The Love of the Spirit in an Age of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Greetings, everyone and apologies to my readers for the lengthy gap between posts. I was working on a chapter for my dissertation over the last few months. Usually this blog focuses on figures from church history. We have examined men and women from throughout church history, from the beginnings of Christianity up through to very recent examples. Today’s post, however will look at two very recent, very polarizing events in the United States: the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I want to frame a discussion of these events in light of the popular Bible passage on the “fruits of the Spirit.”

This past Sunday at my church, the pastors began a new series on the fruits of the Spirit. If you are unfamiliar, these are found in Galatians 5.22-23. This passage notes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV). The pastors at my church are going to take a week-by-week look at each “fruit,” and this past Sunday’s focus was on love. The sermon covered a lot of elements of love and community, especially examining Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches (John 15.5-12). I really enjoyed the pastor’s linking to Jesus’ picture of love: between Jesus and God and between fellow humans. However, I found myself wondering what Galatians means when talking about love.

As the pastor was giving context for the passage of the “fruit of the Spirit,” I was looking for passages nearby that include the word “love” (in the NIV at least, which I had open at the time). I found 5.13-14 to be helpful. It says, “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Okay, so humility is important. Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is important (this one is pretty well-known). These didn’t really blow the roof of my doors, so I turned to chapter six hoping for something more. Galatians 6.2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV).

Now we’re talking.

This passage set my mind spinning in a number of different directions. Full disclosure: I am a white male. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life living in Ohio, the last 6 of which were spent in a town that was about 10,000 people and probably 95% white. My high school (in the suburbs of Cincinnati) was mostly white. I went to Ohio State, which was a pretty diverse place, especially compared to the two aforementioned towns. I now live in a very diverse city (Los Angeles), and have for about 5 years now. However, I might be as confused as ever about the plight of African Americans in this country.

Back to Sunday. After I read Gal. 6.2 I began to get really frustrated, even angry. I spent a little bit of time last week dialoguing on social media about the two murders of black men by police officers. However, sitting in church and reading a passage that said I am supposed to show love by “bearing the burdens” of my black brothers and sisters caused me a great deal of consternation. How on earth can I bear that burden? How can I, as a white male living in a world of white privilege bear the burden of others in this country when I don’t have to deal with the same fears and realities that they do? This past week we saw a black man who was selling CDs wrestled to the ground by two cops, get shot several times, and killed. Then just a day or so later, a woman live-streamed a video on Facebook after her boyfriend had been shot four times by a cop (who was still pointing the gun at the victim) as the victim was reaching for the requested license, proof of insurance, etc. The ensuing outrage of the country was provoked, and several protests arranged (one ending in a horrible circumstance in Dallas after a lone gunman ambushed police). The Black Lives Matter movement organized, and continues to organize, protests. Some of these protests have resulted in viral videos of camaraderie between police and protesters, between white and black individuals. While this is a good thing, it has yet to solve the problem.

This brings me back to my questions from Sunday. How can I as a white man in a world of white privilege bear the burdens of my black brothers and sisters? Is it possible? I have never left my house fearing that I might later that day be killed. I have been stopped by police before (for speeding, at random sobriety check-points, and even after I swerved across a lane line on a freeway because I was getting drowsy). In each and every one of those interactions with police, I have never for even half of a second worried that one of those cops would pull a gun and shoot me several times. This is sadly not the same reality for black Americans. Black lives don’t matter enough in this country, and that’s a major problem. That is something that needs to change, but how? What’s the answer?

I have been wondering this week what I can do to bear their burdens. Do I need to protest at Black Lives Matter rallies? Do I need to support legislation and/ or call my senator? Do I need to “just pray?” None of those seem like enough. I would love some of my African American readers to provide insight on how white people in this country can help, because we have to. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article addressed this very topic. All I know is that we can’t keep responding with statements of “Hold on, let’s wait and find out all the details before we charge the cops with murder.” That allows the problem to continue. That shows just how systemically racist this country still is.

I want to close with a quick account from later in my church service on Sunday. Our church sang the song “You’re a good, good, Father” at the close of service. I found myself wondering if songs like that in a time like this would cause pain among African American Christians. I also found myself starting to think, “Yes, God you are good, but please help this country.” I found myself pondering Psalm 13.1-2: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Again, I am a white male, and I find myself greatly outraged. How do my black brothers and sisters read this Psalm?

So I end by saying, I don’t actually know what to do. I don’t know how the “love fruit” of the Spirit can be evident in my life when I live in a world of hatred. I pray for change in this country. I pray for justice, for mercy, for peace. Most of all, I pray for African Americans to finally be treated equally with white Americans.

