Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Living with Ghosts

I heard an interview with members of the Punch Boys on NPR this morning and was arrested as one of them described what has become a common occurrence when they are giving a concert.  He talked about looking out from the stage into the darkness and seeing all of these bluish faces illuminated by their smart phone screens – scores, hundreds of people doing things on their screens while the concert is going on.  He said that, from the stage, they looked like ghosts, little disconnected apparitions desperately looking for connections in this hyper-connected world.

I’ve experienced this as well – at symphony concerts in Nairobi, in movie theatres here in the US.  I’ve watched a mother hand her iphone over to her 5 year old during church, and I’ve seen grownups twiddling with their screens during sermons.  The last time I was preaching regularly in a Protestant context, it was mercifully before smart phones were in widespread use (in Ethiopia, at least).  Even so, before every service we had to announce to the hundreds in the congregation that, for the sake of their neighbor, they really needed to turn their phones off.  Since I was long-winded in the pulpit and not so much into the ‘entertain me’ style of so much contemporary preaching, I’m sure my sermons would have provided golden opportunities for my hearers to improve their scores on their latest word games, had the means been at hand.

Today, the means are at hand.  We are connected to more information than we could possibly manage, we are connected to more people than we could possible engage with (I’ve got 350+ facebook ‘friends’, and I know people with more than 1000.)  Many of us are able to work from home because of our ease of connection, supposedly giving us more time to do the things we want to do.  We can drive without grumbling at misdirected spouses or cursing handwritten directions that left out step 14, listening instead to a pleasant disembodied voice patiently lead us to our destination accompanied by yet another glowing screen on our dashboard that shows us instantly where in the universe we actually are in real time.  So helpful!  All the things which gave our parents and grandparents and all previous generations some modicum of pleasure, we have in spades.  We can even play spades without a deck of cards, or even without other players.  My grandparents used to gather around the big radio console and listen to the news or to radio shows like the Lone Ranger or Jack Benny.  I don’t even need a radio anymore – I can listen to NPR’s morning edition on my laptop while I’m stretching before a morning run, or even on my morning run.  And TV used to be 3 channels + the upstart PBS.  Hindsight tells us we were incredibly impoverished and deprived, with our evening choices limited to the likes of ‘Green Acres’ and ‘Petticoat Junction’ and maybe ‘Bonanza’ if one was that kind of guy.  Today it’s anything anyone might want 24/7.  It’s like a Chinese buffet with 3000 items to choose from.

It has happened with breath-taking speed.  In a matter of just a few short years these tools that were (I suppose) intended to help us live our lives more efficiently have instead become our lives.  Reality is increasingly not enough.  Why would any sane person want to distract themselves with ephemera while listening to live music? Or having a conversation with a real person? Or going for a walk outside?  The answer is because we are increasingly no longer sane. 
We in the West are engaged in a vast project of dehumanization, increasingly desensitized to what makes us human.  We were created in the image of God for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor.  But increasingly we are becoming mere parodies of our true identity, what Isaiah the Prophet calls an idol.  We have eyes, but cannot see; mouths but cannot speak; noses but cannot smell; ears but cannot hear.  We have arms and legs but cannot move.  Desperately reaching out, wanting connection, craving life.  With increasing desperation attempting to satisfy ourselves with that which does not, which cannot satisfy.  We have been conned into thinking that the virtual will give us what we’ve been told we need.  But we end up missing completely the real.  With the result that our lives are wasted on things that do not matter.  We are becoming instead shadows, shades, ghosts, bumping into other ghosts, but too busy with the promises on our screens to see or care.

I am sitting at the local coffee house as I write this, underneath a bulletin board full of local announcements, opportunities and adverts.  And I am struck by what’s on offer:  there’s a card from the Awakening Resource Center, another from Spirit Joy Coaching, another advertising a Qigong Workshop with Master Li, yet another for ‘Sheng Zhen Gong with Jill!’  One can ‘Explore your Chakras with Kim and Sohan’ or participate in ‘Community Yoga with Holly’.  And that’s just the half of the board that I can see from where I’m sitting.

The symptoms are there for anyone with eyes to see.  We are terribly sick, and looking in all the wrong places for help and meaning and connection.  We are becoming C.S. Lewis’s spectral inhabitants of hell in The Great Divorce, who take bus tours of heaven but cannot stand the presence of the really real and rush back with relief to their empty shadow world.  Of course, those of us who are Christians are just as likely to have bought into the prevailing cultural norms.  It’s shouldn’t surprise that ‘the world’ behaves like the world.  But it should tell us something important that so many Christians feel a need to do the same.  Perhaps we, too, have a desperate need to reexamine our primary, fundamental connections.  There usually is a reason behind the fever.

