The Cooperative Alternative

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There is an intermediate step between our own lonely individualism and some sort of wonky religious or hippie flower child 1960s-style communalism.  There is plenty of room in between the extremes.

My thoughts about this ideal were sparked again by my interactions with a young woman, on the anxious left-wing activist side of things, thinking to declare as a philosophy major, who wanted me to check out some websites about cooperatives.

While I do not embrace the full package of left-wing ideology, I do see the huge deficit of viable communities and the economic forces that are behind this erosion.  We have traded the mom-and-pop stores downtown for the corporately owned big box.

This is as unhealthy an arrangement as the mass-produced junk food many Americans choose.  And yet, if you question this regime of suburban sprawl and consumerism, you’ll get a response similar to the dialogue, in the movie Idiocracy, when Joe suggests using water rather than Brawndo, an energy drink, for irrigating the crops:

“Community, like a cult or Jonestown?”

If you bring up the word commune there will probably be a strong visceral reaction on the part of conservatives.  There is this delusion of independence, a crucial component of the American cultural mythos, which is what drives many to trade community (and potential for their greater success) for a payment plan.

Whereas a generation or two ago, there was the church and social clubs to provide some level of mutual support, now we have a class of some who make it and others who are an unforeseen circumstance and paycheck away from dependence on welfare programs.  We have traded flesh and blood relationship for faceless state or corporate bureaucracy and a truckload of paperwork.

The current system is so woefully inefficient that we’re probably working twice as hard for half the rewards.  Governments, banks, and big corporations are profiting massively by keeping us divided up and dependent on their systems.  Many believe that they are free because they can watch smut or own a deadly weapon, but they’re really slaves to debt and tossed about by entities that have no actual concern for their well-being or wellness.

But, despite their slavery to this system, the moment you suggest that they consider an alternative, working together with those of like-mind towards a common goal, there is strong resistance.  I mean, how dare you suggest that they give up their own property (that the bank owns anyway) or learn how to share anything?

Reducing the friction of commerce…

The reality is, unless you live alone on your Alaskan homestead, you are dependent on other people.  And my thought here is that we should be more intentional about this and choose what makes the most sense.  

The idea of a cooperative is basically to remove the dead weight of a business and distribute profits more evenly amongst the employed.  It means that all involved in the enterprise share in both the risks and the rewards.  Instead of paying interest to banks or making dozens of taxed transactions, all of this cost can be eliminated.  What it all means, in the end, is working less for more in return.

For example, instead of everyone buying their own lawn mower or hiring someone, why not have one person do this for the community and earn credits?  

My own vision is a mix of both cooperation and autonomy, which is negotiated between the members and the group.  There would not be everyone living in some kind of compound or anything like that, everyone could have their own residence.  There would simply be more shared space for all, fewer redundancies, and potentially more access to costly tools or equipment.

The economics of this kind of cooperative arrangement is so superior that once it was started it would vastly outpace those trying to do it on their own through the currently conventional means.  Ever wonder why so many motels and gas stations are owned by immigrants?  It is because they are financed through their ethnic communities and have eliminated the friction of interest.

Americans, by contrast, always seem to see everything as a competition.  They’ll buy the biggest most ridiculous SUV, they truly can’t afford, to keep up with the Joneses and the only real winner is the financer of this silly display of excess.  We would rather sacrifice our time so that the boss can get his hunting land or an executive makes their bonus than give up this faux image of self-reliance and work together.

Finding our commonality…

A successful cooperative arrangement does require some sort of connection or common purpose to unite the individuals.  In the early Church, their having “all things in common” was a byproduct of faith and a commitment to Christ.  The ideological left, on the other hand, begins with a different moral premise and that is the abolition of private property or Capital.  In both cases, there is a shared identity that is the glue.

That is the biggest roadblock in the rapidly atomizing West, where Protestantism has led to a proliferation of denominations with competing claims and now the dissolution of a shared or universal purpose.  Everything is about us now, about our own opinions and wants, to the point that many marriages end in a protest called divorce.  We can’t sacrifice anything in the present, even if our greater integration as a whole would be better for us in the end.

But there is a huge potential upside.  If we could find a way to look past ourselves for a moment and understand how cooperation is a means to reduce friction or cost.  However, the real need is for more people to let go of this delusion that they are better off on their own and that security comes only through money in their bank account.  The absurd part is that we already do lend our time to many people, for a wage,  their services, or whatever, and would do better to choose better partners.

If there was a way to make cooperative arrangements more palatable I would.  The real problem is that anytime we gain the slightest advantage over our neighbors we would rather keep it all for ourselves.  Many cannot see past this pointless competition and appreciate the great gain of voluntarily distributing costs or sharing responsibilities. Perhaps this is why we can’t have nice things?  I know it is why so many are lonely and discontent. They are looking in the wrong direction for fulfillment.

There are always tradeoffs for every arrangement. And yet there are also things that we are biologically wired for and denying them is to our detriment. We are social creatures. We have a neurological reward system built around having positive meaningful interactions with other people. The economic benefits of greater cooperation, at a local level, would be enormous and the social benefits even greater.

A Rose By Any Other Name

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It is hard to feel unique in a world of 7.75 billion people.  Due to mass media we are also more aware of this and also now have all of the best in the world there to compare ourselves to.  We see the best athletes, the most beautiful bodies, those with wealth and power day in and day out.

I am insignificant

At the same time, many young people did not have siblings to share the attention of their parents, only were given affirmation in their formative years, a participation trophy for showing up and—special as they are—don’t need to follow rules or ever answer to anyone.  

In other words, we have a generation with deep insecurities, worried about their place in the vast sea of humanity, and then also raised to be self-absorbed narcissists.  

Unlike the past generations, where you could be a big fish in a small pond, yet also needed to learn respect for boundaries and how to share or negotiate with others. 

Unlike the meritocracy of the past, where you needed real accomplishments to earn privileges or praise, we have conditioned young people to believe that their satisfaction should come without sacrifice or effort.

It is very little wonder why so many of them are unfulfilled, dissatisfied with life, and out there seeking cheap distinction.

Distinction—Cheap or Valuable

We all know names like Elon Musk, Serena Williams, or Ron DeSantis.  They are leaders in their realms of popular culture and sport, business or politics.  And we can probably agree that some of their success is an inheritance of genetics, good fortune or the opportunities granted them.

However, what they are doing, like them or not, is producing results and with this are being rewarded for the things they do.  They have outcompeted many, they distinguished themselves by showing up for work and by putting the time in.  It is for that reason their recognition is earned.  They do the things we care about and we make them famous for this unique resume.

Earlier this week I saw a story about Rose Namajunas, a diminutive female UFC fighter with a very big attitude that earned her the nickname “Thug Rose” in school, and how she’s being featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad campaign.  The message “all expressions, no definitions,” with the word “undefinable,” do certainly fit her outsized personality and the mean head kicks she can deliver, all the while being very emotional.

The point a marketing strategy is cynical, it is to tickle ears and encourage more consumption of a particular good or service.  Those who produced this advertising campaign did it trying to target a certain demographic in the hope of profit.  And that target is probably not those who will ever have the same work ethic and skills as Rose, but is those who crave the same notoriety and ‘undefinable’ uniqueness.

