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Speak the Silent Cries of the Innocent & of the Perpetrators

An unsettling consciousness of the contrast of my life in Austin with both the victims and perpetrators of violence at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall induced a restless sleep last night. I went to sleep wondering what emotions and fears the 30-plus hostages, the scores of wounded, plus families of the deceased were experiencing after the trauma of the day’s violence.

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A prior, 24-hour span, Friday to Saturday, had been as near to idyllic as one could hope for.

-My wife and I witnessed our middle daughter being honored as one of ten high school homecoming court nominees, a first for any IB (International Baccalaureate) student from her high school.

-We experienced a welcome summer-to-fall seasonal change, with an overnight temperature drop of 10 to 15°F, thereby coaxing our family outdoors for an evening sit in our lawn chairs, while nursing a hot, sweet mug of cardamom tea.

-We watched a documentary movie (Searching for Sugar Man) so excellent and tragic, that even our 9- and 12-year-old daughters were captivated by its feel-good story. It chronicles a blue-collar, Deer Park Michigan, Latino-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, shunned and relegated to near poverty status in his native North America, yet who gained near cult status in South Africa during the apartheid era, for music that facilitated freedom of anti-apartheid expression. His self-composed lyrics resonated with people, particularly anti-establishment minded, white South Africans, whose lives were being constrained and compelled by an unjust and immoral political institution.

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-The final day’s cherry on top was sharing intimate moments with my wife, whose Friday night portrait I had been “forced” to repeatedly look at since posting it on my FB wall.

A last act before sleep was viewing picture galleries of the al-Shabab attack: lifeless bodies lying crumpled and bloodied at the base of stairs and escalators; a twisted and contorted woman’s arm/elbow obviously disfigured by shrapnel; and panicked children being evacuated by security personnel or cowering in confined mall spaces, sheltered by the protective, yet useless-against-bullets arms and bodies of family members.

What had begun as a fun-filled day of shopping for thousands of Kenya citizens, residents and visitors, became in an instant a nightmarish rhythmic of grenade explosions, AK-47 gunfire, tear gas, and I’m sure the high pitch shrill of emergency sirens and human wailing and screams.

The numbers dead changed from a midnight 39 to a Saturday morning 59, with three to four-times that number of wounded.

Obscured and sidelined by Kenya’s tragedy were equally tragic same-day events elsewhere, including a suicide attack on a church in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 75 people and wounding 150. Another 60-plus Iraqis died at a funeral, with more than 120 wounded.

It is purported that some of the al-Shabab militants not only intentionally spared Muslims, while targeting Westerners, but also shouted out “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as they fired indiscriminately in the mall.

Dignity of Diff

Jonathan Sacks remarks in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference –

“Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. . . .

Two conversations are now necessary. One is between religious leaders on the one hand, and politicians and business leaders on the other, as to the direction globalization must take. This has brought benefits to many, but distress, disruption and poverty to many others whose voice we must also hear. . . .

We must speak the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom.” (italics added)

An anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, was produced in 1984. It allegedly showed via ultrasound the silent screams of a fetus in pain during an abortion procedure.

I thought to myself, “What silent screams born from perceived injustices or personal and prolonged experiences of suffering provoke and motivate acts of violence?”

Simply and quickly branding them as politicians and the media often do as “terrorist” conveniently legitimates retaliatory acts of punitive violence, yet it overlooks the formative life events and context that birthed the “terrorist.”

Certainly, there is no conscionable excuse for acts of violence against innocent people, such as the al-Shabab attack. Yet reactive political statements resolve little except to assuage initial public anger and outcry, such as Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s — and any number of similar global presidential statements — in which promises are made to “hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

We as nations are naive and ignorant at best, arrogant and stupid at worst to think, let alone voice false assurances to the public that the likes of al-Qaeda will eventually be defeated and decimated — no matter how many singular and significant “victories” we might have along the way, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

We might periodically succeed in eradicating this or that regional or global extremist group like al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, but will prove ineffective in the long-term unless we “target” (let me use a militaristic term) systemic influences like widening economic disparity, which are the birth places of extremism.

On the contrary, should we not individually, or as communities, (faith) congregations, corporations, organizations and nations focus more attention and exert more effort to ascertain, help alleviate where we can, and “speak the silent cry of those who suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom?” After all, much of the wanton acts of violence and terror are last-ditch efforts to be heard.

Insignificant as my voice may be, that is a primary objective of Life — to speak and give voice to the silent cries of “the Other,” who Edward Said described as those who have been excluded, subordinated, demonized and dehumanized by whichever social, political, or religious group wields overt, subtle and underlying power at any given time.