Look at the birds of the air, says Jesus.  They don’t sow or reap, but the Lord provides what they need.  And the flowers of the field – they don’t spin or weave, but God makes them more beautiful than the most stunning human celebrity.  And who has ever found love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control on a screen?  But seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.

Just saying.

So would I rather see Pope Francis, or look at him on my screen?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Modern Christian Life and the Myth of Moral Progress

I have been following with great interest the discussion initiated by Fr. Stephen Freeman on his blog ‘Glory to God’ on the topic of moral progress (http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/12/05/youre-not-better/, and others). Taken at face value, I have found his engagement on this issue to be profoundly helpful, until I realize that his perspective, if true, overturns the entire way I have understood my Christian life – at least my pre-Orthodox Christian life.  Like any revolution, this is both exhilarating and deeply unsettling.

Fr. Stephen’s contention is that Christianity in general, and the Christian life in particular is not a moral project.  The gospel is not about taking bad people and making them good, or at least better.  Now, maybe I misunderstood things when I was growing up, and then when I was a Christian leader at university, and then a seminary student, and then a pastor and a missionary and seminary teacher, but along with the emphasis on God’s grace (if mercy is God not giving to me what I deserve, grace is God giving to me what I don’t deserve), came the assumption that the Christian life (the life of discipleship, the Spirit-filled life, however it is described) was a matter of progressively laying aside sin and becoming more and more like Christ.  This, of course, was done, not as a quid pro quo, but out of ‘gratitude,’ so we were taught.  So while there was the constant note of ‘grace’ being sounded from the pulpits and Bible studies and in our pious books, there was the equally strong insistence that our ‘salvation’ be matched by lives that looked saved.  But because of our inherited allergic reaction to all things Roman Catholic, this could never be understood as ‘salvation by works’; we were, after all, ‘saved by grace through faith’, regardless of what James had to say in the second chapter of his letter. 

Amongst many Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, this insistence on a requisite and subsequent holiness was overt, in that there were certain behaviors that the ‘saved’ simply did not do, like drink or dance or play cards or be caught unchaperoned with a person of the opposite sex, among other things.  We Evangelicals thought we did better by getting rid of the overt ‘legalism’ of our Fundamentalist cousins, but the insistence that we progress in Christ (I think ‘grow’ was the operative term) was just as strong.  This might be seen in our insistence on a morning quiet time, or on Scripture memory, or on ‘doing’ evangelism or helping at the soup kitchen.  We were told that we must be ‘pure’ and chaste when it came to our sexual lives.  Our marriages were supposed to be strong and getting better.  Our children were to be disciplined ‘in the Lord’ and be Eagle Scout material, or at least, like Lake Woebegone’s young people, all above average.

I can only speak for myself.  The great dissonance of my Christian life is that I have not experienced any of the moral progress that I was told Christianity was meant to facilitate.  I am not a better person than I was when I ‘accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord’ as a fourteen-year-old.  And in most aspects, I am worse.  All of the sins that I struggled with as a teenager are still besetting sins.  Not only that, I’ve discovered a whole raft of new sins that weren’t a part of my portfolio when I started out on this pilgrimage.  What the hell is going on!?  I have no excuses.  I can’t claim ignorance.  I was Evangelicalism’s poster child in terms of opportunity. I had access to the best Evangelical training, the best teaching, the most awesome associations.  But day after day after day, when the sun went down, I was still very much the same person that watched the sun come up that morning.

I was in denial about this discrepancy for decades.  I bought into what turned out to be a spiritual Ponzi scheme: keep bringing more and more people into the church through our ‘evangelism’ and we will appear to be ‘growing’, while pretty much everyone else who has been around for a while is still working on the same old issues.  I myself really believed I was a blessed somebody.  But with increasing clarity, I have noted with dismay just how far short I have fallen.  With pain I recount how I have walked through a series of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances, none of which have brought out me at my best but rather displayed me at my worst.  As a Protestant, I was supposed to celebrate the light of salvation, preach and teach the light of salvation, live the light of salvation.  But in my own life the long dark night never gave way to a dawn; just to more of the same.  The closest I ever came to finding relief was from the old DC Talk chorus from their song ‘In the Light’:

‘What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior.
This only serves to confirm my suspicions,
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior’

But I thought I was ‘saved’!  It was one thing to struggle with this sin and that sin as a teenager.  But to still be struggling in my twenties just did not seem right.  And when my thirties and my forties found me in the pulpit passing on to congregations everything I had been taught about grace and sanctification but finding myself unable to live it, this I found not just embarrassing, but deeply disorienting as well.  And it wasn’t like I was leading a double life – I was constantly reaching out to friends and colleagues around me, constantly trying to be vulnerable about what I was experiencing, constantly sharing with my spouse and friends what was going on.  But nobody had any answer, other than to leave me with the vague sense that the problem was with me, that if I was just this or that, or if I just got my act together, I could get back on the escalator of sanctification.  I understand their frustration with me.  They were all playing with the same hand I was dealt.  It’s one thing to listen to someone, to share your own helpful perspective, and then see that person go on to experience ‘victory in Christ’.  But when that person just keeps dealing with variations of the same thing for years, even decades, well, what can you do?  Maybe, surely, it’s their fault?  Or maybe your answers don’t actually work.