We all wish to be significant, to distinguish ourselves from the pack, to be appreciated and loved.  There are many who are looking for a shortcut or feel entitled to these things, they want the same acceptance, recognition and rewards as those at the top.  They buy expensive clothes, the latest smart phones or cars beyond their budget, all trying to gain attention through their appearance rather than actual character.  

There is hard-earned distinction and there is the cheap kind.  There is the content creator who shares of their substance and then the one who destroys things for clicks.  There is the pleasing gift of Abel and that unworthy offering of Cain.  There is that real fulfillment which comes from making contribution and then the imitation that is outwardly prideful, expresses itself loudly, while truly being an envious, bitter and impoverished soul.

Personal Pronouns and No-name Jerseys

Penn State football has a long tradition of not putting the names of players on jerseys and this is to reinforce the notion of selfless team effort over a bunch of individuals only in it for themselves.  

No name, all game

Success on the field and in life depends on our plugging in and sometimes putting aside our own preferences for the good of others.  We can get more done by working together, respecting the established system, rather than demand that everyone makes special accomodations for us.

Yes, there is a time for grievances.  We also should be a reasonable give and take so far as how individuals and the members of the group interact with each other.

And yet this idea that we should rewrite cultural conventions, negotiated over many centuries, simply so some ‘woke’ Karens can have power over others, is not a grievance I can ever honor.  It is not reasonable for a person to decide the pronouns that apply to them or force us to go along with their newly invented categories.  

We don’t need to be Amish, severely limiting individual expression to maintain community cohesion, but we also don’t want to keep on this path of total atomization either.  There’s a reason why the barn raising religion is able to flourish while the rest of us are headed for Babal, confusion and collapse.

Rose By Any Other Name

This morning, pondering how the categories of mental illness are a bit arbitrary and how much I dislike how these labels pigeonhole  people, there was the thought that my given name was the best possible diagnosis of me.  I mean, I’m Joel.  I don’t need a personal pronoun when I already have my own name and identity completely my own.  

Ironically, the same people who want to have new pronouns for themselves also seem to revel in their mental illness as well.  Anything to be different.  It is a sort of humble-brag, a title of distinction of our era, to talk about your PTSD or bi-polar disorder.  If you are the right person, if you can make yourself a part of the right identity group, then your self-declared victimhood will be treated as a virtue.

It goes beyond moral inversion.  People think that you can slap the right label on a person and it will make up for their deficiencies.  If only they were described right, if we would see their pink hair as an accomplishment, then they would love themselves.  Of course, this is a lie, people so into themselves are always a black hole and no amount of love given will fill their deep void.

It is the spirit of those who are content to remain nameless, who get their numbers called for what they do for the whole, that actually matters.  People will know what is great and what is not no matter what label is applied.  I can never forget what W.E.B Du Bois wrote to a student:

Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name.

The Name “Negro”

We can manipulate and massage language all we want, give people all the fancy titles they wish for, but in the end none of this word play can take away or lend to their value. If you want recognition contribute to the whole and your name will be known. Not to the whole world, but to those helped by your deeds. A rose called by any other name is still a rose.

When It Is Better To Do Nothing

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Have I mentioned that I’m tired of religious people and the prescriptions they give?

The real Jesus was defiant.  He upended the systems and standards of his time.  He was intentionally offensive to the self-righteous religious elites and then completely gentle with those who were broken.  There was no one-size-fits-all, no attempt to simplify the process.  Salvation is a walk of faith, not our ability to keep a set of fixed rules or pray a certain way, it is about our heart.

No, I’m not saying this as favoring the more libertine amongst us.  Being “free in Christ” is not a license to do whatever we want.  It is not about being ‘spiritual’ rather the religious either.  Rather it as about love:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. […] You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

(Galatians 5:1‭, ‬13 NIV)

A great deal of my social media connections are unregenerate social conservatives.  They love those fading structures that once kept people bound to their moral standards and yet lack any comprehension of grace or their own need of it.  They may see themselves as being righteous, for their exceptional ability to keep up certain cultural conventions, but they are very much like those rebuked and condemned by Jesus.

But still the alternative is not to go in the complete opposite direction.  It is not better to have no structure, to completely defy all cultural convention or use Christian freedom as an excuse to do whatever we please.  No, rather it is to serve and save others:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:19‭-‬23 NIV)

Which is to reiterate the example of Christ:

…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Mark 10:43‭-‬45 NIV)

Our love for God is always, always, a matter of how we treat each other.  If we can’t love the people we see, specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our claim to love God is a lie. (1 John 4:20)  Therefore, to be free in Christ, is not to shirk responsibility to each other.  It is not worshipful, at least not of God, to go to church (or not go) for own sake:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

(Matthew 5:23‭-‬24 NIV)

This is putting reconciliation with each other, true reconciliation. before or ahead of the ritual worship that religious people do.  No, it is not negotiable.  This is the command of Jesus.  And yet it is so often reversed.  It is acceptable to act or go through the motions of righteousness, but not to ask for the same authenticity that put Jesus at odds with the religious authorities.

Had Jesus just followed the rules and did what was expected he would never have been a threat to anyone.  The reality is that he saw through the empty gestures.  He was not impressed with those pious people who had their performative religion.  His call was for genuine love, to be merciful as our Father is merciful:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

(Matthew 9:12‭-‬13 NIV)

That’s our true worship, to truly forgive and love those undeserving and broken.

Early Christians had a saying “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus,” which is to say that one Christian is no Christian.  This is to say that our Communion together, in Christ, needs to go beyond merely sharing the same physical space for a few hours or it is fake.  True Christianity can’t be reduced to mere individualistic pursuit of the Divine.  It is not an “only God can judge me” freedom from duty to others.

I could quote two dozen other texts and it would not matter.  So many are caught up in their own corrupted ‘traditions’ that they’ll always miss the forest for the trees.  But I’m not interested in dime-store Christianity, the kind that only loves in prescribed ways.  I want the real deal, the kind that frees and truly forgives.  I want what is alive, what has the true Spirit of truth and love in it, not the lifeless self-serving counterfeit form.

It’s not that the wonderful symbolism and designated acts of ‘Christian’ service are unimportant or useless either.  But it’s just that none of it really matters if it is not a part of something genuine.  As Jesus said, in Matthew 23:15, a person can “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” and only be successful in making their new convert “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves.  In that case it would be better to do nothing at all.

Even the mystical “cup of salvation” can be our damnation if we drink unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:29) or in disregard and without care for His body. The body of Christ meaning, at times, our fellow members of the Church or the people we encounter who are in need of love:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

(Matthew 25:35‭-‬36 NIV)

Solving Conflict in the Church

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Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict.  We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage.  The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.

Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 

(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)

If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end.  The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.

But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict.  This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic.  I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person.  My anger has exasperated the issue.  And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.

Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected

If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers. 

(Psalms 55:12‭-‬14 NIV)

I believe we can all identify with the text above.  We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance.  However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain.  It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.

