Thoughts on Thanksgiving

            The celebration of Thanksgiving began, originally, as a way to give thanks to God for the year’s agricultural harvest.  At a time when far more of the human population had their hands in the soil, and when the success or failure of a crop had a major impact on the health or even survival of a small town through the winter, there was a deeper appreciation for the annual miracle of food growing out of the ground in large quantities.  Farming was hard work, but God had surrounded his people with an earth that could, if tended well, provide riches.

            Today, the American population is far less connected to the soil.  The overwhelming majority of us are not farmers, and we tend to take food for granted.  And yet the reality, whether we are aware of it or not, is that we are just as dependent on the abundance of the earth as we always have been.  Without a healthy planet, there cannot be a healthy harvest.

            This Thanksgiving, as we all cut into the turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing and enjoy the bounty that creation has provided us, there is overwhelming international scientific consensus that human CO2 emissions are filling up our atmosphere and changing it to such an extent that our planet as a whole is starting to retain more heat and slowly warm.  This increase in temperature is causing storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires to become more frequent and severe.  Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting into the ocean, causing sea levels to begin to rise.  Oceanic pH levels are changing, resulting in problems for the shells of creatures at the base of the food chain – which impacts all creatures in the food chain.  Coral reefs are overheating and dying off.

            In short, because of human emissions, the beautiful and life giving balance of the planet that God has given us to care for and enjoy the bounty of – the planet that grew our pumpkins and raised our turkey – is beginning to unravel.  During the season of Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the bounty of life – for food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, experiences, joys, accomplishments, seasons of growth … and the list goes on and on.  But without the planet that God has given us, there can be none of this.  There is no life without the creation that sustains life.

            Carl Sagan, the late astrobiologist, spoke of a photo taken from the Voyager spacecraft when it was so far away from earth that it was nothing more than a pale blue dot in a vast, black void.  He said that all of human history – all wars, romances, artistic expressions, rises and falls of states and empires – had taken place on that tiny dot, floating out there in the expanse.  Our planet, which we take for granted, is a tiny, precious, vulnerable gift that our Creator has given us to nurture us, awaken our imaginations, and provide the stage for the entire human story up to this point.

            We should be thankful for it, and the life that it gives us.

            But thankfulness is not simply a matter of saying words – it is a way of life.  If my mother gives me a new bicycle for Christmas, I can say “thank you” and give her a big hug.  But if I leave my bike out in the rain to rust, or throw it on the concrete apathetically, or leave it unlocked in a public space for hours, or leave it in a corner and never ride it, my “thank you” becomes increasingly hollow.  Because I am not treating my gift with respect.  I’m not caring for it, maintaining it, doing my best to help it last, or even enjoying it.

            So it is with creation.

            Our planet as a whole is currently in crisis.  Currently.  The time to do everything in our power, as individuals and as nations, to curb our CO2 emissions and protect the balance of this overwhelmingly beautiful and essential gift of God, is now.  In fact, it was decades ago. 

             Our unwillingness to move more intentionally, collectively, and sacrificially on these issues has only made them worse for us.  Currently, scientific models show that if we continue to emit CO2 with a “business as usual” mindset, temperatures will increase by the end of this century (i.e. 83 years from now) to levels that are consistently described by climate scientists as “catastrophic” for human civilization.  Some models say that even that category could be exceeded and a new category could be entered that scientists have literally labeled “unknown” because it represents an average global temperature that has not been seen in our planet for over 20 million years.  Let me say this again: Unchecked, this could take place by the end of the current century – i.e. when my 10 and 8 year old daughters are in their 90s.  Our children could witness the implosion of the world’s environmental balance, with all the implosion of society and ensuing chaos that would go along with it.

            Climate change is, simply put, an existential crisis for the human family.  It is so well documented scientifically that literally every nation in the United Nations – with the glaring exception of the United States – has signed on to the Paris Agreement’s international collaboration to curb emissions. 

            The time is now for every human being to be proactive about reducing their own emissions.  Being passive about this is not an option.  Denying climate change is an active threat to our fellow human beings – it is like aiming a gun at a room full of our future grandchildren and their families and beginning to fire indiscriminately. 

            But all is not lost – if we act now.

            Let me speak to Christians in particular.

            Christians should be at the center of the movement to reduce our emissions, for many reasons.  We are people who believe in a God who created our world, calls it good, and has set human beings as stewards over it (Genesis 1).  We believe, with Psalm 19, that the creation around us declares the goodness, beauty, creativity, and power of God – nature is his artwork.  How many of us have experienced the presence of God in a unique way in the cathedral of a forest, or the infinity of a seascape, or the power of a storm?  We believe in a God who set up, in his laws, requirements that not only human beings receive rest, but that animals and land be given rest as well (Leviticus 25). Furthermore, the God of the Bible presents himself consistently as a being whose heart is specifically oriented towards the poor – this is everywhere in the Bible.  Climate change, as with all human struggles and disasters, will impact the poor most of all.  Finally, the Bible teaches that God’s ultimate goal for the human story is not the abandoning of his good creation, but the renewal of it – the joining of heaven and earth together in a new reality found in Revelation 21 that is called the “New Heavens and New Earth.”  Jesus’ resurrection and return not as a ghost but as a new kind of physical, flesh and blood human, is indicative of God’s concern for, and prioritization of, his physical creation.  God loves the creation that we are destroying.