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Infamous Dates | A Personal Reflection on 9/11

*I invite you to share your remembrances of any infamous date under “Leave a Reply.”

Mind numbing transformations of life and ways of living occur in the briefest and most unexpected of moments. . . .

– The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that prompted President Franklin D Roosevelt’s December 8th “Day of Infamy” speech.

– The December 26, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.

Between these two dates and events too many unconscionable natural and human-on-human atrocities including, of course, September 11, 2001, when at least and especially for North Americans, the world suddenly seemed too bleak and too frightening a place to galavant (roaming and playing) about in after 19 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda commandeered four planes.

Two months prior, July, 2001, I was studying and traveling about in Switzerland and Germany as part of my PhD studies in history of religions. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically given the ensuing Islamophobia that developed in the United States post-9/11, one of the seminars I attended that July at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey was on reconciliation.

Like many, I remember where and what I was doing the morning of 9/11.

A new academic year had begun just one week prior, and because my doctoral mentor was undergoing leukemia treatment, he had traveled to Houston’s renowned “cancer hospital,” MD Anderson. I taught his 08:00 – 09:20 Introduction to World Religions class, and we were half-way through the 80-minutes when a student, who I had marked as absent, suddenly opened one of the two rear classroom doors.

Distraught and crying she told us of the planes, the Towers, the unknown number dead, and that she had a sister who worked in one of the towers, but who she discovered was safe. I immediately dismissed class without comprehending the magnitude or severity of events, nor with any sense of the implications of the day’s events on the next day, or the many tomorrows that extended into months, years, and now into a second decade.

All over campus students, staff and faculty gravitated toward each other and to TV’s. I still remember the density of people congregating around two large screen TV’s in Baylor University’s SUB (Student Union Building). There was an uncharacteristic hush throughout the SUB, except for the voices of the news anchors, analysts and political pundits.

Equally, if not more unsettling to me, was September 12th, because for the first time in (my) living memory not a single aircraft was heard or seen in the sky. Even birds in flight seemed an anomaly.

I’m ashamed to say, but it was only after sitting down to draft this blog, and with my mind unconsciously racing here, there and everywhere in its search for associated memories, that I became mindful, re-minded of other equally or greater calamitous events to 9/11, in terms of loss of life – genocides like the Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda; the World Wars – hell, most wars; colonization of countries and their people; civil wars like Syria; et cetera. My shame demonstrates how myopic, how forgetful, how self-absorbed, and how provincial our lives can become, and why memorials are so important.

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I’m not suggesting one calamitous event is worse or less worse than another, for they surely are equally tragic for those who lost and lose loved ones and friends.

For those personally untouched (no friend or family member affected) with each colossal tragedy – apart from the added life inconveniences “suffered” as a result of an event – perhaps it’s a reminder, a wake-up call that we should live lives more daily attuned to our fellow humanity. Truly, no person or nation is an island.

This morning I heard a woman talking on her cell phone to a friend, explaining with a degree of frustration why her upcoming weekend plans were changed – stating, “it’s because of some kind of Jewish holiday.” Obviously she was referring to Yom Kippur, only the holiest of Jewish days in which repentance and atonement accompanies a full-day of fasting, yet which this lady had no knowledge of, or interest in, because she likely had no Jewish friends or acquaintances.

Our own life is difficult enough, I realize. But, perhaps, if we took small, daily measures like being willing and disciplined enough to wean ourselves from total co-dependency on our smart devices like Charlene deGuzman accidentally did one 24-hour period in I Forgot My Phone – a humorous YouTube clip that has garnered more than 22-million hits.

Maybe then we might discover enough time, energy and empathy to give thoughtful pause, prayer (if you’re a person of faith) or praxis (thoughtful action) toward the lives and suffering of so many of the world’s people – individuals with a history and a family, just like the more than 3,000, who lost their lives in New York City on 9/11. Perhaps, too, such moments of reflection would help orient our lives and living in a direction that encompasses and embraces the world and not merely my own private world.

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Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

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My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 2

For those of you a-religious, or nominally so, this blog’s content might seem like a world “far, far away, in a distant galaxy.” If not relevant to you, it might at least be entertaining.

In “Part 1” I reminisced about my 5th grade small-time smoking, and of my dad’s respectful manner of handling my “experiments with tobacco.”

In Part-2 I reflect upon the religious culture that, despite my wish at times to extricate myself from, is part-and-parcel of my identity as U.S. citizen and Texas resident.