That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity.  Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5)  This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant. 

And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either.  Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses.  This  certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense.  This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation.  First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves.  Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together.  And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.

It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” 

(1 Corinthians 5:9‭-‬13 NIV)

Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin.  The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored.  The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process.  But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”

In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate.  The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin.  The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation.  It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control.  Yes, we should pray about all things.  Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant.  Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.

Not All Separation is Sin

Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 

(Acts 15:36‭-‬40 NIV)

This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas.  Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it.  There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together.  That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things.  It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.

Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose.  At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace.  The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us   Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups.  They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.

Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?

A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians.  Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

(3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble.  I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught.  It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it.  However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.

Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative.  Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?

But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus.  We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction.  That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.

Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, July 7. The pope met leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East for an ecumenical day of prayer for peace in the region. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) See POPE-ECUMENICAL-ENCOUNTER-BARI July 9, 2018.

Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist.  It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice.  It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church. 

How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?

The early church was not conflict-free.  And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed.  But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 

(Acts 15:1‭-‬19 NIV)

This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote.  No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be.   It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture.  It was both hierarchical and required submission.  We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down.  We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.

The Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Cretan school, Angelos Akotantos, 1st half 15th century

This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.

So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?

Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles.  Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure.  We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated.  Such unity!

We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism.  I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West?  Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.

Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started.  The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church.  There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?  And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.

Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place.  The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church.  The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.   For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.

And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest.  This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator.  Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud.  I tried to be her friend.  I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line. 

Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over.  We would part ways over hairstyles.

The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries.  Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest.  I follow him on social media.  He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content.  Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.

In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives.  I can understand the perspectives that both sides have.  I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time.  Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.

I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt.  He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.

Division Makes Us All Weak

There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts.  We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts. 

Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the hard part.  When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.

And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 (Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)

We should not lose our sensitivity:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.  That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.  You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 

(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)

Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time.  It is both prayerful and proactive.  The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach.  Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it?  Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?

Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts.  There is a need for open and direct communication.  We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26‭-‬27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”  The more that I think about something the more upset I can become.  I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.

Oh No, Here We Go Again!

When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt.  The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders. 

In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict.  The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector.  Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest.  I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert.  He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.

It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend.  She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved.  So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed.  I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers.  I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured. 

I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship.  Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn.  I pulled back.  And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me.  It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies.  A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.

It was mutual avoidance at this point.  I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.

However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me.  It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together.  It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian.  So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent. 

Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face.  It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex.  She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.

Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved.  And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies.  I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate.  I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy.  So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them.  I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me.  In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict.  She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on.  I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.

So,  what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?

Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear.  I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone.  It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past.  Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.

This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving.  Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience.  We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.

Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities.  My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response.  The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state.  I am frustrated with my lack of progress.  I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me. 

Now my true character has been revealed.  I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy.  My emotions do get the best of me.  I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle.  Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with mewith getting my own conflicted heart right.

Going Through the Motions

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A person can attend every church service, faithfully tithe, and beneath this righteous public display be concealing an adulterous affair.  One can go through the ritual of Holy Communion without being truly reconciled with their brother or right with God. False religion makes a mockery of the Church and the true faith of the Saints.

It is because of that fake devotion that many do throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all religious practice is useless.  My generation, for better or worse, longs for authenticity and has rejected the motions of religion on that basis.  We all know hypocrites, those who dressed in the correct prescribed manner, who acted right and abused, neglected, or mistreated us.

This is likely one of the reasons why church attendance is dropping.  People had a bad experience (or many) and decided it is better to stay home than to simply show up for sake of appearance.  Why hang out with people who are phony, who do not truly live out what they claim to believe, yet will judge you because you are sincere and don’t follow all of their forms?

This is, after all, what Jesus did during his ministry, he challenged the pretentious, the religious elites, and brought the focus back to being genuine in love for each other.  And yet this is not to say that he was not an observant Jew or irreligious.  We know he was taken to the temple as a child, we know he was active in his own synagogue and kept the feasts.  

Sure, he chased out the corruption.  Sure, he corrected the misuse of the law.  And there was also the condemnation of those who were circumcised and imposed their tradition on new believers.  But that doesn’t mean that Christianity was without ritual or religion, it certainly does not mean we would be better to practice our faith only when we feel like it or completely agree with the application.

Authenticity is a good thing.  However, as an artistic cousin of mine (employed as a writer and musician in Nashville) once told me, you must practice even when you do not feel like it.  That is why I write almost constantly, and whether I feel like it or not, because regular practice is the only way we get better at anything.  If we always waited for the right amount of inspiration before going to work we would severely limit our potential.

Practice makes perfect and going to the gym every day, the repetition of various motions with the right amount of intensity, will allow us to build strength over time.  That is the power of religion.  It is not vain repetition to go through the motions of prayer or treating others with love, that is what builds muscle memory and leads to gain.  Had we just stayed home, to prove our authenticity or whatever, we would miss out on the opportunity for growth.

The danger of taking authenticity too far is that we never show up because we don’t feel like it.  My natural disposition would be to attend St. Mattress on Sunday morning and not have to face some people and their hurtful behavior that is inconsistent with their Christian profession.  It is triggering, it feeds deep-seated doubts and makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I go to work in the morning or the gym despite feeling unmotivated.

That is why we go through the motions of religion.  Faith is what it does.  And, if you want to move mountains or slay giants, then you need to show up for the small tasks as well.  David was a good shepherd who tended and protected sheep before he became king of his people.  Daniel prayed, faithfully, three times a day, before he faced down the lions.  Religion, going through the motions, can strengthen us.

However, at the same time, we can’t expect any gain through the ritual alone, at some point this must translate into tangible acts of love or it is fake. The Pharisees, we are told, were diligent in their religion and yet unloving in their actions. The church should never be a toxic environment where problems are never adequately addressed. St. Paul was brutal in his letters in addressing neglected issues. James too makes it clear that profession without concern for our brothers and sisters is not enough:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NIV)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Religious discipline, without love for each other, is only ever a dead work.  It is false security for those relying upon their own strength.  We’re not saved by the number of prayers we pray nor by our participation in the rituals and tradition of the Church.  All of this, without genuine love, is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” a hollow act, worthless noise, and meaningless.

Maybe do not have any unmet material needs anymore, like those mentioned in the passages above, but we do have emotional needs and a need for real connection. And, let’s not forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can even go through the motions of intimacy and love. The truth of our faith depends on the authenticity of our love one for another; what we withhold from our brothers and sisters we withhold from God.

It is disappointing when the church is like a social club, people go through the motions of relationships, and there is no true depth or commitment to real love. It does seem that many lean towards this idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Jesus” or something between them and God alone, basically impractical religion, but that is not the attitude of those in the true Church. There is no love for God required to sit alone at home.

Color Is Not Culture: The Political Lies That Perpetuate Racism

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All lies have an element of truth. In fact, a misleading narrative, in order to have any convincing power, must contain many true statements.