            Some Christians, I know, will say something along the lines of, “God is going to bring his future about in whatever way he’s going to do it.  There’s nothing that we can do about it.  Maybe this is the end times – maybe it’s the end of the world and there’s no way around it.”  Sure – maybe.  But this is never a reason for Christians to remain passive in the face of what is evil – and certainly not to actively participate in evil.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery – and as a result Joseph ended up playing a crucial role in providing for Egypt, the surrounding nations, and his own family during a long and severe famine.  In Genesis 50, Joseph says to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”  But of course what his brothers did was still evil.  The Apostle Paul says in Romans 6, speaking of God’s mercy and love for human beings, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?  By no means!”  The fact that God can rework evil human choices to bring about good in our world is no basis for doing evil.

            And so however the end times may or may not play out in our world, this is irrelevant to the clear calling of Christians:  A creation in crisis should be at the center of the heart of a person who is seeking to follow the Creator God presented in the Christian story – indeed, it should lead him or her to action.

            And so, this Thanksgiving, if there is anything that we are thankful for – any part of life at all – let us remember that the foundation for all of this is the planet God has given us.  And just as it is with any gift, being thankful for creation is not merely a matter of saying “thank you” – it is a matter of orienting our lives towards the gift in a way that expresses thankfulness.  Which in turn leaves us with the following stark reality:

            We cannot be thankful for God’s creation without actively working to help it when it is in distress.  That would be like being “thankful” for your spouse, and yet walking by her while she’s bleeding on the side of the road.

            And so I am offering a challenge to all who identify as Christians – and to anyone else who is reading this post.  What changes in your life can you make this Thanksgiving to orient yourself in greater thankfulness towards the creation that God has given us to nurture us, inspire us, and give us life itself – but which we are steadily destroying through our CO2 emissions?  Essentially, this is a call to repentance – a call to turn away from one way of treating God’s creation and begin to treat it in a new way.  What are some practical ways that we can turn our lives around? 

            Here are a few thoughts:

            In most places these days, you can get clean electricity for prices very comparable to creation-damaging energy (what is commonly called “regular” energy).  And even if you have to pay a little bit more, remember that it’s ok to sacrifice.  Christians are called to take up their crosses daily to follow Christ – the one “through whom all things were made.”  At this point, unless there is severe financial strain or the blatant impossibility of getting household electricity from a clean and renewable source, no follower of the Creator God should be powering their home with fossil fuel energy when it is actively sinking creation in a time of crisis. 

            Household heating is a more complicated system, and more prohibitively costly to rework – but are there ways that it could be reduced for you?  Perhaps you could keep your heat lower during the winter and wear more layers.  If you have clean electricity, you could use space heaters to warm individual rooms, electric blankets to warm yourself, and an electric tea pot to warm your water – rather than a gas stove.  Home improvements like new windows or better insulation can also help – and save you money (if you have the capital to do them in the first place). 

            Solar panels on our roofs, if made more and more widespread, could solve so many of our electricity needs and reduce the need for fossil fuels.  I often look down from airplanes at all the empty space on roofs that could be used to power our buildings cleanly.  Solar panels are pricey to buy, but there are companies (like Solar City) that will install them for free and then just charge you for the electricity like a normal utility.

            How do you approach transportation?  If you’re like most car owners, your car spews emissions into the atmosphere whenever you run it.  How can you keep this to a minimum?  Do you have a habit of leaving your car on and idling when it’s parked? Perhaps that could stop.  Do you have a car that has good gas mileage, or bad gas mileage?  If it’s time to get a new car, maybe you could get one with good mileage – perhaps a hybrid.  Or if you can manage it, what about an electric car?  More and more are coming out these days.  Car purchase choices like this are prohibitive for many people, but for many others, those choices are available – and important, if they can be done.  And there is, of course, also public transportation, or biking - both of which are much better on the environment (and your overall health) than driving a gas-powered car.

            Are you investing or building your retirement through companies that are leaving a bad carbon footprint in our world?  There are plenty of investment funds that are socially responsible.  (Isn’t it strange that not all companies are required to be socially responsible?  In fact, most are not.)  Maybe you could divest from funds that support fossil fuels and reinvest in companies that are not contributing (or at least contributing less) to the destruction of creation.  There are many funds that are just as competitive in terms of returns – Parnassus is one that I like, personally.  But again, if caring for the creation that gives us life means sacrificing some of our returns, it’s ok to sacrifice.  Jesus has called us to take up our crosses daily.

            Are you currently supporting politicians who deny climate change and are doing nothing to address it?  Are you supporting politicians who are actively working to undermine efforts to curb emissions?  Or are you telling them through your words and your votes that these actions are not acceptable.  Furthermore (and more challenging, yet no less important) are you willing to speak out against politicians you support on other issues (and may have voted for) when they deny climate change or work to undermine efforts to curb emissions?  If not, it’s time.  Governmental policies are needed to curb emissions from power plants, manufacturers, and other companies.  Companies, in general, pursue their short term bottom lines above all else – and so if curbing emissions costs them and their stockholders revenue in the next 3 years, they will never do it, even if it means destroying our world in 100 years.  Companies have to be required by law to curb emissions or they never will – and so our voices with our lawmakers are very important.