I note the culture’s entrenched belief in mankind’s sinful nature, an ever-present, yet at times subdued consciousness of an End Time (return of Christ and punishment of the wicked), and a corresponding need to enlist fear and fire as proselytizing motivation when “love” alone fails to change a “sinner’s” heart.

My early developmental years are a narrative of exposure to overt and subliminal Christian messages of “Jesus loves me and the little children of the world, this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and “Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

Love and Fear, then, were, and continue to be frequently juxtaposed themes. And in my experience, Fear (and Fire) has dominated North American evangelical consciousness, and regrettably has been one of our chief exports to the world.

Regrettable, that is, in terms of how fear and a perceived imminence of the End Time or Last Days has influenced our treatment of people and cultures different – i.e., as a means to an end.

Former Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John Colenso, corroborated the presence of American religious fear mongers in his Ten Weeks in Natal journal –

“The profession of Christianity had been very much hindered by persons saying that the world will be burnt up—perhaps, very soon—and they will all be destroyed.  They [Zulus] are frightened, and would rather not hear about it, if that is the case.”

If you discount Colenso’s journal as a mere snapshot of 19th Century colonial and missionary history, then read When Time Shall Be No More, which details Americans’ obsessive preoccupation and speculation about prophecy and End Time.

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So . . .

Many of us grew up, and continue to live in a social, political and religious culture that has been heavily influenced by a Puritan / Protestant-evangelical tradition.

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A culture still analogous in many ways to a much earlier time in history, depicted by a story of an American missionary, Mr. Kirby, to Native Americans –

“Some wicked traders heard the Christian Indians singing a hymn, and they said to them, ‘What do poor creatures like you know about Jesus Christ?’ One of the Indians took up a worm, made a circle of dry moss round it, and set fire to the moss. The worm soon tried to escape, but could not, then the Indian lifted it out to a place of safety, and turning to the gazing traders, said, ‘that is what Jesus has done for me.’”

The Southern United States, in particular, the so-called Bible Belt, still evidences this overt evangelical consciousness.

Visit select Starbucks, particularly in a town such as Waco, Texas, for example, and regularly see people individually reading or in groups discussing the Bible, praying, and as I did on one occasion, see a young child of maybe 10 to 12 years, standing in the order queue, soliciting a middle-age adult behind him with, “Mr, If you died today, do you know where you would go?”

If You Died Today

Generally speaking, this culture views human nature as first and foremost sinful, deprived, void of any individual good, alienated from God, and destined for eternal separation from God (hell) unless repentance and atonement is sought after and found. (*See documentaries Virgin Tales and Jesus Camp.)

It seems that humanity is so void of good inclination, so morally deprived, that inciting fear (and shaming) are the singularly effective provocateurs to soliciting confessions of remorse/guilt, thereby paving the way for divine forgiveness.

As a so-called “born again Christian,” myself, I don’t agree with this lopsided view of human nature, since the Bible, in my opinion, speaks equally if not more to humanity’s creation “in the image of God,” and therefore humanity’s immense created potential for good as evidenced in socially transforming, larger-than-life personages.

Yes, this includes Jesus, a carpenter’s son, but also Muhammad, a merchant and trader (we could list any number of religious founders, from Sikhism to Baha’i), Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, lawyers, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr or Desmond Tutu as clergymen, Rosa Parks, NAACP secretary, Mother Teresa (of course), Anne Frank, and scores of other notable women and men.

Such a negative assessment of human nature also doesn’t substantiate my personal life of faith, which experientially benefited from a decidedly more feminine and maternal metaphor of God (see my blog Two Words); one that depicts an Ultimate Reality’s patience, kind-heartedness, and all-encompassing love, rather than the millennial’s old patriarchal, judicial and capricious view of God

Despite my unwillingness to embrace, or at least, fixate on mankind’s sinful nature, I do understand the mindset and appeal of conservative/fundamentalist faith (Christianity shares similarities with Islam at this point), particularly given the everywhere evidence of “the evil that men do” against fellow humanity, and the desire for a sense of inner security that a belief in absolutes falsely promises.

What good news and hope there is in the gospel message, then, is often overshadowed and contingent upon whether you’re fearfully contrite enough to say “I’m a sinner,” or “my bad” as Adam Sandler humorously expressed his own missteps.

A new, “born-again” life is said to occur when you . . .

-Hear through some means (usually through preaching/proselytizing) the gospel message offering forgiveness and a new life . . .