It is not the off-the-wall and totally unsubstantiated claim that is the most dangerous. No, it is the half-truths, the facts out of context, the misunderstood statistics, that are most deceptive. Effective lies employ facts, they work our emotions and attempt to frame even our own experiences into a deceptive narrative.

The biggest lie of our time is the so-called “anti-racism” of the far-left. Call it woke, call it social justice, Critical Race Theory, Equity committees, or anything else, it is all fundamentally the same thing and that common thing is to promote division over identities.

The sad part is that many will stop reading here and leave without understanding. They might see the statement above as attacking their good intentions, as being ignorant, and a lack of comprehension of what those things listed truly are.

First, discrimination is real.

People are discriminated against on the basis of height, body shape, ability, intelligence, credentials, wealth, political views, affiliation, having a disease, personal history, gender, and, of course, skin color. Any category of identity or appearance can be used as a reason to deny and mistreat people. Ultimately, we’re all a minority of one and most have faced some form of discrimination.

In this country, the United States, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities have faced a significant level of discrimination. Chinese weren’t allowed to hold certain jobs, Germans were forced to scrub away much of their cultural heritage and unique identity because of war propaganda, Japanese sent to internment camps, Mormons were lynched, as were Republicans, and of course the horrendous exploitation of African Americans as slaves and then the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that followed.

This legacy of discrimination, especially in the most severe cases, has undoubtedly left its mark on various communities.

Second, power dynamics change with context.

Be the wrong person to walk into a biker bar and the welcome will be anything but warm. Go to Philadelphia, get off the beaten path like my family did, and the McDonald’s may be a rather hostile environment where the staff servers others ahead of you and then make your tired little sister cry because they dumped a massive pile of salt on Happy Meal burger.

As a Northerner, in the rural South, I was a bit nervous about standing out too much for my accent, did the sons and daughters of the Confederacy hold a grudge?

I was definitely a fish out of the water getting off the bus stop in Compton!

I think we all feel a little uncomfortable out of our own context, away from our own cultural tribe. I know from traveling abroad, being surrounded by people who eat unfamiliar foods, speak a strange language, look, act and dress differently, this can feel a little threatening and unsafe. No, it is not because the people are unfriendly or show any signs of contempt for you, as a foreigner, it is just that you don’t know the risks, customs, or what to expect.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, into the steamy Manila heat, filled me with a mix of excitement and anxiety as I clung tightly to my bags and scanned for the face of that one person of millions that I hoped would not beat, rob, and leave me for dead.

It would be really easy, had I had the wrong encounter, to generalize and conclude that Americans were unwelcome. If on my own turf, if treated badly, I would assume it was a bad individual and not a reflection of all in the community or culture. But amongst those who are different in appearance, it is very easy to make broad generalizations based on a couple of bad experiences. Being in a room full of strangers, especially those who seem to know each other or have something in common, we feel vulnerable or powerless. And sometimes there is actual bullying and discrimination against the odd ones out in a given context.

As a Mennonite in a public school, I was always keenly aware of being different. I was asked questions, often containing assumptions and annoying, had nicknames based around my religious (and ethnic) identity, it is a behavior called “micro-aggression” according to the current paradigm. Being called “Jebediah” or hearing derogatory comments about Mennonites didn’t exactly leave me emotionally unaffected. There was always (and still is) a feeling of safety and security that comes from being with people of my own sub-culture.

Third, I’m completely opposed to racism.

I have long taken a stand against racism and discrimination based on appearance.

Even the concept of race itself does not actually make much sense.

Why is Barack Obama black when his mom was a privileged New England blue blood, white, and that lineage half of his genetics? What percentage of African blood does one need to be black? Why does skin color or a few unique physical features determine another race, but not hair color or height? Why aren’t redheads a separate race?

The definition of race, according to Merriam-Webster, is “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” and could actually mean that Mennonites and Amish, with their unique genetic disorders, are a race. But the reality is that it is mostly an artificial barrier, something arbitrary, a category based on mostly superficial things, and not science-based.

This first step in eliminating racism is to reconsider the existence of race. Race is not real or at least no more than Mickey Mouse. It is simply lines that we have drawn, like the political and geographic boundaries between nations, and the bigger difference between people is actually culture, but don’t take my word for it:

Culture has enormous effects on social outcomes. The influence of culture on social outcomes is not just a hypothetical—there is a great deal of evidence that culture has a large effect on many of the unequal social outcomes that some would like to ascribe to biological differences between races or sexes. Those who urge us not to deny that biology contributes to human nature have a point, but they often short-change the significance of what really makes the human species exceptional—our culture.

(“Four Good Reasons You Should Be Skeptical Of the Claim That Biology Explains Inequality,” Micheal White, Ph.D. assistant professor of genetics at Washington University of Medicine in St. Lewis, member of Center of Genome Sciences and Systems Biology.)

There is a multitude of reasons why some like to emphasize racial differences and try to make culture synonymous with race. The first amongst them is political power. By convincing people that some others are inferior or a threat, based on some category of difference, you can harness their anxieties as a means to get votes. Blaming behavior on genetic predisposition is a license for color discrimination and also a ready excuse for bad behavior.

If we ever want to overcome racism we need to understand race is purely a social construct.

What is false about anti-racism?

Being raised in liberal America, post-Civil Rights era, meant being indoctrinated into the teaching of Martin Luther King. It was not colorblindness, as often framed, rather seeing the person first rather than judge on the basis of outward appearance. But this liberal order is currently under assault. Even reciting the passage out of the “I Have Dream” speech, about not being judged by the color of skin but by the content of their character,” will be met with the ire of the “anti-racist” left.

Why?

Well, strange as it is, the far-left push for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ is not about race at all. No, in their worldview and framing of experience, it is always about this supposed power struggle between the majority (within their culture) and those deemed to be marginalized and oppressed. In other words, if skin color were removed from the equation entirely it would not matter, this ideology seeks to find any difference in outcomes and call it an injustice.

The term “white privilege,” for example, is indicative of race. That is how it is defined, as the perceived advantage of those with lighter skin tone over those of darker complexion, and yet that’s not truly what it is about. That’s simply the bait. The term is a divisive tool and cover for an assault on religion, property rights, traditional marriage, and other existing beneficial structures of civilization that stand in the way of the far-left’s self-declared ‘revolutionary’ ideological goals.

For sake of analogy, think of the gag when you tap a person on the opposite shoulder to make it appear that someone else in the room did it. I mean, nothing but a harmless prank in that case. However, it could also be employed as a diversionary tactic, where you get two other people arguing so you can take advantage of the ensuing chaos to pursue the actual objective. It is misdirection.

Many, in taking on racially divisive terms like “white privilege” fall for the ruse, they respond by pointing out all of the advantages black Americans have. This, in turn, can easily be presented (out of context) as proof of racial prejudice and only fuels the fire of resentment across color lines. Many black Americans, for their part, are very aware and sensitive about their racial identity and not without cause either. Unfortunately, this also makes them vulnerable to political opportunists who seek to exploit this history and experience of prejudice. It very quickly escalates into an unsolvable tit-for-tat mess, nobody on either side realizing they’ve been played for fools.

