead to horrible death. The consumption of legitimate mood altering products might lead to the desire to consume stronger products that are not legal. Compulsory buying can lead to bankrupting a family.

All these things break down into ethical failures of the heart, but we cannot tell people they cannot eat at McDonalds, if they are over a certain weight. We cannot tell people they cannot consume prescribed medications, because their wills are weak. We cannot tell people they cannot place orders with Amazon, because they are addicts to shopping (I say we cannot, but perhaps should not would be better, because the government has at times done just these sorts of things). The government cannot cross this line, and the market place has no way to regulate our abuse. It is hard to see how we could ever put the onus on either to do so. Yet, that does not mean we can dismiss the problem. So, how can we (at least Christians) respond?

            Choosing a Christian response…

There are some students of Scripture who are quick to point out, when they finally see it for the first time, that the laws of the Torah have a very socialistic form in which the people of God are commanded to give to the marginalized, and there are no shortage of examples to choose from in the Old Testament of God telling the people to obey these laws or face the consequences. In their excitement, however, these biblical students miss a couple of crucial, socio-political and theological points.

They miss the purpose of the law, as emphasized in the New Testament. It was to be a tutor. The law was not an end unto itself. It was not the solution. In fact, it was and is God’s mission, His trajectory of history, to remove the written law from His people and to place the law in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In other words, regulations were never meant to be the final and best option for a stable society in which everyone has opportunity for justice. It was meant to be a model of culture, not the culture itself, for a people who had never seen anything like what God was asking of them. The law was that picture, but it was never meant to remain simply a picture, but a lens through which the people of God saw the world. We are supposed to act, not according to a formula, but according to a real sense of morality.

I fear the Christian community in many of its expressions has set these lenses aside.

Christ is quite clear in the Sermon on the Mount about this. He keeps pointing a finger to the law, showing it was only effective to a certain extent, and then pointing a finger to the hearts of His people, saying this is where the real change happens. Therefore, Socialism, for the Christian, is really a step backwards, not forwards. Regardless of what much of progressive Christianity believes, for our story, rooted in Scripture, socialism is not progressive. Its as old as the Torah.

With this in mind, Socialism might not be the worst idea for a morally illiterate people, and people of both the right and left complain about the hearts of Americans. So, maybe we need a step backwards.

Except…

These biblical students also miss that the very reason the law had any positive effect when it was in play. It worked (when it worked), because the Lawmaker was welcome to oversee the people as they lived their lives. In discussing a time of promised peace in Israel predicated upon Israel’s willingness to focus upon justice for those in need, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat note the following:

On two occasions, Ezekiel speaks of a “covenant of peace” that is characterized by a renewed fruitfulness in the land…the people of Israel experience political security because they are at peace with their neighbors, socioeconomic oppression is replaced by liberation, and the hungry are fed (Ezek 34:25-31). But such shalom, wholeness and well-being in all of our social, ecological, political, agricultural, and economic relationships is rooted in a restored relationship with God. There can be a covenant of peace, says Ezekiel, only because God promises, “My dwelling shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (37:27).[9]

America is decidedly not a theocracy, and I do not suppose the vox populi would ever call for such. So, Christians cannot call for biblical Socialism as the new norm for America and use the OT as proof positive of its merit. Even if we were to unanimously elect God as our leader, He already has a Kingdom, and we can already be members. He does not want one nation, when He can have a people out of every nation. So, while America might be blessed by a new awakening, a new revival, God is still not going to accept the bid for president. He is going to command us, as He always has, to be a part of the preexisting Kingdom people.[10]

He does not want us to make any one nation our permanent home. We are the aliens in the land of our own dispersion. We might do well to seek America’s welfare (see Jeremiah 29:7 and Romans 13:1-7). In fact, we should. But, in the end, we cannot force this nation to be the community that provides our primary sense of belonging. That community already exists, and Christ is already her head. This is the Church’s vocation.