-Feel enough remorse (guilt) about your sinful nature and sinful deeds . . .

-That you acknowledge and confess your wretchedness . . .

-Plus, have faith to believe that Jesus is God’s only Son, who died in order to ransom you from the clutches of the evil one, who, incidentally, is the prime instigator behind all your bad thoughts, actions, and life’s misfortunes . . .

-Because God’s redemption can only be experienced singularly in and through Jesus . . .

-After all, “narrow is the gate” into heaven.

-If heaven’s gate is enlarged to include any different-from-Christian people, say, mere “lovers and doers of truth and goodness” (*the many kinds of individuals Jesus, himself, and the Bible commend for their faith and righteousness), then how will Christians know for absolute certain that they, themselves, have met the conditions for heaven?

-Therefore, Christians need “different” faith and cultural antagonists to mirror what is allegedly “non-biblical” in order to assure them by negation that Christianity is the only and true way . . .

-Furthermore, by obeying and following so-called prescribed and biblically mandated “salvation steps”  . . .

-Then, and only then, will a person have assurance that God’s righteous anger has been mitigated, and that eternity is a certainty.

Any notion of “biblical truth” (a favorite phrase for absolute truth among Bible Belt Christians) incidentally, is a misnomer, because all truth is interpretive, reflecting more one’s social, economic, educational, political and life experience, than so-called objective/absolute truth.

Like the apostle Paul acknowledged, himself, there is truth that is provisional, personal, and truthful, as in seeing in a mirror dimly, but you cannot legitimately claim it as singularly absolute because you are not God, nor can you even make that claim for the Bible because then you would be guilty yourself of bibliolatry – the worship of the Bible. Truth must play out in the market place of life, where you’re free, even encouraged to advocate for your understanding of truth, demonstrate through your life and actions its authenticity, and make emotional appeal from your personal experience.

In Part-3 I’ll attempt explaining how my understanding of “salvation” has changed from my 3rd grade pie-in-the-sky understanding. My current spirituality and sense of being “saved” is indebted to the many valued perspectives and life experiences I’ve shared over the past 15 years with the religious and cultural “different Others.” I’m grateful to have been forced through graduate studies to journey beyond my single Baptist perspective and tradition (single color rug) to a symphony of different perspectives and testimonials, each one, yet collectively, trying to express in language and symbol the ultimate meaning we’ve discovered about the inexplicable realities and meanings of life (mosaic colored rug).

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Fate or Providence | How To Interpret Life’s Misfortunes?

This blog is about the mystery or wonderment of life’s TIMING.

Several friends of mine are avowed atheists, which, truthfully, draws me to them versus detracts. Why? I appreciate their candor. To me their professed lack of belief communicates a serious searching for meaning in life. I wonder how they – and you – might interpret the following “life’s timing” story.

A primary reason my family returned to the U.S. from South Africa in 2010 was to be nearer my wife’s aging and ailing mother, more especially since my wife is an only child and her father is deceased.

“Bueli,” who my girls and I visited barely one week ago, and who I wrote about last week in Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness was suddenly admitted to hospital this past Saturday with an elevated white blood count of about 133k. Today she was “officially” diagnosed (after a painful bone marrow biopsy yesterday) with chronic leukemia.

This blog isn’t a “Why me Lord?! Why Me?!” type bemoaning of a Queen Latifah in the movie The Last Holiday (in the movie she’s mistakenly diagnosed as having only 3 weeks to live), which, of course, is easy for me to say since I’m not the one lying in a hospital bed. You see, my mother-in-law is well beyond retirement age, and given her long-term health struggles is really either a walking miracle, or a testament to the resilience of the human body and will power – or all three.

Rather, in the case of my mother-in-law, the question is not so much”Why did this happen?” or (if you’re a person of faith) “Why did God allow this?” But rather, “What are we to make of, and take from the extraordinary timeliness, and sometimes fortuitousness of events, relationships, et cetera, in life?

Her situation is “fortuitous” only in the sense that her hospital admittance comes a mere three weeks after my wife graduated with a 3-year in length MSN degree – less than 48 hours after she completed her national CNS credentialing exam – and in-between her search for full-time work. Any earlier (or later) and she would not have had the time and opportunity to hop on a plane and be with her mother 24/7 during this difficult and fearful time.