The prime example is how the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting is framed as being white privilege, the riots in Kenosha supposedly an expression of anti-racism. The narrative pushed by the corporate media is that Rittenhouse was some kind of far-right nut job looking for trouble, a counterprotester, and gunned down protestors at random. In reality, Rittenhouse had family connections in the city, he was there protecting a minority-owned car dealership, he has actually expressed support for BLM, and his attackers were all white men. He wasn’t there to oppose justice for Jacob Blake. He was there because of the destruction the night before and to defend the innocent from harm.

The three white men who attacked Rittenhouse are protected from scrutiny, under the “white privilege” rubric, for being classified as oppressed. It is not in spite of, rather it is because of the violent criminal history of these three white men that they are considered victims by the left. The left assumes that people behave the way they do because of circumstances, they blame-shift responsibility for violence perpetrated by their own and use narrative as cover for ideological agenda rather than a means of transmitting truth. The left is not truly against discrimination or anti-racism, they are about gaining power over others by any means and this racial wedge is simply an effective tool.

The lie that color is culture

Underlying the Critical Race Theory (CRT) and any of the rebranding attempts used to “start the conversation” or sell this anti-liberal divisive ideology is an assumption that race and culture are inexorably linked. It is, not too ironically, the one thing that both the ‘woke’ and actual white supremacists agree on. They both teach and believe that skin color determines behavior.

This is why those pushing CRT reject the call of Martin Luther King to see past color and judge by the content of character instead. To them people behave the way that they do because of their race, that skin color basically determines culture and character, and therefore it is oppression for the majority to impose any kind of order or at least not when it goes against their own leftist political agenda. Any cultural standard, like the idea people should work for their own food, is classified as oppression and racism.

Both white supremacists and far-left theorists present differences in behavior and statistical outcomes, between racial categories, as being primarily driven by genetics. They, unlike liberals, who see a larger role of culture and assume that economic circumstances play a part in shaping outcomes, see race as being what determines culture. The only difference between the two is that white supremacists see this as a reason to subdue and subjugate some races, while the far-left sees it as a reason to subjectively excuse or accuse people along color lines. Both are equally abhorrent. Both reverse cause and effect and provoke hate.

The first problem is that even if genetics did determine outcomes, why stop with categories of race? We all know that Europeans all have their own unique cultural groups, as do Middle-Easterners, Africans, and Asians. It is the basis for stereotypes. We know Italians to be big talkers, Germans as industrious, Russians for drinking lots of Vodka, and the same thing could be done across any racial division. It is sort of like Native American tribes, they were not all the same, some were warlike and conquered their neighbors. Some were nomadic, others building massive cities. To lump them all together is plain ignorant, it is the heart of racial prejudice and poor analysis.

At this point, some, at least on the right, would be eager to get into statistics showing the correlation between race and criminality or IQ. To them, this is smoking-gun evidence of the superiority or inferiority of collective racial groups. They would use the athletic advantage of African Americans, given the domination of black people in professional sports, as undeniable proof of this overall thesis. And, certainly, we could get into a discussion of the structure of the Achilles tendon, Testosterone levels, and whatnot that would go on forever. However, all this obsession on physical racial differences ignores both the large overlap between groups on the standard Bell Curve and also the role that culture plays in shaping these outcomes.

The lie is that race predisposes culture. That some are genetically predisposed to violence or laziness and therefore should be exempted (or excluded) and granted special permissions. It completely ignores the reality that categories of white and black are far too narrow given the diversity of outcomes within those labels, that there are two many other influences on behavior to settle on only an inborn genetic nature. Yes, perhaps some of our personality is predetermined and travels along with skin color. But we cannot rule out that these behavioral predilections are not mostly a product of nurture or culture.

The left needs to have race determine culture in other to push forward a victim narrative and this idea of systemic racism. If culture (behavior) is genetic and not a choice, then some can’t be held accountable for their own poverty of criminal activities. This is a new variant of Marxism. The German philosopher, Karl Marx, saw us as products of class rather than independent moral agents, which was the basis for class warfare rhetoric and license for violence against those more successful. The left wants African Americans to believe that they can’t thrive in the broader American culture. That’s a lie.

Religion produces culture and shapes outcomes

One of the most wonderful things about being rejected by my own ethnic kind is the opportunity it gave me to learn how much people are truly the same. I’ve never dated an ethnic Mennonite, nor a white American-born woman, and not as something deliberate either. In other words, I was open to any race and simply had more luck with those different from me.

But each time, whether an immigrant, black, white, or the infinite shades in between, Hispanic, Algerian, Egyptian, Cantonese, Filipino, or Congolese, slightly better educated or more athletic, these women had much more in common with me than was actually different. In some regards, they remain more my kinfolk than the conservative Mennonites who could not love me the way that I wanted to be loved. And, here’s the truth, while racial and cultural differences are always an interesting conversation, it is similarities in religion that formed the bridge of our common bond.

My bhest, Charlotte, is an Asian woman. A Filipino to be more precise. And yet her ethnic heritage is actually Igorot. The Igorot tribes live in the Cordillera mountain region of Luzon. They are known as ferocious warriors and only a couple of generations removed from head hunting:

A tribal war usually starts after a tribesman takes the head of a member from another tribe. Head taking was a rite of passage into manhood. The offended tribe can demand retribution. If the one taking the head desires continued peace, influential tribal leaders are sent to the other tribe to negotiate. Compensation is paid and the accord is sealed with an exchange of articles. If no agreement is reach then a war challenge is issued by the offended party.

The Igorots Then And Now

This cultural arrangement would make for a rather uncomfortable existence, at least when traveling alone on the edge of tribal boundaries, and resulted in plenty of bloodshed, no doubt. However, while still carrying on some of the tradition, the practice of headhunting is a curiosity of the past rather than a reason to be fearful of getting a haircut while visiting Baguio City, which is now a big tourist destination for other Filipino people and the hub of the Igorot world.

What changed?

Well, not the genetics.

Let me tell you the story of Charlotte’s family, the terrible tragedies they have (at the hands of wicked men) endured, what made the difference for them and how it is a path forward for us. The violent lifestyle of Igorot tribes changed with the conversion of many of their ethnic kind to Christianity and this has produced significant changes in outcomes.

An Igorot family that forgave

As a writer, as part of my trying to make sense of the world, I do not want the suffering of others to be for naught. But I know that this subject matter is personal and painful for Charlotte and her family, so understand that I share this with conflicted feelings. On one hand, I want to protect those whom I loved. On the other, I want to create a better world for our children by this very practical testimony of faith and sacrifice.

Charlotte’s grandpa converted to Christianity and even started a church in the village. He was a respected man, an elder in the village, and was called to settle a land dispute between two parties. However, the party he went against was evidently enraged. He hired an assassin. And Charlotte’s grandpa was murdered in the night, shot in his own bed, leaving the family without their beloved Patriarch and with a trauma that is visited upon generations.

Now, the traditional Igorot way of handling this would be to take matters into their own hands. However, rather than seek blood for blood, this first-generation Christian family chose to forgive. No, they would not have opposed justice for the killer. But civil authority is weak and overstressed in this region, this meant nobody would face legal penalties for this murder. A tough pill to swallow for sure.