Just to drive this point home:

If recreating Israel’s situation (in which social laws were successful because of the oversight of an ultimately wise Lawmaker) as described by Ezekiel is not an option, what lawmaker might we imagine could bring about the socialistic utopia we seek? As we established at the beginning of this blog, we as a country will not agree to allow any one group to decide—church or state being the main two options—so, we are stuck with one of two options:

1)   We see one group force their agenda in a hostile takeover, or
2)    We opt for keeping the system we have and for learning to hold ourselves culpable for our own decisions, as we work together the best we can.

Option two seems much more reasonable, if what I have said so far is true. However, the issue of holding ourselves culpable is a current possibility that many, even Christians, fail to engage properly. Just look at the level of incarceration we have today based on this option. Christians need to address this as well. We cannot just say, this is your problem, because God is concerned for the other, we too must be. So, how can we offer a hand, while remaining realistic that, in the end, individual culpability is our most viable option?

Acknowledging issues of capitalism:

Before we address our own culpability for what we consume, we must address another issue. While Socialism might fail to thrive in our Western world, because, in many ways, it goes against the highly celebrated freedom for the individual that our Capitalism provides, we cannot then ignore the critique those who champion Socialism provide, namely that we have fundamental gaps for fairly caring for the marginalized in our nation. It is simply true that having is easier than not having, and, if we not only want to be moral in our own choices, but also want to be moral in our love for neighbor, we are going to have to face inequality:

…there is an aggregate judgment that one can make about free markets, namely, that those who enter the market with least are likely to leave it with least, and that for those at the margins of society the trickle-down effect without social intervention will not alter this.[11]

Any suggestion that the poor are poor for any other reason than their own irresponsibility often angers many conservatives, but it is clear nonetheless that whatever makes the poor the poor, they are not going to be able to always pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and if we serve a God who demands that those with means provide for those who do not, and He most certainly does, we are going to have to realize that unchecked Capitalism will not do. We might not resort to the effortless (or mindless) care that Socialism envisions, but we are just as culpable to care for others (even those who have made bad decisions) as we are culpable for our own moral interactions in the market place.

We may keep our current system. In fact, it may be the wisest thing we can do to keep it, but if we are going to demand Capitalism be left to perform as it will, we are going to have to note where it has gaps and fill them by some other means, because, I cannot overemphasize that Capitalism, while providing opportunity for many, does not have the means to keep all who participate in its process from hurting their neighbor, and, as Christians, this is a huge concern. In fact, this may be a bigger concern today than it ever has been:
                       
…when the mentality of instrument reasoning and individual consumer choice encroaches on every sphere of social life, it erodes the moral basis of society that markets presuppose for their proper functioning. The more a predatory, transnational capitalism absorbs cultures everywhere into the general process of commodity production, so that cultures are reduced to lifestyle choices and all human relationships become commercial and contractual, the legitimacy of capitalism itself is destroyed.[12]

We now live in a world in which individual choice is seen as the highest achievement of human progress. It does not take long for ultimate choice in the market place to become ultimate choice in every aspect of life.

Pluralism is the new religion, and as such, no moral center exists for the public to draw a sense of ethical right or wrong. In such a world, we can no longer presuppose our society will follow a path towards treating each other fairly in the market place. Neither consumer nor supplier has any deep-seated conscious to protect the other.

So, what?

Capitalism only works, without causing much pain, when free people choose to do right, no mater the fact that consumerism in no way demands they do. People need a sense of moral right and wrong and pluralism denies any such resource.

The rub then is that it does not appear that either pluralism, with its anemic morality, or capitalism, an amoral system which depends on a robust outside moralism (once provided by select religious institutions, even if imperfectly so) to keep society in balance, are going anywhere any time soon, and, even if, heaven forbid, we move more and more to socialistic styles of public life, this still won’t fix the heart problem. Instead, it will be a volatile imposition, forcing at least one group of people to accept a socially engineered ethic that they will not in their hearts want to accept.

It seems to be a hopeless situation then. So, what can we do?