            Finally, are you listening to conspiracy theorists who say that climate change is a hoax?  Christians should have no patience with such rubbish.  We are a people who are called to honor the truth and to respect creation.  Climate change denial intentionally stifles the truth and degrades creation in order to help companies continue to pursue short term profits while destroying our world at the expense of future generations, particularly those who are poor. 

 

            Those are my thoughts for this Thanksgiving holiday.  Thanksgiving celebrates the bounty of life that God has given human beings to experience.  At the heart of this bounty is God’s creation itself.  To be “thankful” for this bounty while at the same time actively destroying it – or passively allowing it to continue to be destroyed – or shutting our eyes and ears and pretending that it is not being destroyed - is a fundamental contradiction.  It makes our thanksgiving out to be a lie. 

            May this not continue to be so.  May we repent, face our sin against God’s creation, and embrace concrete steps, both individually and collectively, to treat it with the life orientation of thankfulness and care that it deserves.

A Psalm to Pray, Lament, and Live While The Unjust Are in Power

            Living under unjust, corrupt, violent, deceptive, and foolish leadership is not new to the human experience – indeed it is very common.  The Psalms in the Bible contain a number of powerful windows into similar experiences from thousands of years ago. 

            As we are forced to endure the daily insults and injuries of such leadership, we can feel the pressure build inside us.  Sometimes we feel like we’re going to explode.  Sometimes we do explode.  And sometimes we slide steadily into a state of ongoing bitterness and hatred.

            The Psalms offer a release valve for this pressure.  This release valve is called lament.  Lament opens the door for us to call evil what it is – and not just call it what it is, but feel it for what it is.  Lament invites us to be furious about what is unjust, corrupt, violent, deceptive, and foolish.  Lament says that it is right to feel anger – evil should infuriate us.  

            But lament does more than this – it also exists to help us to release our anger so it doesn’t poison us or drive our interactions with our fellow human beings.  Without lament, all of our fury over what is evil has only two places to go … either it burns us alive from the inside, or it lashes out against the human source of the evil we are experiencing (and sometimes innocent bystanders as well). 

            What lament does is it enables us to take our volatile, righteous anger ... and pour it out over God.  It invites us to scream at a volume that respects just how evil the situation is, “Why God, why?  This is evil!  Are you not seeing this?”  As we cry out in the direction of God, it’s like weeping.  Our emotions are released in a way that is truthful, and in this release we set the burden of Justice (capital J) on God – which is a burden none of us can bear. 

            This is in no way any kind of quick fix – there are no quick fixes when facing unjust power and daily abuse.  But lament leads you into a deep and honest cry and a releasing of burdens that are too big for you in the direction of the divine … and this can at least give you a better chance of living and acting – and, yes, resisting – out of the positive motivation of truth and love, rather than the volatile deluge of hatred.

            Psalm 10 (which is below) could not be more relevant to our current moment.  It certainly applies to the current president and those in government that continue to actively and passively support his injustice, corruption, violence, deception, and foolishness.  But it applies to others as well – maybe people who have a very immediate impact on your life.

             So let us lament – and let lamentation set us free to rage against evil, release our rage in the direction of God, and continue to move forward in determined truth and love. 

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
    who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
    he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
    in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
    your laws are rejected by him;
    he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
    He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”

His mouth is full of lies and threats;
    trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
    from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
     like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
    he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
His victims are crushed, they collapse;
    they fall under his strength.
He says to himself, “God will never notice;
    he covers his face and never sees.”

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
    Why does he say to himself,
    “He won’t call me to account”?
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked man;
    call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
    that would not otherwise be found out.

The Lord is King for ever and ever;
    the nations will perish from his land.
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that mere earthly mortals
    will never again strike terror.

Thoughts on Charlottesville

For most of my life growing up, one of the worst things you could ever call someone was a Nazi.  If you needed examples of the height of human evil, Hitler, the holocaust, and slavery were where you went.  And if you ever needed a clear, black-and-white villain in a story, a full-blown racist was always a good bet.

These were givens.  Obviously celebrating Hitler’s vision for the world, or honoring the “good old days” of slavery in America, or degrading fellow human beings because of the color of their skin were all horrific examples of the deepest, darkest depths that human beings could plunge to.  To associate anyone with any of these worldviews was to insult them as deeply as anyone could ever be insulted.  It was to call them, essentially, the scum of the earth.

And yet there remains a group of people today who actually seem to be proud of being Nazis, racists, white supremacists, and celebrators of the “good old days” of the Confederacy.  They stand in public, holding Nazi flags and flags long associated with racism and slavery, and they want the whole world to know that this is who they are.

How lost must you be to publicly declare that some of the deepest and darkest expressions of human evil are good?  How lost must you be to tell the world proudly that you embody these things?  One of the best fictional examples of white-supremacist ideology can be found in the Death Eaters of the Harry Potter series.  Do the white-supremacists who marched on Charlottesville believe that it is actually good to be like the followers of Voldemort?  Are they really proud of this?

No.  Despite all their posturing, they don’t believe it’s good – and they’re not proud of it.  Because this is not how evil works. 