And yet, that’s not even the most extraordinary part, they knew who the hired killer was. They knew who he was and would actually allow him to eat with them! Talk about heaping coals of fire! The only thing is, they did not forget nor did they let him off scot-free. There called him Judas. Referring to the Apostle who betrayed Jesus for money and his obsession with political power. Which is an apt description. So even with this forgiveness, there was still a bit of poetic justice and a not too subtle call for repentance.

One morning, several years ago, I was getting ready for work and received a call from Charlotte. I have never collapsed to the floor before in my life. But, I was immediately overcome with emotion, when I heard those words “they killed uncle Roland!”

My heart sank.

How could this be?

The man who so selflessly served his family, a wonderful father who would smother his children with love despite being exhausted from a long day of work, a provider, a leader in the community, and someone who would help anyone. The friend who welcomed me into his home, along with his lovely wife, aunt Geraldine, was murdered in a most brutal fashion, by thugs hired by a jealous business rival.

But, again, despite the identity of the killers (and who hired them) being known, despite the police lacking resources to investigate and prosecute, the family did not seek vengeance. I mean, for some time, I would fantasize about taking my own anger over what was done out on these wicked men. Still, in the end, what would that accomplish other than continue the cycle of violence common in tribal honor cultures the world over?

The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

(Proverbs 28:1 NIV)

Now it is said that the man responsible for the murder, upon realizing what Igorot tribe uncle Roland came from and knowing their reputation for violent retribution, went into hiding and only goes out in disguise. Not sure if that is still true, nevertheless Jesus saved him even while he remains lost in his sin, and he should pray for God’s mercy on his soul.

Let’s talk about Haitian work ethic

A prejudice many sanctimonious Americans have against Haitians is that their poverty is the result of a lack of ambition or work ethic. A point of agreement between many on the ‘common sense’ right and ‘woke’ far-left. And yet, as one who has been there, who still has a deep respect for a particular Haitian family despite our estrangement (on social media) over political differences, I can say unequivocally that this generalization is a lie.

Looking at the county of Haiti, the poorest in our hemisphere, it would be easy to assume that this is entirely a reflection of the people. And, indeed, corruption does abound, there is something reflected of the character of a people in a nation and the fatalistic Voodoo religion likely does play a role. But what a lot of people do not realize is that there are a lot of good people stuck in a feedback loop and, once broken free of the cycles of poverty and violence, could be extremely successful.

First, I think of that Haitian man, in Port Au Prince, heaving a truck body on his back. That is many things, but it is not lazy or lack of work ethic. The amount of determination and strength this took, for such little compensation when he finally got it to the metal scrap yard at the port, required extraordinary motivation. I had to think about my own complaints, making tens of thousands out on the road, and how this man would be both able to do my job and probably be much more grateful as well.

Second, that young man who showed up outside the church us Mennonite ‘missionaries’ were painting as part of our well-meaning desire to serve others. This young Haitian man, thin and possibly malnourished, confirmed one of my fears prior to going on this youth group trip. He, with pleading eyes, begged, “I can paint!” We could have employed him and a crew of Haitians, with American supervisors if need be, for a year with the money that went towards our airline tickets. He was willing to work, but lacked opportunity due to circumstances completely out of his control.

Third, let’s talk about my Haitian immigrant friends. All of them have gone further with their education, have worked their tails off, and have proven themselves to be real go-getters. Beyond that, they have always been hospitable to me and I have many fond memories from the time with them in Brooklyn or elsewhere. Their agreement with divisive racial politics aside, I see them as people of great moral character and more than my equal in many regards.

You stick the child of a hard-working American in “little Africa” in Haiti and there’s a very high probability that they will not live a comfortable life in suburbia. In Haiti, there is a sort of systemic oppression. The elites in that country squandered opportunities for their people. The political gridlock and misguided charitable efforts produce poverty, and the culture as well. Yeah, duh, people in such a chaotic environment are likely to score lower on a standardized intelligence test or even give in to despair. Just like children from fatherless homes (white or black) are often disadvantaged. The differences in outcomes are a matter of culture or circumstances and not of race.

Furthermore, if you look at Appalachia or Coal Region, or any blue-collar town where the industry has left, the results are often no different. These “deplorables” are not privileged people and have more in common with inner-city minorities than the social elites who sneer at them. (I mean, take this UC Berkeley professor putting his anti-rural bigotry on full display.) The customs and costumes vary and yet the actual substance does not. Black or white matters less than frequently believed. No, work ethic has nothing to do with skin color, nor does faithfulness in romantic relationships nor propensity for violence.

We should be insulted that the ‘woke’ left is saying that work ethic is white. That’s racist.

Racial framing is toxic and political

There is little doubt that our genetics do have an impact on our outcomes. Being bigger and stronger, smarter or more attractive, is at least somewhat predetermined. It is not all nurture.

Still, race is a construct. People certainly are not predisposed to culture on the basis of the race category they are placed in. Behavior is a choice. No, we do not choose our cultural conditioning, the neighborhood we were both into, and a vast number of factors that help to shape outcomes. We are judged by our appearance. But this does not mean we should.

Lies can shape outcomes. If we are told, over and over again, that this one distinguishing characteristic is of primary importance, we start to believe it. My being 5′-8″ tall, for example. This is a definite disadvantage, there is prejudice against men of shorter stature, statistics show this clearly, but dwelling on this only compounds the problem. Things like short-man syndrome or insecurity only increase the disadvantage. Isn’t it better to tell people to be confident?

That is what is so troublesome about the racial narrative of the far-left. It encourages people to believe that race determines culture. This is part of their broader push to blame bad behavior on circumstances and undesirable outcomes on oppression. But the real crime is that they’re robbing individuals of their agency and saying that we cannot transcend or change our stripes. It is essentially anti-Christian and racist at the core. If a person is what they are because it skin color then prejudice and discrimination is justified. This is not the way forward.

Racism is the idea that we are fundamentally different because of skin color, that culture and behavior are determined by race. It is a framework, a lens, that discards any evidence to the contrary or, worse, attempts to delegitimize the people that go against the narrative. This happened in the segregationist South. It was almost worse for white people who stood against the racism there. But it is happening now, where racial minorities who stand up to the political far-left are the biggest targets of ridicule and hate.

If a ‘black’ person has a job and is a productive citizen, the racist left attacks this success as internalized racism. If a ‘white’ person enjoys other cultures, they are vilified for appropriation and accused of theft.

The ‘woke’ left must guard these color lines or their divisive political ‘theory’ falls apart.

The reality is that behavior is not inexorably tied to skin color. Culture is behavior and evolves. Loud and obnoxious or reserved and shy, it could be a result of social contagion and cultural conditioning more than something genetically preprogrammed. What is called ‘black’ culture today will change. The mainstream American culture has also dramatically been remade over and over again. We don’t have duels to settle ‘gentlemanly’ disputes, petticoats have long gone out of style, my German identity has largely been assimilated into the melting pot and my children will have values slightly different from my own. The same is true in Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere.