I had come to the conclusion in 2008 that my long-held, long-believed, long-preached and taught Protestant theology of salvation simply was not working.  It no longer made sense.  It seemed wholly different in emphasis from what I was reading in the New Testament.  According to my own received theology, I was a serial backslider.  It was a cycle that simply went round and round.  And I was a part of that section of Christianity that worked very hard to determine what bad sins excluded one from the party and what other ones could be ignored or redefined as being not sinful after all.  The focus was on what pleased God (i.e. keeping God’s law), and thus whether or not one was in the right or in the wrong.  And I kept finding myself in the wrong – in my thought life, in my war with lust, in my marriage.  And after having tried every variation I could think of, and every suggestion from all the Evangelical Christian life books that I had devoured, prayed every prayer, started multiple accountability groups, I determined that I must be self-deluded, and that a wrathful God was about to call in the chips, that I was about to find myself attempting entry to the wedding feast in the wrong clothes.  And we know how that story ended.

from Martin's Doodles

It was the constant zig zag in and out of condemnation, in and out of forgiveness, that I found untenable.  With the Western churches’ emphasis on a just God and our need for salvation explained and resolved forensically, the ‘Gospel’ made sense for someone who was initially ‘coming to Christ’ and ‘repenting’ and asking God for forgiveness.  Such a person is received by God just as he or she is.  Sins are forgiven, Christ’s righteousness replaces every deficit, heaven replaces hell as the final destination.  But what if the said ‘saved’ person continues to struggle with sin, continues to ‘backslide’ (a term usually applied to ‘major’ sins, usually of the flesh), continues repent and ask forgiveness?  What if this just keeps going on year after year?  Is this person saved?  What sort of ‘salvation’ can this possibly be?

When I discovered Orthodoxy, I didn’t just discover a variation on this way of doing salvation and the Christian life and Christian theology; I found a different way of understanding the Gospel and our response entirely.  Salvation is not about having my sins forgiven, being on God’s right side, about having my legal issues before a holy God happily resolved and thus getting into heaven.  Salvation is not about me becoming a better person, a holy person, a person who can finally keep God’s law.  Instead, salvation comes to all who know they fall short, who know their choices have alienated them from God and from the people around them, who call out for mercy, who are met as the returning prodigal is met by the running Father. 

Salvation, in the Eastern Churches, is repentance, that posture and action prompted by seeing ourselves as we really are, crying out for the mercy from God without which we will surely perish, turning from those ways and thoughts that have so mangled us and pleading with God for healing.  And God surely receives and forgives and heals.  Salvation is also the reconciliation and restoration that occurs in our relationships, with God and with all those around us, especially those we have hurt.  God invites us to participate in the love of the Holy Trinity itself, to receive love and to give love.  It is a different way of seeing, of living, of being that we are invited into, and we find ourselves part of the transformation that God is recreating all around us.  God the Holy Trinity loves us profoundly.  And our response is not intended to be, ‘Ok, now keep God’s law!  Become a better person!  Become a holy person!’  Instead, the response that God’s love invites is love itself.  God saves us in love, by love so that we might share this love and love Him and those around us.  Jesus himself, when asked what the most important law was, said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and all your soul.  And love your neighbor as yourself.’  And now we know how – just as Jesus as loved us.  But salvation will also be our deliverance from death and everything that means in our own lives and in this sin-blighted world of ours.  We were created for paradise, with spirits like the angels and bodies for living in this material world.  But instead we have inherited brokenness, catastrophe, sickness, death and decay – all consequences of our choice not to love.  After His crucifixion and death, Jesus broke its power by His divinity, and raised His humanity to transfigured new life, the first fruits of what God intends for all humanity.  We, too, will be set free from death’s power, from decay’s stench, from the moldering dust of lives long forgotten.  All of us will experience the power of God, this miracle of God, which will touch each of us in the most personal, intimate way – you and I will be saved from death and all that it has ever done to us.  And every tear will be dried.

Thus my invitation into Orthodoxy was an invitation into love, to receive love from a God who doesn’t stand in threatening judgment over me, to receive a love that unworks the damage I’ve done to myself through my disordered thinking and living and that others have done to me, a love that brings healing, and a love that then calls from me a love in return – loving God who so loves me, loving my neighbor who I see every day, and even loving my enemy who may not deserve it, but who will be loved anyway because I recall that I could not earn such love as this either.