Individual responsibility with a social support

For the Christian (and even the non-Christian who has to face the same facts, perhaps, however, having to come up with a different soulution), I ask we consider the following: Although this might not be the conclusion that many want to hear, if the premises I have outlined above are true, then there is really very little hope to ensure the market place will ever be the moral arena we wish it were. We often participate in our culture’s habits of consumptions without ever asking the question, “Is this beneficial?” With this in mind, Christian consumers must take responsibility in vetting their supplier and their own intentions when they consume in order to remain morally upright. We can do our best to vote our conscious, but when we lose our vote, we are not then free to dismiss our own responsibility to behave as we are called to behave.

We have to behave properly, and we need help behaving properly.

If the vox populi has spoken and has forbidden to this point the market from having a system of moral checks and balances so that we can consume worry free, then we must hold ourselves culpable. Yet, making such decisions can become overwhelming, and, left to our devices, the Bible (and history) tends to suggest we will continue to make bad choices. So, what do we do?

We create an outside system that keeps us mindful as we participate in the market place (and going back to my comment at the first of this essay, we create an outside system that keeps us mindful as we participate in all public arenas.)

For the non-Christian, this alternative might indeed demand to be created from scratch, and I wish you well as you try. But, for the Christian, perhaps we do not really have to create at all, but be what we are called to be, an alternative community that cares for its own (refer to my last post, “Charity Starts (and Often Ends) At Home”[13]).

First, we might ask, do I ask the Spirit to be a part of all the decisions I make, even the most mundane. Do I really mean “Give me this day my daily bread,” or do I gather my own sustenance without much consideration for the Divine. We all know that the formative power of prayer often takes time. So, what do we do to ensure we are listening to God and that we are hearing correctly?

I am culpable. I am weak. I do not always hear correctly.

Therefore, I could use some help in navigating my interactions with the culture around me. To all of this, the Church can serve as the social conscious for any individual who freely submits to her authority. The church can provide direction and correction for how we both consume and provide justice for the poor, as we work in community, valuing all parts of the body, not just those parts we find the most noble. Now, I am not suggesting that we then enter a voluntary Church-based Socialism in which we create abstract rules for navigating public life. We need something much more dynamic, with the Living Word and the Holy Spirit, helping us to always “only do what [we] see the Father doing,” as our Lord modeled for us so well (John 5:19,20).

Let me stress what I just said. The individual must submit to the church community (not an institution). The church cannot force its agenda. And, the church must resist setting up an institutionalized elite who make decisions, but must operate as a community always in deference to one another, to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit. Yet, once one seriously commits to being a part of such a social community in which decisions are made in community, freely, they must understand the seriousness of such allegiance. Once we say, “Jesus is King,” we place ourselves under His authority.

In summary, as we have discussed in our past two posts, the community moves and breathes together when it is in unity and people act in humility. They act in public according to the will and love of God, and society is changed, at least for those willing to leave the way of the world for the way of God:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)

This might seem, at first, to be a very socialistic, even communistic way of living, and it is social and communal for sure, but we can look to a particular example of this early church life that, while at first glance might seem to support such claims, actually emphasizes the freedom to belong to the group, but the importance of being true to the group once becoming apart:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1-6)

Ananias was not guilty of refusing to be a part of the church’s communist commitments. In fact, Peter suggests there were no such commitments. While we might find it hard to believe that the people described in Acts 2 freely sold all they had when they noticed the plight of the poor, Peter makes it clear to Ananias that he was free to do with the money what he wished. The issue was that Ananias had lied to the community in order to impress the community and gain status. He wanted to pretend as if His heart was as those around Him, but the Spirit called Him to task. He said he gave all his proceeds when he did not. Such a lie is not that serious of an infraction in most communities, but it is in the church, because, according to Peter, participation in the church (along with promises made therein) is participation in following God, and breaking a promise to God for self-promotion is the sin we have been committing from the beginning.  