The reason why the left seeks to break cultural cohesion, with CRT indoctrination (or wherever it will be renamed now that it is being scrutinized) and conflating race with culture is that a coalition of minorities is more powerful than those who would represent the cultural norm. Think about it. Most of us think we are unique, most of us could frame our “lived experience” as being disadvantaged. Much of this, in actuality, is an illusion of our own knowing our own struggles and not knowing what others have faced. Oppression narrative frames this as being a matter of only some identities, not a shared human experience as it truly is. We’re all a minority of one that must negotiate within the broader social space. Culture can unite. It can bridge differences in racial or other identities.

The left wants morality to be subjective. There is no good or evil in their perspective. There’s only what is politically expedient to them, a means to obtain power and control for themselves or those like them. Every system designed to create equity will eventually only end up unfairly advantaging a different group of people. Allow pedophiles to follow their passions, like everyone else, and children will be exploited. They will destroy liberal institutions, in the name of helping those marginalized, and only ever make us all subject to their own dictatorial whims without solving any injustice in the end.

I have little doubt that many seeking “social justice” or “equity” are good and sincerely caring people. But they are participating in a divisive framing of things that will only lead to more injustice. The term “white privilege” promotes prejudice and anti-racism is truly hyper-racism. Their critique aimed at structures of civilization, like marriage, religion, property rights, will only result in more insecurity and hurt.

The Christian alternative to race obsession

The church, not an equity committee, is supposed to be the center of community and healing. We can’t solve a spiritual problem with a political solution. We can’t fix the world without addressing our own hearts first.

CRT is a cheap counterfeit for the Gospel. It encourages us to externalize blame rather than repent of our own sin and let God judge others. Rather than project our own guilt on others, or accuse, decide who has too much, is racist or whatever, this is the Christian ethic:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

(James 4:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Politics is a competitive affair. It is a constant battle for position. And one of the cheats to gain power is to rile people up and use them as pawns to take out those who stand in the way of their agenda. This is done through vicious accusations and evil surmises. It is the very opposite of what James instructs, which is to focus on our own behavior rather than judge others.

The Gospel is about creating a joint identity that overcomes our differences:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

Christian culture is for all identities. The salvation Christ brings is free to all and thus can’t be appropriated.

There is no such thing as the “social justice” Gospel. Our ‘equity’ does not come from political action. It comes from Christ and loving those whom He loves. Unlike the political alternative, this is a positive focus, us using our love to build humbly rather than destroy with accusations:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)

Proverbs 6 calls “a person who stirs up conflict in the community” detestable to God. It is because these contests are limiting our collective potential and destructive.

Orthodox Christianity is about looking inward rather than outward. It is about finding a common union in Christ rather than dwelling on differences. It promotes leadership through self-sacrificial love rather than by political power and change that comes through personal repentance rather than reforming systems, this is the way:

It is worth noticing that, after acquiring spiritual understanding, the defects and faults of one’s neighbor begin to seem very slight and insignificant, as redeemed by the Savior and easily cured by repentance—those very faults and defects which seemed to the carnal understanding so big and serious. Evidently the carnal mind, being itself a plank, gives them this huge significance. The carnal mind sees in others sins that are not there at all.

(St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena)

The other day, I had a ‘woke’ online acquaintance (presumably, someone who still goes to church) respond to something I wrote with a proclamation about racism existing. The weird part was that my post had nothing to do with race whatsoever and was simply me venting my frustrations with a multitude of things including the slow progress of Charlotte’s immigration. For whatever reason, he saw race and pounced on the opportunity to promote his racially divisive worldview. As in the quote, people obsessed with a particular narrative “see in others sins that are not there at all” and are truly only projecting their own sins.

We must first correct the beam in our own eyes before we can see clearly to help others with the splinters we perceive in their eyes. If we want spiritual transformation and social change we need to shed our own judgemental black and white thinking first. The path out of this sinful delusion of racism and divisive race obsession is repentance.

Closer Than Blood…?

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Did you know that mothers actually have the blood of their children (born or unborn) in their veins?

It is astonishing, really, but motherhood isn’t actually a one-way relationship. It is symbiotic. The child provides their own blood for the benefit of their mothers. And once the child is born there’s the release of a hormone (Oxytocin) which leads to that special bonding and attachment that mothers have with their children.

Blood relatives can be our closest friends. We share some of the same genetic material and often intimate experiences as well. My siblings and cousins understand my humor, we think alike in many regards, and sometimes I wonder if I have any true friends that aren’t family. I certainly do not trust anyone, besides Charlotte, the same as I do my own relatives.

Don’t get me wrong either. I know many good people, some who might literally give me the shirt off of their back, and yet I’ve had so many friends like that who have faded out of my life.

The Quote…

The fraternity of Christ, is closer than the fraternity of blood.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

This is what the body of Christ is supposed to be. A brotherhood, a group of people who carry burdens and cry together, who cheer each other on and encourage, who have real intimacy rather the superficial, make small talk, kind of relationship. The kind of familial investment that goes to bat for others in the Church, as St. Paul did speaking on behalf of Onesimus:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

When I read that quote of St Ambrose, a couple of days ago, it provoked me to reach out to someone that I love in that way and still did after a sort of falling out. It remains to be seen if that effort, to be a brother, will bear fruit or only widen the divide. But one thing is for certain, no matter how this goes, and that is that relationships that are “closer than blood” have not been my own experience yet.

Sure, the good church people will use weighty words like “brother” and “sister” to describe their relationships, but is it truly reality or is it a faux closeness like those social media scammers trying to exploit religious strangers for personal gain?

Maybe, in this time of social fragmentation and community disintegration, where many children are raised without both of their biological parents, we have lost some of the meaning of these words?

Community, for example, should mean living in close proximity and sharing in common. People used to work and worship with the people who lived in close proximity to them. Now I barely know my next-door neighbors and then drive thirty minutes to ‘fellowship’ for a couple of hours. And then there’s those who watch a sermon at home and make-believe that’s being part of the church. I mean, might as well take it all the way and spend the afternoon gardening, right?

Is It All Fake?

One of my memories, in the church I grew up in, was pastor Sam slapping down a transparency onto the overhead projector, and starting with his wonderful baritone, “You may notice we say brother and sister ’round here…” He was certainly sincere. A fatherly leader in a denomination that neglects such things. Once he caught a hint that I was a fan of high school football he would always ask me about the game. I have fond memories of the times spent in the Corderman’s living room even after leaving my Mennonite roots.

And yet not all there got the memo. We were more glorified acquaintances. Sure, we would smile, shake hands, and make small talk together. There was also that cultural and ethnic component that did give a kind of closeness. There were also those last vestiges of the Anabaptist barn-raising spirit. However, like those veils on the female heads or the foot-washing rituals, it all seemed to be mostly symbolic. A father might set his own son up in business, but no man in the church would ever think of doing the same for a non-family member in the congregation. It was superficial closeness.