After all the fear, all the guilt, all the condemnation, all the rejection I received and felt, especially in these later years when I began to grapple in earnest with my own brokenness, the Gospel I heard from the Orthodox people I began to know was something different from what I had experienced previously.  It got my attention.  It startled me.  It made me wonder why I hadn’t been told this before.

I certainly blame no one but myself for what I experienced in my 50 years in Protestant churches.  All of the people I interacted with and worked with for all of those years were just like me, doing the best we could with what we knew.  If anyone else was struggling with being a sinner, I was all the more, and so I am in no position to condemn anyone.  I can only hope that they too can enter more fully into what I have begun to taste and see, namely that the Lord is good, and that His mercy endures forever.

A couple of years ago, I had been kicked out of my house by my wife.  Obviously things between us were not good.  We were missionaries at the time, teachers at different theological colleges.  I hardly knew what to do or where to go.  I was too ashamed to ask friends to take me in.  I was also afraid that if word got out that my wife was now separated, her mission (the one that had already dismissed me for becoming Orthodox) might do the same to her.  In desperation I went to the Roman Catholics and was told there was a monastery about 5 miles from the university where I taught.  And when I went there and explained what my situation was to the brother in charge, he took me in.  I lived at that monastery for nearly 4 months.  I didn’t tell anyone that I was separated, out of fear, out of shame.  Finally, I had arranged to invite my priest who was also my spiritual father to visit the several Orthodox priests who were students where I taught.  We both had been very busy, and I had not been able to tell him what was going on in my life.  After he finished having tea with the students, I showed him around and then, as we were walking to the car, I told him about my separation.  I told him that I didn’t think I should be singing in the choir, or serving as a Reader in the Church.  I would instead just stand in the back, if he felt that was the best thing.  At this, the Father stopped me and looked at me and simply said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’  I believe this is the most healing thing anybody has said to me ever. 

Before I felt trapped in a ministry of condemnation.  Today I have hope.  Before, my closest relationships and associations judged me on the basis of what I did or didn’t do.  Today I am learning what love really is.  Before, I spiraled repeatedly into depression and could not understand what was going on inside of me.  Today, God is working his healing, bringing His perspective to bear on my life and my heart.  Before I was riding on a never-ending escalator, ever upwards in an attempt to grow in holiness, get better, live the ‘Christian life’.  Now I understand that what God wants from me is not my perfection but my repentance. 

As Christos Yannaras writes,

Those who have trusted in ‘themselves that they were righteous’ (Luke 18:9) exclude themselves from the Kingdom.  They themselves have shut themselves out of the wedding-feast and remained content with their virtues, with the self-satisfaction afforded by their moral attainments.  They have no need for God except to reward their individual performance.  This is why the Pharisee who keeps the Law faithfully, is not justified before God, even though he is ‘not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,’ but indeed ‘fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses’; for he does not justify his existence as a personal fact of communion and relationship with God, beyond corruption and death.  The Publican weighed down as he is by a multitude of sins, is justified because he feels his own inadequacy as an individual and seeks God’s mercy, that is to say participation in the life that is grace, a gift of love (Luke 18:10-14).  (ChristosYannaras, The Freedom of Morality, 59)

I struggled for decades as a Christian because I was given the very strong impression by friends, colleagues and leaders that my salvation would be matched (verified) by my progressive sanctification.  But nobody could say how sanctified I needed to be in order to be sanctified enough.  And nobody was willing to make the connection between this and being saved by works, because we all knew that we couldn’t be saved by works – that was a Catholic error.  So we all found ourselves on the ramp of moral progress, or ‘spiritual growth’, where we were to become more like Jesus.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but I was never in danger of becoming like Jesus, and I suspect that the same is true for just about everybody else I know.  We all get by because we either lower the standards, or ignore them – but who gives us the authority to do either?  Or we're simply deluded.  So a Christianity, a salvation that leads to the necessity  of moral progress is a perversion of the gospel. Jesus did not come to make us better.  And if He did, then, um, it didn’t work.

Instead, the mountains and hills are made low.  The first made last, and the last first.  Undone publicans find God’s mercy and the religious professional leaves with only her/his self-righteousness.  It’s the sick who need a physician, not the ‘healthy.’ 

I, for one, am grateful.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This, Too, Is Islam

I acknowledge and respect the many Muslims who feel that their religion is being hijacked (I chose the word carefully) by a bunch of extremists that do not represent ‘their’ religion.   I acknowledge and respect the many Muslims who abhor violence and would rather themselves die than be responsible for the death of another.  I acknowledge and respect the many Muslims who are just trying to go on with their lives and who live in fear that there will be a backlash against everything Islamic that would put them in harm’s way, and I pray with them that that sort of retributional violence may be avoided.