Evil is not a value in and of itself.  Evil is an emptiness.  Those who participate in deep evil never really, truly believe that what they are doing is good.  They know it is evil.  And because of this, they’re not proud of themselves.  This is why you never see love or joy as a driving force in the any of these movements. Only hatred and anger.  It’s because those who immerse themselves in evil have nothing to celebrate for its own sake.  What is there to celebrate about being a racist, a Nazi, or a white-supremacist?  What joy is to be found in putting on the pointy wizard hat of the KKK and to honor a long legacy of domestic terrorism and murder of innocent people?

There is nothing there to celebrate.  Nothing of any value – only emptiness.  Darkness.

Therefore, in order to ease their emptiness and try to avoid the obvious nature of the evil they are participating in, they must decide not to look at themselves.  In fact, it is crucial that they never look honestly at themselves – because the moment they do so, they know they will become sick.

And so to avoid self-examination, all of the energy and the focus of hate groups is towards the outside.  They do not celebrate who they are, because they cannot – instead, they tear down those around them.  They degrade, threaten, insult, and do harm to some other group – so that they might continue to avoid themselves.

Have you ever noticed that people who are immersed in evil ideologies are essentially impossible to have a thoughtful conversation with?  It’s because inherent to their way of life is a fundamental need to reject self-reflection.  The reason Kim Jung-Un of North Korea does not allow a free press is the exact same reason that Neo-Nazis cannot have a real conversation with anyone who disagrees with them.

In the end, the hatred of hate groups that is so consistently directed outward is really a form of self-loathing.  It is the way that bullies operate.  Bullies are never joyful.  They feel an emptiness.  Perhaps they have been or are being abused and degraded themselves.  And so to avoid their own emptiness, they pour hatred out on those around them, ironically degrading themselves even further through the process.

Those who orient their lives around things of value – healthy relationships, good pursuits that make the world more beautiful or benefit others – root themselves in things that are actually worth celebrating.  Their attention is therefore drawn towards what they are standing for because it is inherently beautiful.  It’s a joy to dwell on things that are good and life giving.  And when this is a person’s experience, they see no point in tearing others down.

But when people orient their lives around things that are empty, dark, or evil, there is nothing for them to celebrate – only an emptiness to avoid – and so they run from this through violence against others.

The white-supremacists who marched on Charlottesville are, first and foremost, people to be resisted.  Their violence – in words and actions – is fundamentally evil and destructive and must be actively worked against by everyone in whatever ways they can.  Silence or complacency are not options – they are acceptance.

But these are also people to be pitied.  These are some of the most lost, hate-filled, miserable human beings and they are living their lives running from themselves through the degradation of others.  Imagine what it would be like to exist inside one of their heads.  What a living hell.

We need to resist them well and effectively as a nation.  We need to resist them so that they do not infect others with their poison, lies, and violence.  Our first role is to protect our society from them – and may God help us to do this with power and persistence.  But even as we pursue this, may God also help us to remember that despite all their hatred these people are still human beings.  There is still an image-bearer buried beneath all of the filth – some wounded, bitter soul that might yet be raised from the dead.  Somewhere.  And so as we meet white-supremacists’ evil with moral force, may we not de-humanize them the way they de-humanize others.

Peace Making in the Middle East

Hi friends, This post is not my own essay, but is a link to an interview of a man who is a friend of a friend.  He's been involved in advocating for peaceful approaches to the ongoing Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  In particularly, he has an important and timely challenge to Christians who blindly support Israel while ignoring the suffering of the Palestinian people (who are, just as much as the Israelis, image-bearers created by God and precious to him).  The article is worth reading - take a look.

Blessings, all.

Allen

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/22/what-evangelicals-get-wrong-about-israel-and-the-palestinians.html

Stop Being Judgmental

Why are Christians ever judgmental? Why do Christians ever look down on other people as though they’re somehow less worthy, or less faithful, or less ethical? Now without a doubt, there are many Christians who do not embody this attitude - I know a ton whose lives reflect humility, love, and generosity much more than self-righteousness. However, judgmentalism is still widespread enough among modern day Christians that our culture has come to expect it from them more often than not. In fact, in many circles self-righteousness, condemnation, holier-than-thou attitudes, and even downright bigotry have come to be seen as core characteristics of American Christianity.

This is a sad reality.

But it’s even more than sad - it’s absurd. Because the reality is that judgmentalism, condemnation, and self-righteous attitudes aren’t just minor deviations from the teachings of Christianity. They’re not understandable life-orientations that reasonable Christians can come to legitimately support. Not at all - in fact, these attitudes are fundamentally opposed to the very core of what Christianity is. I would even go as far as to say that if a self-professed Christian is regularly judgmental, self-righteous, and condemning towards the people around him, it is very unlikely that he has any clue who the God of the Bible actually is.

Being a judgmental Christian is like being a militant Quaker, or an atheist Muslim, or a Jew who cares nothing about Passover. It’s an absurdity - a blatant, living contradiction.

Now why is this? It’s because the core story of Christianity utterly undermines any basis for Christians to feel better or more worthy than the people around them. Let me explain.