I welcome your thoughts on this with the goal of having a discourse.

Midweek Blog: Catholic Bishops on Pointing Nukes at Our Enemies

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This week, in continuing our series on American Church History, we are jumping forward a bit into the twentieth century. Today’s blog focuses on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1983 which published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace.” The conference’s focus was on the ramping up of nuclear arms between the USA and the USSR in the early 1980s, as well as the rhetoric surrounding a strategy of nuclear deterrence. The idea, for President Ronald Reagan, was that the USA should stockpile advanced nuclear weaponry in order to keep the peace. Such an increase in production of catastrophic weaponry led many people to decry the policy, including the aforementioned Catholic conference (Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, eds. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, 60-61). “The Challenge of Peace” was what the conference penned in response to such political actions, and this letter will be the focus of today’s blog.

The letter states, “In the nuclear arsenals of the United States or the Soviet Union alone, there exists a capacity to do something no other age could imagine: we can threaten the entire planet. For people of faith this means we read the Book of Genesis with a new awareness” (“Challenge of Peace,” 123). The notion that the destructive power of human-produced weapons should make us look differently at Genesis carries with it a sense of foreboding. If people can annihilate vast numbers of humans and other lifeforms in a huge area with one single bomb, think at what that has to say about humanity’s relationship with God in the creation narrative. These bishops continued, “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself” (123).

The destruction seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II showed everyone the power of nuclear bombs and their catastrophic impact. Many Catholic voices dissented soon after, such as Dorothy Day. Many of them saw civilized humanity as taking a huge step backwards with the killing of so many men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the War. The Conference we are discussing responds to Reagan’s new nuclear arms race with much of this anti-nuke tradition in the background, as the letter mentions (127). The letter, however, notes that simply advocating for disarmament is complex. It states, “It much less clear how we translate a ‘no’ to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the Kingdom of God” (134).

While imposing a foreign policy that “reflects the values and vision of the kingdom of God” would not really be acceptable today, the Bishops do note how simply having the biggest muscles (or the most bombs) isn’t necessarily the best way to operate. The policy of nuclear deterrence is that one has to basically point the bombs at one’s enemies; in the historical case to which we are referring, the USA has to point the bombs at the USSR with the finger on the button. The goal is of course to never use the weapons themselves but to scare the enemy into thinking that you are about to. The problem arises when one’s enemies calls one’s bluff. What happens if they say, “Go ahead. We know you won’t do it.” At that point, you either have to fire the weapons, or you have to come up with an entirely new strategy. All the while, your enemies might be preparing to attack you or to fire similar weapons at you.

One final passage from “The Challenge of Peace” describes this very issue. “The need to rethink the deterrence policy of our nation… also will require, we believe, the willingness to open ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God, which call us to recognize our common humanity and the bonds of mutual responsibility which exist in the international community in spite of political differences and nuclear arsenals” (196).

If you ask me, this is the most groundbreaking, novel concept within the letter. Again, utilizing one’s understanding of the Kingdom of God or “opening ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God” would simply not work in today’s United States. You can’t mix government and religion like that. However, the aspect which I think has the strongest impact on the letter’s historical context, as well as our own today, is that there is a “common humanity and bonds of mutual responsibility in the international community.” I think one of the problems today is that we look at other countries, and the people who inhabit them, as somehow less than ourselves. The USA has plenty of enemies, but what could possibly set it apart from many other countries is a new attitude that looks at the humanity of even our enemies and the employment of a “mutual responsibility” toward them.

I don’t want to venture to far into the realm of politics or political theory here (I would be way out of my depth), but crafting a foreign policy that looks at other countries, including our enemies as fellow human citizens could go a long way to subverting other conflicts. What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to say to the USA in the early 1980s is powerful. They went completely against the government’s position of nuclear deterrence with a very public stance. They showed strong faith commitments and a willingness to speak up for God’s kingdom. Although this happened over thirty years ago, their views on peace and focusing on the humanity of others might still ring true today.

What are you thoughts on nuclear deterrence? What about the Bishops’ response? Is today’s geopolitical stage too advanced for such a document? Has ISIS changed the game, or can we still look for humanity in our enemies?