The Kabah in Mecca

However, in the wake of the horrible Paris massacre, carried out by Islamists with ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS, I have heard one time too many a reporter, a columnist, a pundit, a government spokesperson say that these people are not Muslims (one prominent reporter referred to them as 'Activists') and that this sort of behavior in no way reflects the religion of Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace, etc, etc.  Speaking as an historian, this is bullshit. 

Even the briefest acquaintance with Islamic history will affirm that Islam as an historical movement is a spectrum.  Describing one aspect of Islam does not mean you have therefore described it all.  Think ‘Christianity’ in terms of complexity.  Mohammed himself was first a military leader; in today’s words he might even be described as a warlord.  And 7th century warfare was not pretty (if it ever was).  Islam spread almost exclusively because of its military success, which was stunning.  Islam went from just another tribal religion to exercising control first over the Arabian peninsula, and then over much of the former Roman empire, as well as expanding east and north to Persia and the Indian subcontinent.  Jihad is taught in the Koran as an obligation for every Muslim.  The fact that there are some Muslims today who wish to interpret Jihad as an interior 'struggle' does not negate the fact that almost all Muslims everywhere from the beginning of Islam until now understand Jihad to be struggle for Islam against the non-Muslims.  Indeed, there has always been within Islam an aggressive jihadist element, just as there has always been an impetus to impose Sharia law.  The history of the past 1300 years is full of accounts of conversion being forced upon conquered peoples at the point of the sword on pain of death, of Sharia law being rigorously imposed, of Muslims who dare to convert to Christianity being hunted down and killed, and of Christians suspected of evangelistic activity meeting a similar fate. That there are Muslims today who are insisting that all of these things be done should surprise no one.  This is not aberrant extremist behavior, historically speaking.

The rout of the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattim by Saladin

Muslim Caliphs, Sultans, generals and other political leaders could be magnanimous, allowing Christian and Jewish communities to exist in relative peace, though as second-class citizens and with a heavy tax burden as a means to encourage conversion.  There is Koranic sanction for this, in that both Christians and Jews are declared to be People of the Book, and thus not to be treated as common pagans/idolaters (who were not to be tolerated). But it never took much provocation for the authorities to resort to outright persecution, or at least to turn a blind eye when Muslim zealots rampaged against these communities, in much the same way as has happened to the Coptic Christians in Egypt during the past several years.  Much of the persecution takes place at the local, neighborhood level, out of sight of the world media.  It only takes one note pushed under the door threatening to slaughter your entire Christian family unless you leave within 2 days.  This has happened again and again to Christian families in Iraq, for example.  And this goes a long way towards explaining why the population of Christians in a number of Middle East countries has plummeted recently (Iraq, Syria and Palestine come to mind).

Mamluks (military class who ruled Egypt 1250-1517) in battle 

In fact, the most egregious atrocities committed by Muslims in the name of their religion this year all have antecedents in Islamic history, even in the past century.  During and after WWI, whether one wants to describe it as a genocide or not, Armenians who happened to be Christians were slaughtered in their tens and hundreds of thousands by Turks who happened to be Muslims.  In the same way not long afterwards, Greeks who happened to be Christians were slaughtered and driven out of Turkey by Turks who happened to be Muslims.  In both cases there were many factors at work motivating the actions of the persecutors. But to deny that religion is one of them is to be willfully blind to the actual history.
Armenian Church of St. Gregory, dating from 1215 in NE Anatolia, Turkey
A monument to something bad that happened to Christians at the hands of some other people.

It seems such a shock to Westerners that people could be doing these sorts of things in the name of their religion. We work so hard at being nice - at least, officially.  We want desperately to assume that these people are starting from the same place that we are, in terms of valuing human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.  But Islam is not about rights, or being nice; it’s about bringing the entire world under the dominion of Allah.  Only then will the world experience peace.  But it will be a peace that reflects Islamic values and exists under Islamic laws.  'Islam' itself means 'submission', which should give observers a clue as to which direction this train is headed.  Moreover, there is a longstanding stream within Islam that is willing to undertake whatever means are necessary to accomplish this goal.  And if one looks at the history of the expansion of Islam, they (the Jihadis) have been very effective.

My purpose here is simply to call out the Western media myth that Islam is a peaceful religion.  Radical jihadism is described by many of these media people as the exception that proves the rule.  But when we see this sort of behavior happening in the US, in France, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Spain, in Italy, in Canada, in Norway, in Germany, in China, in Russia, in Algeria, in Egypt, in Libya, in Ethiopia, in Somalia, in Kenya, in Tanzania, in Uganda, in Nigeria, in Niger, in Cameroon, in Chad, in Sudan, in India, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Gaza and the West Bank (Palestine), in Israel, in Turkey, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, in Dubai – at what point will the media and Western political leaders begin to accept that this may not be just an exception?