As the story goes, human beings were created by God for beauty, glory, justice, community, faithfulness, art, passion, innovation, peace - in short, flourishing. However, from the beginning human beings have taken this calling and squandered it on selfishness, individualism, pride, injustice, greed, violence, oppression, apathy, racism, etc., etc. Human beings, according to the Christian perspective, are like broken castles - glorious creations with unbelievable potential, yet who are at the same time fragmented, corrupted, and twisted up. This is why we can see, in this world, amazing glimmers of human glory, beauty, and justice popping up here and there. And yet simultaneously all of humanity - from our own selves and families to the stories playing out on the global stage - remains marred by immense and pervasive corruption, selfishness, and unjust thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Well as the Christian story goes, God looks at the plight of humanity, and rather than simply ridding the world of us, he is moved to pity and mercy out of a deep love for his creations. In fact, as the story goes, his love for us is so deep that he chooses to step out of his eternal realm and into our own self-inflicted mess. He becomes a flesh and blood man - this is the man Jesus. Then he grows up among his creations, teaches them, walks with them, loves them, and eventually dies for them. In fact, the great irony is that he dies at their own hands - they condemn him in a mockery of a trial, and then send him to the agony of a Roman cross. And why, in the end, does God accept this path?

According to the story, it is to bear his own divine judgment in place of the people who actually deserve it - the human beings he made for glory, yet who squandered this calling, and who, in the end, literally judge him, condemn him, and kill him with their own hands.

An early Christian named Paul once commented on this act of God, saying, “Very rarely will someone die for a good man - but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us.”

Now when we hear words like “sinner,” we all like to convince ourselves that this can’t be true about us. Maybe it’s true about others - like those corrupt dictators, those violent drug lords, those unfaithful husbands, and that jerk who lives on my block - but in the end, we have somehow made better choices and have done better deeds, and therefore we must be, ultimately, more worthy than the “screw-ups” around us. But if this were true, how could the holocaust of Nazi Germany ever have taken place? Are we to believe that there was just something different - something inherently worse - about all the German people who took part in the holocaust? Do we really believe that, given the same conditions, we would never have done what they did? What about people who grow up in poverty and get involved in gangs and drugs and prostitution? What about the widespread and centuries-long practice of American race-based slavery? Given the same conditions as these perpetrators, do we really believe that there’s just something fundamentally better in each of our own souls that would never do such things? This is a fantasy - we all have the corruption in us - we just need the right buttons pushed. We’re all in the same boat.

And so the Christian story presents a pretty remarkable challenge to the attitude of judgmentalism.

First, it says that no one is in a position to look down on a fellow human being as though he or she is somehow worse, or less worthy. All human beings are in the same boat - we’re all broken castles, made for glory but broken and twisted up with corruption. And so no one ever has the right to be judgmental towards other people. In fact, one of the first things you can be sure of with a judgmental person is that he does not know himself.

But the story says even more than this. It says that God (the one who, if he exists, we should all aspire to live like) is not only non-judgmental - he’s reverse judgmental. He judges himself in place of the people who actually deserve it … and he does this out of love for them.

This, in my mind, is amazing. If this is true (and I and about a billion others believe it is), it means that God’s love for us goes so deep that he would rather bear judgment on himself than do to us what we do to each other every day - judge and condemn.

So if you are a Christian and you find yourself regularly judging and condemning the people around you who don’t believe what you believe or live the way you live … wake up. What you’re doing has nothing to do with the story you trust in.

And if you’re not a Christian, but you also look down on certain people whose values or beliefs or life choices you don’t like (you might find yourself feeling particularly judgmental towards judgmental people, for example), why do you feel you’re in a position to judge? Are you really any better? And if you’re not, what do you do about that?

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment if you would like - the more dialog, the better.

A Mandate for Christian Environmentalism

Christians should be the first people to save the whales.  And hug the trees.  And be obsessive recyclers.  And power their houses with renewable energy.  And buy cleaner and more efficient cars (if they can afford them).  And intentionally reduce how much water and heating and energy they use in their homes.  And campaign against irresponsible business practices that pollute the earth. And support international efforts to reduce carbon emissions to fight the effects of climate change. Christians should be leading the charge in everything environmental because, simply put, the God of the Bible has given them a mandate.

Now the call to environmentalism is not one of the Ten Commandments - and there’s no specific place in the Bible where God says, “Thou shalt save the whales,” but the principles are all there.

In the beginning, God created everything on this earth - all animal and plant life and ecosystems - and he called everything, invariably, good.  Then he set up mankind to have unique dominion over the earth - to rule over it, develop it, and care for it as God’s stewards.  This is what Christians call the “cultural mandate.”

Now in the world of rulers, there are good rulers and bad rulers.  There are those who exploit their people and use them for their own pleasure - and those who invest themselves in the flourishing of those under their care.  Both are rulers, but one feels no responsibility for the well being of his people, while the other sees that as her primary responsibility.

Well if God has set people up to be rulers over creation - what sort of rulers did he call us to be?  Did he call us to be tyrants who exploit his cherished creation until it’s all burned out … or caretakers who use it responsibly in ways that enable it and human life to flourish together?

The answer is obvious.  Our call is to rule not as exploiters and destroyers, but as creators and life givers (which is, not surprisingly, in keeping with the nature of the one who gave us this job).  It is, therefore, a simple and clear mandate - and one that is ultimately one of our most basic identities as human beings - stewards over our created home.

But there’s even more to the Christian environmental mandate than this.