Midweek Blog: Is the USA a Christian Nation? The Epistle to Diognetus and Life as a Foreigner

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In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s post examines a small text known as the Epistle to Diognetus. This text is more of a tract than an epistle, with a general tone of defending and promoting Christianity that was written sometime between 150-225 AD (Holmes, 686-689). The section of the text that I wanted to focus on today comes from chapter five of Diognetus:

“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom… But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.” (5.1-5.5)

This text should not surprise Christians who read it, especially based on its date and tone. Much of the rest of chapter five talks about Christians facing persecution, not exposing their children (unlike the rest of Roman society), and “not sharing their wives” (5.7). The period between 150-225 AD was marked by persecutions and also characterized as the period of the Christian apologists. Justin Martyr was one of the more famous apologists, who wrote in defense of Christianity. Like Justin, Diognetus seeks to show how Christians’ true citizenship and allegiance is not of this world, but a part of the heavenly kingdom. Such a theme will be later picked up and popularized by Augustine in his City of God, which draws a separation between the earthly city and the heavenly city. Suffice it to say, the idea that Christians’ “do not belong to this world” (John 15.19) is a theme that runs throughout Christian history. In fact such a phrase is repeated often today in Churches in the USA.

If that is true, then why do people also try to claim that the USA is a “Christian nation” and that it was “founded on Christian principles?” I would contend that people who argue such things should check their American history, since this country was founded on religious freedom and freedom from harsh taxation. Religious freedom means exactly that, not simply “freedom to be whichever type of Christian you choose.”

As we get closer and closer to the next presidential election in 2016, we will be having debates and primaries and other political speeches being made. The upcoming general election has so many republican candidates that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Without getting into political discussions about which candidate you do or do not support, there is usually a candidate or two that claims that they want to get this country back in line with it’s founding Christian principles (usually to gain the support of very conservative groups and a majority of the Religious Right). This is not to say that all who identify as the Religious Right want the USA to get back to being a Christian nation, but there are many within it who do.

I would contend that such groups fail to understand texts like Diognetus which are a part of Christian history. Christian thinkers throughout history have underscored the truth that Christians have to navigate life on earth as foreigners whose true citizenship is in heaven. Jesus himself in John 15 (noted above) emphasizes that the disciples are not of this world. Why do people want to continually view the USA as a special exception to this idea? Why do people think that the USA is God’s new promised land?

There are many different types of people who make up the USA, including many different religious groups. To “get this country back to being a Christian nation” would ostracize a great many of those who call this country home. In my opinion, Christians should worry less about lining up the political machine with their specific Church’s policies and doctrines (since even if this were a “Christian nation,” whose Christianity would rule it?), and more about how to help the people in the USA. Making this country a safer, better, and more enjoyable place for all is a great political goal. Just don’t try to make it the Christian capital of the world. After all, Diognetus tells us that there are many nations around the world that have Christians in them. We can’t forget about their place in this world either.

Martin Luther and Capital Punishment

ImageSo this week I am re-reading Martin Luther in preparation to lead a small group of students in a discussion of their assigned reading. I came across a passage in Luther’s treatise, Concerning Governmental Authority from 1523. Luther writes, “To punish too little is more tolerable, for it is always better to let a scoundrel live than to put a godly man to death. The world has plenty of scoundrels anyway and must continue to have them, but godly men are scarce” (presented in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, 2009 edition, pp. 82-83).

I found this passage interesting for several reasons. First, that Luther notes the danger of executing a godly person. Now, in applying this to modern capital punishment, the number of “godly” people executed is probably pretty low, but Luther’s sentiment still rings true in that “the world has plenty of scoundrels anyway.” I wonder how such a message would be received today, particularly among politically conservative Christians. Often you hear Christians cling to an “eye for an eye” in order to support capital punishment. Another position among Christians supports a “complete pro-life” position which is anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-capital punishment, etc. The above quote from Luther does not really fall into either one of these camps.

So should Christians today look at the issue like Luther does, i.e. that it’s “better to punish too little” than to punish too much? I find Luther’s line of argument to be helpful. I have personally supported capital punishment, but over the last 5 or so years have reshaped my understanding/ position on it. I still think that capital punishment has merit, particularly with individuals who are too dangerous to be allowed to reenter society. However, capital punishment (especially in the USA) ends up being a 20-30 year process and often crosses ethical lines with “lethal injection cocktails” and the like. I usually arrive at the conclusion that it’s a silly process anymore and that life without the possibility of parole is preferred for individuals whose actions are too heinous to allow them to ever be released from prison.

I also find Luther’s prohibition of executing a “godly” person to be helpful. One frequently hears stories and accounts of people finding a faith in God while in prison, particularly through missionaries (from Christianity as well as other faiths). Is it right to execute some of these people? What about those who committed a crime in youth and are a completely different person now?

I close by asking a few questions: is capital punishment moral/ should Christians support it? Can our resources used for capital punishment be employed elsewhere, particularly in the penal system? I welcome your thoughts/ opinions on the matter.