Persians in conquest mode

And for my Muslim friends – help me understand how you navigate the spectrum of your own religion?  If you are on the ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ side, what are you going to do about the many people who also claim to be Muslims and who find justification for their violent activities in the same Koran you recite?  I have heard too little Muslim discussion about this, which makes me wonder if either a) Moderate Muslims are afraid of the Jihadi Muslims; or b) Moderate Muslims actually agree with the aims, if not the means, of the Jihadi Muslims.  Maybe there are more options that I am not aware of.

And not so long ago in the Netherlands.  Just saying.

The Western world needs to wake up to the fact that today’s Muslims are not behaving in ways that different from their historical norm.  Islam has never been a religion of peace, and it certainly is not attempting to be so today.  The Western world also needs to wake up to the reality that Islam does not play by Western rules, is not interested in Western values, and has a different goal in mind when it comes the purpose of human history.  Only when the Western world begins to understand Islam on Islam’s terms will the nations and peoples of the West be in a position to respond effectively to what appears to be yet another building wave of Jihadi Islam.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Here’s to a Happier New Year!

Pain.  Confusion.  Grief.  Loneliness.  Disorientation.  Disconnection.  Discouragement.  Disconsolation.  My 2014 ran through all of these places and more. 

But towards the end of this past year and into the new, a glimmer on the horizon.  A long dark night seems to be ending.   And as I move into 2015, the vocabulary seems to be changing.  Hope.  Help.   Healing.  A process that feels more like reconstruction than deconstruction.

I’ve given up pining for answers to all the Whys I’ve asked these past hard years.  Acceptance of my new reality, my new identity is slow to take root.  I still catch myself falling into unhelpful ways of coping.  I still feel pangs from the loss of home, of family, of best friend, of friends.  Knowing about the stages of grief is one thing.  Grieving is another.  It didn’t have to be this way.  But now that it is, I choose to move on.

It’s no longer dark.  Color begins to flare the dawning clouds.  It’s a new day.  It’s a new year.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Racism Is Me

I was a South Carolina boy sitting up on the front row of the balcony in our tall-steeple church, contemplating the pros and cons of dropping something on the heads of the unsuspecting pious below, when I witnessed something that I had never in my life seen before.  A negro family (that is how people in my town at the time referred to what we call African Americans) walked up the center aisle of our church as the prelude was playing, found an empty pew, and sat down.  Everyone froze.  Time slowed down.  A very uncomfortable moment passed.  Then I saw three or four of the ushers and elders walk up the aisle to where the family sat.  Some words were exchanged.  The family got up, and was escorted back out of the church.  We good Christians then went on with our worship service as if nothing had happened.

It was about that time that public schools in South Carolina were desegregated.  Up until then, all the colored children went to their own schools and all us white children went to ours.  There was a great hue and cry about what a terrible effect this was going to have on education.  Several private academies were established and significant numbers of white parents pulled their children out of the resulting inevitable collapse of education as we knew it and sent them off to private school.  Of course I never heard that desegregation’s mixing of the races was the reason for these parents’ precipitous action.  I just noticed that colored children and teachers were not invited to the party.

Negro high school in a different part of South Carolina.  'Separate but equal' I'm sure.

Desegregation occurred between my fourth and fifth grade year.  Despite loud protests from members of the majority that Negro education had been separate but equal, it was telling that none of the colored schools in our county were deemed worthy to house white students.  At least one, the colored high school, was rebuilt so as to accommodate both black and white students from that side of town, in the process becoming the nicest school in the county.  And when school started up after a long hot summer, I went to my classroom and discovered that my teacher Mrs. Baker was a negro.  I am pretty sure that Mrs. Baker deserves a Presidential Medal of Honor.  My class was cruel to her.  She had to work hard to keep us under control, but also to navigate the unwritten rules on how a negro teacher could relate to white children.  Eventually she earned the respect of most of my classmates.  But I do not know how she managed. 

Another example of 'Separate but equal'.

And now that I have some years and perspective, I do not know how any of the Negro men and women that I knew managed living in that world.  We had a succession of maids and an old man who cut our grass (until I got old enough to relieve him of his job).  They had to ride the bus from, literally, the other side of the tracks to get to our well-to-do house in our well-to-do part of town.  They lived on the wages they earned making our beds, washing our clothes, cleaning our bathrooms, sweeping our floors, washing our dishes. I don’t know how they managed.

I received mixed messages from church during these years.  On the one hand, there was the perennial emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  We were taught in Sunday School, in church and at home to be nice and kind and good to each other.  And yet, so far as I could observe, the concept of ‘neighbor’ went only so far.  Evidently, for many of us, Negroes were not part of our ‘Love’ Venn Diagram.   Unguarded words are a much better indicator of one’s heart than pious posture, and there were a lot of unguarded words flying around, at least within earshot of this well-to-do white boy.