You see, my theology, as it were, doesn’t wrestle (much) with the skeptic’s scornful question – “If there is a God, why does s/he allow suffering?” Suffering, to me, is largely part and parcel of having been created with the inestimable freedom of will and choice.  Like my doctoral mentor, whose memoir recounts carrying the wet, cold and lifeless body of his 5-year-old son out of a South African river, what’s of more life-giving-meaning to me than resolving the enigma of immense suffering in this world is a belief that “God” (whoever ultimate reality might be for you) participates with and suffers alongside us in our day-to-day lives.

Therefore, like many of you I’m contemptuous of simplistic platitudes and theologies that convey belief in “God’s will” for this and that calamity or atrocity, such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  I don’t think the MANY people – in my experience mostly Christians – who persist in holding and professing such belief ever pause to truly consider the many day-to-day life implications of what believing in that “type of God” entails.

So . . . I’m not arguing for God’s existence based on this one very personal and sad event, whose timing appears beyond the coincidental.

I’m merely suggesting that during the many very difficult days of the past three years of our family’s struggling through graduate studies alongside my wife (those of you who have a postgraduate degree know what I’m saying about graduate studies being a “family thing” versus merely the lone student’s achievement), this one tragic event’s timing gives us grateful pause.

I suppose I’m also saying that if I have to choose in life between living with either a belief that a compassionate and loving Being participates in life alongside you and me – in good times and through suffering – or in a world of mere happenstance and fate.  I’ll choose the former.

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The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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Insularity of Life and Faith Equates to Insecurity | The Example of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Last week, a side-margin story in The New York Times caught my eye.  Perhaps you’re aware of it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.

A Lutheran pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who lost a parishioner in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, was first reprimanded, then forgiven (only after writing a letter of apology).

His wrong doing?  Participating in an interfaith service for victims and their families where Muslims and Baha’is were also represented, and thereby, it was reasoned by Synod leadership, that the pastor, Bob Morris, in effect endorsed the false teaching of those religions, as well as communicated to the LCMS’s 2.3 million members that religious differences are unimportant.

Thank God for another LCMS pastor, David H. Benke, who unlike Morris refused to apologize for participating in a similar post-9/11 interfaith service. He said of the Synod’s demand for Morris to apologize, “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it.  If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

If you read my “concluding thoughts” in Calling A Spade A Spade, you’ll know that I perceive Americans are largely unconscious of how much “power,” and its corollary “control,” are aspects of our cultural heritage, worldview and faith.

I see our propensity to power and control as largely to-be-expected results of a century and a half of global political, economic and military predominance (aka, super power status).

Our “might,” as it were, is in many respects a by-product and development from a much prior historical moment, more than a millennium and a half ago, when in the 4th century, emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the Roman imperial religion.

Overnight almost Christianity went from a status of being a small and persecuted sect within Judaism, to one wedded to and wielding immense political, economic and military power. The entanglement of faith and power were no where more vividly depicted, I’ve read, than on a Roman centurion’s weaponry, where the insignia of the cross was displayed.

The seeds of this faith-political entanglement were exported to the Americas by the first shipload of Puritans on The Mayflower in 1620, and in my opinion, are evident in LCMS’s (and other U.S. conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist) effort to control what Benke rightly refers to as the “public square” of religious discourse.

Concluding Thoughts:

Growing up I remember a neighbor lady taking me to a movie cinema along with her kids.  The movie didn’t leave an impression on me, but how this lady tried to shield us from the “evils” of secular society, did.  That is – she refused us early entrance to the cinema, so as to prevent us from viewing the movie trailers and advertisements.  I can’t fault her motives and intentions, but I can her reasoning.

One has to wonder how the LCMS censors its ministers when it comes to preaching from the New Testament, and the many sacrosanct life stories of “their Jesus.” After all, there are many scripture passages in which Jesus associates with and alongside the equivalent of a pervasive, even dominant religious and cultural plurality, false teachers, and social and moral pariahs (prostitutes, tax collectors, murderers and criminals).

In my opinion the LCMS’s logic and decision to disengage from the so-called false teachings and corrupting influence of religious diversity, particularly for such a hallowed event as an interfaith prayer service for victims of a massacre, convey at least two realities.

One, the reality of an accustomed life of societal privilege, whereby the LCMS leadership, in particular, and perhaps many of its 2-million members have little or no social and material need, and no compelling circumstances whereby they have to associate with anyone different from themselves.

And secondly, in contrast to what the LCMS are attempting to convey – a uncompromising allegiance to Jesus Christ and his message of eternal life – they are, in effect, communicating its opposite: an insular and insecure faith.  A faith that is so frail and unsure of its own relationship to God, that it requires the separation from and the damnation of billions of people so as to false-assure themselves that they are among “the final elect.”

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