Because who, in the end, is always most negatively impacted by poor stewardship?  The poor.  The people who can’t afford to live anywhere but near the municipal dump.  The people who don’t have the money to hire a lawyer when their water wells are filled with natural gas due to fracking leaks.  The sea coast cities in impoverished nations who simply don’t have the money to build the infrastructure necessary to deal with the upcoming changes of global warming such as rising sea levels and bigger and more frequent storms.  The people who, when increasing droughts cause food prices to rise, simply will not be able to afford enough food to live on.

The consequences of poor environmental stewardship will always be borne, most heavily, on the backs of the poor.  And the great irony is that the poor, because they have so few resources, are always the ones who contribute the least to the worldwide problems of waste and carbon emissions.  It is the rich who are pouring the gases into the atmosphere that are fueling sea level rise, and increasing droughts and storms.  It’s powerful industries that are finding legal loopholes that enable them to pollute more (which is easier and cheaper in the short term).  And yet it is the poor that will be punished for all of this.

Well this should be a major concern for Christians, because you don’t have to read very long in the Bible to discover that the God who made the earth has a very unique concern the poor.  The Torah in the Old Testament is full of laws to enact justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  Some of the most common criticisms against Israel by the Biblical prophets (Amos and Isaiah are some particularly good examples of this) are particularly for their failure to uphold justice for the poor.  And when Jesus comes on the scene, he not only spends most of his time walking with and caring for the poor - he actually chooses to embrace a life of poverty himself, even to the point of bearing an unjust trial, condemnation, and execution - the kind of thing that the poor have born at the hands of the powerful throughout the ages.

God’s identification with the poor, therefore, would be hard to overemphasize.  They are precious to him, and the Bible says that God’s ears are tuned in to their cries in a special way.

So if God has set human beings up to be stewards over a creation that he cherishes and calls good, and if that stewardship is inseparably bound up with maintaining justice for the poor (whom God has a special concern for), then environmental stewardship must be a major concern for Christians.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “Global Warming?  How about Global Prayer!”  The point (I think) was to say, “Why are we blabbing about issues of climate change when people aren’t praying in this world?”  Well I agree, without a doubt, that this world needs more prayer - and Christians should be pursuing this change in their daily lives.  But how should this in any way cause us to neglect our responsibilities, as stewards over God’s creation, to actively combat the practices that are destroying our world and making it particularly inhospitable for the poor?  It shouldn’t.  It mustn’t.  Both must be our concern.

So if you call yourself a Christian - if you call yourself a follower of a God who loves his creation and who loves the poor - then you must be concerned with the issues of environmental stewardship and act accordingly in your daily life.  This isn’t all you are called to, certainly - but it’s an awfully enormous thing to overlook.

And if you are not a Christian, but you care about the natural world and the issues of the poor matter to you … wake your Christian friends up!  They have a very powerful mandate in the Bible they are trying to root their lives in.  But they may need your help to see what is already there.

Using Jesus

Jesus is pretty famous. There are very few places on earth where you can go today where people have not at least heard of him. And this should be no surprise, because he’s a very intriguing character - an enigma who continues to start conversations all over the world even to this day. So many questions still surround him, his life, and his teaching. Was he born miraculously of a virgin, or did his mother sleep around during her engagement to Joseph? Were his miracles real, or were they carefully crafted illusions? Did he actually rise from the dead, or did he just swoon on the cross and recover later … or was the whole thing simply made up by his disciples?

And what do we do with the things he taught? On the one hand, he said many wonderful and broadly accepted teachings like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Judge not or you too will be judged,” and, “Blessed are the poor.” Yet he also said things like, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and “Before Abraham was born, I am,” and “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” These are all far more troubling.

And so Jesus, for the last 2,000 years, has been inspiring people and challenging them, comforting them and making them very uncomfortable, and the many miracles of his life continue to hang around, demanding attention because of their dramatic nature, yet remaining ultimately un-provable, and, in the end, perhaps not even relevant to our lives today.

So how do people respond to this man of mystery, Jesus of Nazareth? I think people have, essentially, 4 responses to him.

Some people love him. They believe in his miracles, they aspire to his teaching, they trust him, and they try to follow him. These people generally call themselves Christians.

Some people hate him - though not many. Few people actively hate Jesus - he’s too complicated a person, with too many redeeming qualities. Even if you don’t like his grandiose claims, you’re still stuck with images of this man welcoming little children to himself, healing the sick, and dying for people he loved. But still, Jesus does have many massive and jarring statements, particularly about himself, that inevitably lead some to hate him.

People are more likely to ignore him, however. For some, the life and death and even possible resurrection of a religious leader 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world simply cannot be relevant to the practical concerns of modern life. For others, the many questions surrounding him leave too much unresolved, and it’s just too exhausting to dwell on him.

But I think by far the most common human approach to Jesus is to use him. And we do this by taking the full picture of Jesus that we have, and then we strip out the things we don’t like, we focus on the things we do like, we reject the things we don’t believe, we accept the things we do believe, and in the end we say, “THIS is Jesus.” Then we take our newly formed Jesus - the one we redesigned to fit our desires perfectly - and we use him to give us a spiritual justification for the things we are already doing, believing, and valuing. Essentially, we form Jesus in our own image.

You can see this everywhere.

Christians who always think they’re right have refashioned Jesus from the God they claim him to be into their own personal cheerleader. We can be sure of this because, in the end, no one is always right.