From the Wrong Side of the Tracks

In the hot, tragic summer of 1968, there was an eerie mixture of business as usual in our wealthy and white part of town, as well as an inchoate fear that things might get ugly between the races.  We watched on TV the spectre of big-city riots.  There was bullish talk about keeping those n-----s in their place.  I actually heard people rejoicing when MLK was shot dead in Memphis.  And this was from the educated, church-going sort.  It was these people who helped Richard Nixon get elected president in the November election.  The so-called ‘Silent Majority’ contained a lot of disaffected Southerners who were afraid that JFK and LBJ had given away far too much.  And the oft-repeated emphasis on ‘law and order’ was understood as code in many places, an assurance that law enforcement would use the law to keep us safe from them.

Ok if you were in the majority?  Ok if this is what it takes to keep those people in their place?

All of this had the unsurprising effect of radicalizing the protests.  Demonstrations spread and were accompanied in many places by violence.  More locally, tensions were felt in the one place where the races mixed – our schools.  We were told, by whom I can no longer remember, that ‘Negro’ was a disparaging term and that the appropriate word to use was now ‘Black’.  ‘Black Power’ became a potent symbol of a new self-awareness that would no longer stand to be marginalized by the majority.  Cat-calls of ‘N-----r!’ and worse led to fights, led to ‘race riots’ at school, led to school shutting down on several occasions.  Of course we teenagers were only aware of ourselves and our small worlds.  I can’t imagine what it was like for our teachers, both white and black, to be navigating the local shoals of this massive social upheaval in which we found ourselves.

American children. 

I remember priding myself as a high school student that I wasn’t an abettor in maintaining the deep-seated racism that characterized our local culture.  I had some black friends, was an admirer of MLK, thought that the goals of the Civil Rights movement were necessary if we as a nation were to escape the damning hypocrisy of institutionalized racism in a country that supposedly stood for democracy and equality.

At university, I was confronted by the reality of black men and women who were smarter and more capable than me, and yet who, by dint of their birth as a black baby, had to work much harder than I ever did to get where we were now, taking the same classes and getting the same degrees from the same institution.  Again, I had good black friends, and I had even taken an academic interest in race relations.  It was amusing to discover that I had a black classmate in my seminar on ‘Race Relations in Southern Africa’ named Bill White.  A friend of mine took her sophomore summer to go on a short-term mission trip to South Africa.  She had been moved by the soul-crushing oppression faced by South Africa’s Black, Coloured and Asian populations under the State-sanctioned racism of Apartheid.  Corresponding with her convinced me to seek out a similar experience the following year.

I applied to the same program the following year, was accepted, and made preparations to travel to South Africa that summer.  A month before I was to depart, we were informed that the position I was to take had evaporated, and that I would need to find something else to do.  After looking around, the directors of my project found another program, this one in Kenya, one that involved living with a Kenyan pastor for the summer.  I agreed and made my internal adjustments and then traveled to Kenya.

To prepare for our summer, we were trained in developing relationships, coping with cultural differences, developing a ‘servant’s heart’, etc.  I, however, was not prepared for my face-to-face confrontation with my own racism.  I genuinely thought that ‘racism’ was not my issue.  Within five minutes of landing in Kenya, I realized how wrong I was.

In Kenya, there are lots of Kenyans.  Everywhere.

Everybody around me was black.  Everybody.  I had never before been a minority.  Combined with the different culture and the different language, and I suddenly felt very insecure.  And dare I say, afraid.  When I arrived at the Mission Guest House where I was staying until my host could collect me, I was once again surrounded by familiar sights and sounds and people.  But I had to take stock of what I had just experienced.  I realized that what was going on in my heart was that I had grown up in a culture that was fundamentally racist, and that I had lived in that context, and despite what I had told myself, I too was, at my core, racist.  This was hard to take.  I had persuaded myself that since I was not the KKK sort, I wasn’t racist.  But as I sat in my room at the Guest House in Nairobi, and as I contemplated being taken to a Kenyan – an African – a black home for the summer, it dawned on me that, for all my brave words and noble posturing, I had never spent the night in a black person’s home.  I had never had a meal in a black person’s home.  I had never allowed myself to depend on a black person, for anything.  And now I was about to disappear into the wild interior of Kenya, at the total mercy of an African man I had never met.  I found myself questioning my sanity.

The Great Rift Valley

A missionary brought my pastor-host from his home in the Great Rift Valley near Nakuru.  We packed my suitcase in the back of his truck and made the three-hour trip back, down the astonishing escarpment, past zebra and giraffe, driving by a succession of lakes in the valley floor, pink-rimmed from millions of flamingos.  Past jagged volcanic peaks.  Past tin-roofed shacks and mud huts with grass roofs.  Past herds of cattle with their Maasai watchers.