So, here we have a tension between truths. In God’s Kingdom, we are free to participate in His mission to help those in need. We are free to live as a Kingdom people, but if we are serious about our place in the church, we must be serious about our commitments, because our mission is precisely to live according to our convictions so that, while there might not be a perfectly moral society for those who are tired of injustice to join, the church lives as a viable alternative that, at least for those who are willing to join, will see real change, real justice, and real purpose in a world of confusion.

Christ is Lord of His church. We are free to submit to His will, but once we do, we are not our own, but His. As we live together, we learn to follow His lordship. This might not solve the issue of unchecked capitalism’s lack of moral direction, but it does help all those in the church, as we serve one another in our need and in our decision-making. So, while after our first set of conclusions showed an almost hopeless situation in which people are left adrift and alone in their moral interactions with their neighbors, the solution might simply be an allegiance to an alternative culture that helps hold each member accountable as they interact in the wider world.

The church is the Christian solution. For the non-Christian, again, I wish you well in figuring out your alternative, but consider the fact that you do not have to reinvent the wheel. The church is already the alternative community. The only exclusion from being a part of a community that acts morally, in a capitalistic market (or any other public arena) is the unwillingness to submit to Christ. Yet, that means Christians have to take seriously their place as members of the church. If we are going to say to the world, there is a community of hope, we have to be that community.

We might not be able to create a utopia in which everyone is morally inclined to do right. However, we can belong to a community that helps all who are in that community to spur one another on in making good choices, and everyone who wishes to be a part of such community can be a part if they are willing to repent and submit to Christ.

Communities are the way God intervenes to offer, within every [larger] culture, a different and better horizon. To be Christian is to stake our lives on this belief: the only cultural goods that ultimately matter are those that love creates.[14]

In other words, local church bodies representing the Kingdom of God can help individuals in the community to go beyond seeking to do right by means of following a set of laws and can help, with the participation of all individuals, cultivate ways of behaving that are consistent to the character of the Leader, Christ. We can see changed hearts.

This means that by participating in a community that participates in Kingdom culture, individuals may allow the Spirit to use the iron of our neighbor to sharpen our own hearts so that we no longer depend on outside regulations, but on the very Image of God that is being etched on the hears of the believers as we move forward together.



[1] I am not, in any way, attempting to minimize your situation. I am speaking about the relative reality of poverty in regards to a comprehensive, historical vantage point. This in no way means I wish to dismiss poverty, because it is a “better” poverty. My point is that, in at least some ways, consumerism has improved overall poverty, but, I readily admit, not to a satisfactory state. My question is, do we start over, or realize that there is merit in the effectiveness of the system and work to make it better?
[2] Here I am speaking about more than the issue of income inequality. Consumption itself has consequences. What we choose to provide for consumers and what we chose to consume have an impact, not just on the physical world, but on the individual conscious as well.
[3] Nicholas Boyle, Who Are We Now? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegel to Heaney (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), p. 153
[4] Again, here I do not speak of regulations on how products are produced. Instead, I am claiming, even if all our concerns were addressed in regards to “how” something is produced, we would still have to deal with the morality of consumption, what can and cannot be consumed.
[5] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1961), p.84
[6] http://revtabmiller.blogspot.com/2014/08/on-consumption-and-abuse-of-women.html
[7] Thomas P. McDonnell ed., A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1961). pp. 458,459
[8] This is not to deny that there should be laws protecting against real abuse. There certainly should be. I am not even suggesting we cannot vote our conscious, but, when it comes to voting, we cannot expect to always have our way. So, solutions have to come elsewhere.
[9] Brain Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2004), p.42
[10] I do not deny that America might be blessed if people turn to God’s ways, but I am arguing that Christendom is not what He wants. Instead, He wants for all of us to join His body. If the majority of Americans lived the Kingdom call of the community of faith, America herself might well prosper, but she would still be a nation and not the church herself.
[11] Raymond Plant, Politics, Theology and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 216-217
[12] Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press Academic. 2008) p. 164
[13] http://revtabmiller.blogspot.com/2015/08/charity-starts-and-often-ends-at-home.html
[14] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.2008). p.  248