Politicians who invoke the name of Jesus for their own political platform are using Jesus to achieve their own political goals. Jesus would, of course, vote for them.

People who build their own personal spirituality, splicing together pieces of different religions and including Jesus in the mix … are using Jesus. They are taking the whole person and using only the parts of him that fulfill their spiritual pursuits.

People inclined towards social revolution but rejecting on principle the idea of any kind of divine authority will typically turn Jesus into something of a Che Guevara character.

And the list goes on and on. In fact, any time we pick and choose with Jesus, we will always choose what we like and are comfortable with, and we will cast out or ignore whatever challenges us. This is just human nature.

But what if we simply let Jesus be - with all the things that comfort us and challenge us, that inspire us and rebuke us? We can love him, or we can hate him, or we can decide that he is not relevant to us and ignore him … but at least we’re doing all of these things with the real him. At least we’re respecting him enough not to change him into whatever we want him to be.

To take someone who is a separate, sovereign entity with his own identity, beliefs and opinions, and to bend and twist that person until he is forced into a position of subservience - a position where he is made to worship us, and forced to fulfill our desires … what word describes this better than rape? I know this is a jarring word, but is there a better description for what is going on here?

Jesus is an enigma. He’s uncomfortable, and challenging, and confusing - this is what he’s really like. But let’s have the courage to face him honestly. Perhaps, after confronting him, we’ll discover that we love him. Perhaps we’ll find that his teachings make us hate him. Perhaps we’ll come to believe, in the end, that he’s just not relevant to our lives. But at least with all these responses, we will be responding to the real him - at least we will not have done him the dishonor of contorting him and forcing him to submit to our own desires.

Faith and Reason

Faith and reason.  Both are ways that people evaluate and understand the world around them, though for a long time we have tended to view them as profoundly different and even antithetical approaches.  Some people reject faith entirely and rely purely on reason.  Some people reject reason and rely purely on faith.  I think most people, however, compartmentalize their lives, relying on reason for certain aspects and faith for others.  For these people, faith tends to govern the realm of the spiritual, the personal, the subjective, and the unprovable, while reason governs the world of the physical, the public, the objective, and the provable. In this sense, then, the experiences of life are interpreted and understood in profoundly different ways based on which realm they occupy.  For example, when we look at the question of the cure for cancer, reason governs our approach.  Because of this, we assume the solution to be physical and for the good of the public as a whole.  Furthermore, we treat proposed cures objectively, and accept or reject them based on how they stand up to ongoing scrutiny.  When we look at religion, however, faith tends to govern our approach.  We assume that religion concerns the spiritual/emotional world (and usually not the physical world).  We see religious belief not as something for the public as a whole but rather for individuals, based on their personal thoughts and needs.  Furthermore, we view religion as subjective and generally see little value in scrutinizing it.

In the end, then, there is a sense that reason concerns the concrete and the real, while religion concerns the subjective and the hazy.  Reason, therefore, tends to be viewed in the general public as the more necessary of the two approaches – and the more reliable.  In fact, when a society leaves behind its faith-based roots and starts to become more reason-driven, this is usually seen as sign of progress.

This is a very understandable view of things, but it has a fundamental flaw.  The flaw is that reason is actually just another form of faith.  Reason does not reflect a different approach to understanding the world around us – rather, it represents trust in a different authority.  Whereas “faith” as we generally use the word refers to trust in things like religious texts, the testimony of others, or personal experience, “reason” refers to an ultimate trust in the logic of the human mind.  Reason and faith are both faith-based approaches to understanding life.

And both are unprovable.  People tend to see reason as the more reliable approach because it can be proven, whereas faith cannot.  But in actuality, reason cannot be proven either.  The only way to prove reason/logic is to use logic, which is itself the thing you are trying to prove.  If we were able to prove the trustworthiness of human logic, we would have to use some higher authority for evaluating it – but then what could prove the trustworthiness of that authority?

What we are getting at here is a fundamental characteristic of ultimate authority.  If it is ultimate, it can never be proven, but must always be trusted – on faith.  Reason, then, is not a proven approach to interpreting the world, but an assumed one.  The assumption is that human logic is ultimately cohesive, objective, and essentially unflawed.  While individuals may twist or misuse the logic of the human brain, in principle reason cannot fail.  This is a religious belief, and as far as the physical, political, tangible, on-the-ground problems of the world are concerned, most of the American public puts its hope in it.

Take, for example, how this faith interacts with human testimony to the supernatural.  If someone claims to have witnessed something supernatural in the tangible world which does not fit within the framework of human logic – such as a man coming back from the dead, the reasonable mind must dismiss it as impossible and come up with another explanation.  In fact, it cannot even consider the testimony.  If the soundness of human logic is the ultimate authority for the tangible world, and all scientific study negates the possibility of resurrection, then the supernatural cannot be accepted – because it is already excluded.

The reasonable mind will say that resurrection must be rejected because it is illogical.  But because reason is faith in human logic as the ultimate authority, “illogical” simply means that a certain phenomenon doesn’t bow to the authority of the human mind.  But this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  It only means it isn’t true if you believe that logic is the ultimate authority.  To say something isn’t true because it isn’t logical is actually a religious statement – it’s a faith in the human mind over all other authorities.  But there are other authorities that people trust in.