We turned off the main road (such as it was), onto a smaller road, and then off onto a dusty dirt road, and followed it another couple of miles back towards the eastern escarpment.  And then we were there.  There was a small concrete block church building, and behind it was a house made from the rejected ends of logs from the local saw mill with a shiny tin roof.  And an outhouse.  Surrounded by fields of maize on either side and a cow pasture in the back.  This was to be my home for the next two months.  I watched as my missionary friend drove away, leaving billowing dust behind him, and I thought, ‘What have I done to myself?’

What I didn’t know is that the same discussion had been held in the little house between the father, the mother and the three children (aged 12, 8 and 3).  ‘You did what?’ the mom said to her husband when he informed them that they were to have a white guest for the summer!  ‘Where will he stay?  What will we feed him?  What if he gets sick?  We’ve never had a white person stay in our house!’  Unspoken but understood:  Are you crazy?

I slept on a cot in the front room.  I later learned that the children had slept in that room, but their parents moved them to the storage room while I was there.  There was no running water.  Water came from a well.  For a bath, it had to be heated over an open fire.  Then I took a bucket bath in a small lean-to next to the chicken coop.  Cooking was done over the same open fire, seeing as there was no oven, stove or microwave.  The outhouse was a hole in the floor above a deep pit.  But it was cleaner than many bathrooms I had been in back at school.  I adjusted.  And they did, too.  But most importantly, we talked.  We got to know each other.  I played with the children.  I asked questions and got the dad and the mom to talk about their life.  I tried to learn bits of their Kikuyu language.  I tried to eat their food.  And through it all, my fears were utterly transcended.  My racism was utterly transcended.  I began seeing my hosts as people like me, who had loves and likes, who laughed and cried over the same things that I did, who deeply cared for their children.  They had none of the distractions that I was so used to: no electricity, so no TV, no games, no toys.  We played draughts on a piece of cardboard with a drawn checkerboard using bottle caps.  We played football (soccer) with a ball made of plastic and leaves tied tightly with twine.  I had brought a Frisbee, which was the wonder of the neighborhood.  It was little Wambui, the 3 year old, who quickly decided that I was safe and then proceeded to climb all over me every chance she got.  Every day, the kids would go off to school.  Mama would work in the field hoeing maize and beans.  And pastor and I would head off on foot to visit people from one of the five churches he was responsible for pastoring.

There is much much more I could tell about that summer.  But most significantly, it laid bare the reality of my racism, and then gave me a way to work through it.  And what I learned is that these things are not undone by protests or demands, they are not undone by platitudes and pious posturing, they are not helped by denying the problem exists or by blaming it on them.  The way through racism is through the hard, necessary, risky work of relationships.  In that context I discovered that black people, African people were people, just like me.  I discovered that all my fears and stereotypes were coping strategies bent on keeping me separated from those people, and therefore separated from any chance of engaging them as people, any chance of showing and receiving love.

American Southern boys are not the only people with a racism problem.  It exists in the northeast United States, near Boston, where I lived for four years and was shocked to find overt racism everywhere I turned.  At least in the South we were polite about it.  It exists in the UK, where I lived for some years, between the English and the Irish, for example; not to mention the English and the Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants who have flooded into the urban areas during the past thirty years.  Racism exists in Kenya, too, between Kikuyu and Luo, for example.  In Southern Sudan, between the Dinka and the Nuer.  In Ethiopia between the Amhara and the Oromo.  It exists between Serbs and Kosovars or Bosnians.  In fact, just about everywhere one goes, one finds prejudice ruling the interaction between peoples who are different.  Some of these differences are racial, some are religious, some are political, some are economic.  The effect is the same.  The group looked down upon experiences a kind of dehumanization from the group in power.  And when a person or a group is no longer considered to be like us, to be human, then the door is opened for treating them in ways we would never ourselves want to be treated.

The Pastor, his wife, their oldest daughter and a grandchild.  Dear friends 34 years later.

The only way out of the mess is for each person to view the other as a person, someone just like me.  This is what began to happen to me when I lived in Kenya.  Taking the initiative to establish relationships with real people, those other people,  is the only way out, whether you are in Ferguson, MO,  or small-town South Carolina, or East London, or Cyprus, or Israel, or Iraq, or India, or China, or Japan, or Honduras, or Peru,  or South Africa, or Kenya.

And maybe if we who call ourselves Christians could get this one right, then maybe our attempts to share our faith would meet with more respect.  In the meantime, it’s awkward to proclaim that we Christians have the answer when we too often insist on being part of the problem, at least when it comes to the vexing issue of racism.  When we insist on simply reflecting the worst of our cultures, we expose ourselves as the ones needing to be saved.  History proves it’s all too easy to say that the problem is them, and we all know what happens when the status quo is simply ratified and justified by people who should know better.  Things only begin to change when I make the discovery that the problem lies closer to home; that actually, racism is me.