My point, then, is that all people are people of faith.  Every decision anyone makes is based, ultimately, on faith in unprovable authorities.  Reason-driven decisions are just as faith-based as are religious ones.  This isn’t a problem – it’s just the way things are.

The ensuing question, then, is why do we trust what we trust?  If I assume human reason holds authority over a given religious text which makes claims contradictory to reason, why have I chosen to put my faith in one authority over the other?  That, in my opinion, is the most interesting question – and one that I think usually has little to do with reason.

Disagreeing with Respect

Given that this blog is designed to be a forum where people who believe different things can exchange ideas, it seemed wise to have the first post focus on disagreement. If we are to have a discussion that is healthy and helpful for all involved, it is crucial that we be able to disagree – especially over fundamental issues – with respect. Unfortunately, I feel that in many ways our country has been losing its ability to disagree fruitfully over questions of faith, religion, meaning, and ethics.  While we have little problem confronting one another publically over topics such as politics or the natural sciences, faith seems to fall into a separate category.  We are generally not comfortable with challenging each other’s core beliefs in any type of public forum.  In fact, we tend to equate such challenge with ignorance, insensitivity, and even downright bigotry.  A person’s beliefs about God and the meaning of life are his or her own choice – indeed, freedom to believe as one sees fit is one of our country’s most basic human rights.  And it should be.  However, in our zeal to protect an individual’s right to believe whatever he or she wants to believe, it seems as though we have come to view any challenge to a person’s faith assumptions as an inherent infringement on this right – and therefore something that is ultimately disrespectful and even hateful.

But must we equate challenge with disrespect and hatred?  It is clear that challenging someone’s core beliefs can be done in remarkably unthoughtful, arrogant, and hateful ways. Challenge can often be used as a tool of alienation and exclusion.  But are hatred and disrespect intrinsic elements of every challenge to a person’s worldview?  Must it be totally off limits to question another person’s fundamental assumptions about God, life, and meaning?

In my mind, if this is the case, we must resolve ourselves to having meaning-of-life conversations that remain, essentially, fluff.  We cannot afford to do this.  The questions of God, life, and meaning are the most fundamental ones we have – and the world is splintered over what many of the answers are.  If we are really concerned with finding these answers, then it is crucial that we engage in real dialogue where we are honest about our differences.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that we owe it to one another. If we just write our beliefs off as individual rights and preferences, we will coexist and smile at each other’s differing opinions – but we will not move forward.  We will not have the benefit of having our core assumptions questioned by someone who believes something completely different from us.

Opening ourselves up to this type of dialogue can be a scary process.  But in the end, there is no need to fear truth.  If I am challenged and freed from a life assumption that is in fact false, it may take a while for me to recalibrate, but I will only have gained from the discovery.

Knowledge is empowering.  Still, many of us are afraid of knowledge that asks for change.  Many of us will choose to stick with something we know to be false (or think will be found false if we question it too much) rather than walk through the uncertainty of a revolution or reorientation of self.  Change is indeed scary.

But let’s brave this together.  My hope is this: I want this site to be a place where people can honestly and openly seek the truth together.  I want it to be a place where respect for one another is assumed, especially in the context of passionate disagreement.  I want everyone involved to listen to one another, to avoid making quick assumptions, and to be gracious with one another.  I want The Public Square to be a venue where we can dare to wrestle with real questions, and where we don’t have to be afraid to say what we really believe.  If we approach one another humbly, thoughtfully, and honestly, this site has real potential to be a place of fruitful interaction and discovery.

Welcome to the Public Square

The Public Square is a blog posted by Allen Drew, pastor of Mt. Airy Community Church (or MACC) in Philadelphia.  Its purpose is to provide a forum in which issues or questions relating to God, faith, meaning, ethics, etc. can be discussed in a productive and thoughtful manner. The name I have chosen is significant.  For much of human history, the public square has been a place where people gathered to hear news, exchange ideas, and ask questions.  Today, these public spaces are becoming harder and harder to find.  The public exchange of ideas has not disappeared, however – it has simply relocated.  Today, more and more of these discussions are taking place online.

My goal, then, is to create a forum where the spirit of the public square can live on.  I will post periodic essays that seek to engage different contemporary issues and I would love to get responses to these postings.

My essays will reflect a Christian perspective (because I am a Christian).  However, this blog is not meant in any way to be a discussion for Christians exclusively.  In fact, that is the last thing I want.  Rather, its purpose is to build dialogue across faith and worldview lines.  It will be far more interesting if it does so.

Ultimately, my desire is that this blog might foster productive discussion over issues of substance that benefits all who are involved.  In particular, I hope that the site will provide a space where my friends and neighbors in Mt. Airy can have an ongoing round table discussion.  Many of us in this neighborhood have small children – so it can be difficult to find time and space to talk deeply.  Hopefully this site will help.

So let’s get going.  I will put up periodic postings, but I encourage friends and neighbors to bring up any additional topics you would like to discuss - you can email me at mt.airycommunitychurch@gmail.com to let me know what you want to talk about.  For topics of particular interest, who knows - we might even plan to get together in person and have a real round table discussion over dinner (maybe at Earth, Bread, and Brewery).

I hope this site is beneficial to everyone who interacts with it – particularly my friends and neighbors in Mt. Airy and at MACC.