Amish community spirit…

I’ve heard it explained before that religious groups hijack the language of family to create a false sense of closeness. At first, I had bristled at this suggestion. It felt like they were trying to discredit this special spiritual bond that people of like faith share. However, if we were close as family, let alone closer than blood, would we even need to use this familiar language? Wouldn’t it just be self-evident, like when Charlotte told me she would rather die with me than go on living without?

It is in that weird territory of language, like when some feel compelled to pray in old English as if this somehow reverences their prayers or those hypocrites that Jesus condemned for their love of important titles. One starts to be able to see through the pretense. There’s a vast difference between the man who treats you as a brother, offers protection, like big Tony Fisher did for me in school, and the people who use the right terms as a way to acquire resources or maintain status.

But, for me, those intuitions only came after being played a fool many times.

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

It could have something to do with my premature birth and spending my first weeks in a plastic box rather than bonding with my mom. It could simply be a natural disposition. But I do know that I was the one child in my family who had separation anxiety and would go into panic mode if my mom would leave me for a moment to take out the trash. I was clingy and fearful.

Still, I was an extremely trusting person at one time, and long before I knew names like Jerry Sandusky or Jeriah Mast, when I lived in this sort of “Leave It To Beaver” world where people were true as their smiles and everything worked out in the end.

And that’s how childhood should be. Children may pretend, but they don’t put on masks in the same way as an adult and tend to be open about their intentions and accepting of even strangers. It is often easier to talk to eighteen-year-old girls than it is to have a conversation with those that are in their mid-twenties and that’s likely because the latter group understands that male attention usually means romantic interest. We become cagey as we become older, it is a way to protect ourselves from those who might do us harm or simply defile with their hopes of more than we’re willing to offer them.

For me, everything went downhill after puberty and with that gradual (often excruciatingly painful) loss of innocence. One of my earliest memories is walking hand in hand with my cousin when we were five years old. I don’t even talk to her anymore. She’s married to a privileged wackadoodle and didn’t appreciate my opinions of where his far-left politics will lead. Even if that weren’t the case, we probably wouldn’t be holding hands anymore even if we were on better terms. I mean, I would, because I still have fond memories, and yet I’m weird.

Anyhow, my own fear of rejection, a product of my purest hopes being smashed over and over again, has metastasized into disillusionment. I have a hard time trusting. I start to pull away when I sense the slightest bit of phoniness in another person. Call it despair, call it depression, I prefer to think of it as preserving what little sanity I have left, but I don’t want to have fake friendships anymore. I’m tired. Exhausted by it all, truthfully, and simply want to withdraw to the safety of not caring or concerning myself with those who are only going through the motions.

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

My expectations are impossible. But, then again, they should be. We are told, in Scripture, that with faith all things are possible. And, therefore, if someone declares otherwise, says that they can’t love or live as a Christian ought to live, it is because they lack faith.

Either that or it is all made up.

The thing that has most fed my own fear and doubt, is how people in the church don’t really act any different from people outside of it. In other words, if we don’t act like family then are we even Christians?

My Orthodox parish has a good number of converts and some older singles like me. There is a sort of closeness that came initially, as we traded stories about our experience, and it was very exciting for someone who had looked for depth elsewhere and had come out disappointed. However, there is this class, a sort of misfit club, of converts that is very similar to the Protestant fundamentalists of my past. They are really caught up in getting the Orthodox rituals right and somewhat neglecting as far as the meat of faith which is this self-sacrificial familial love.

My moon shot…

The thing is, I came into this damaged. I had shot for the moon, in faith, and somehow ended up in Williamsport, at Holy Cross, wondering what happened. My expectations were low and it wasn’t about the “smells and bells” to me. There was a combination of things that brought me, excellent theology, Fr. Anthony’s fatherly care, and a connection to the ancient Church. Since I knew no one local who was Orthodox, I went in simply seeking a place to worship and not expecting much. But I did meet many good people there, some who did embrace me as family, I’ll never forget that old woman (I can’t even recall who it was) who warmly told me “welcome home” after my Chrismation.

As with everything in faith, familial love is a work in progress and there are bound to be many failures along the way. At best, we’re a dysfunctional family, like many American families, caught up in our own lives, acting like Protestants when things don’t go our way, and not as truly full of love and grace as we are for our own blood. My want of perfection, and pursuit of the impossibility, must first and foremost mean that I love those who are difficult to love, love who let me down and abandon me, and let God judge those who do not meet my own expectations.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

Still, the thought that plagues me most and probably always will is this question of if real love even exists at all. I’m not talking about those passing feelings of fondness we have for another person, but that spiritual bond and willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. As I’ve posited before, there is a selfish component to love. Not only those who say they “love” someone and then kill them in a jealous rage either. But it seems that it is impossible to love without getting something in return.

It is always nice when a server pays attention to me. I would certainly like to believe that they like me. And I’m guessing a few would actually enjoy spending time with me outside of work too. I’m a polite and considerate guy, I also tend to lay a heavier tip when there’s some conversation that comes along with the meal. I do, indeed, go out because staying home would be lonely and alone since it is simply too hard to coordinate plans with friends or I don’t know whom to ask. So I’ll pay for that time with another human. But it can also be unfulfilling. The relationship could have an element of truth and yet really it is centered on the economic transaction or they would be inviting me to hang out when they’re not on the clock.

There is a scene, in Blade Runner 2049, a science fiction thriller about what it means to be human, that illustrates the point. The story follows, K, a “replicant” (or bioengineered ‘human’), and his relationship with his girlfriend named Joi. Except she is not flesh and blood, not even human, but artificial intelligence, software on a computer, with a holographic projection. Still, despite this, the relationship is real. And, when the device containing her (their memories together that made the interaction meaningful) is crushed, he mourns. As the audience, you feel some pain. Yet, later, an interactive sign, with her likeness, uses the same pet name, and it is obvious that the original Joi was programmed to “fall in love” with anyone who wanted companionship.

The part that gets to me is how hormones and the positive feedback loop of emotions is, practically speaking, the same as programming. So how are the emotional responses we receive from others any more authentic than that of Joi?

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

Do we love people or do we merely enjoy what benefits we get from them and that’s why we show such strong preference. Sure, there are some who are kinder and more willing to give attention to the unattractive or social outcasts. However, as far as real commitment, ongoing investment, we generally spare that for those most likely to produce a return. In other words, we love those who do what we want them to do, have something we want in terms of their physical form, intellect, or other abilities, or simply feel drawn to as a result of our coding and subconscious desires.

And then we expect people to stay at the level of friendship assigned to them. One sure way to make things awkward is to make an expression of love that is more intimate or deep than the level the other person wants. Asking a girl on a date is a good way to get put on her blocked list, to get an industrial strength cold shoulder, and even if she was seeming to enjoy the relationship up until then. Why? Well, maybe the ‘friendship’ was a social obligation more than anything authentic? You just know, when push comes to shove, most on your social media friends list aren’t going to be there for you, or at least not like blood relatives.

The Impossible Love

Still, I’m not comfortable with this mechanistic, bound by programming and mere product of circumstances, perspective. If love is not a choice, if we can only love those who are attractive, have resources we want, or are this sort of enjoyable reflection of ourselves, then we would not have agency or the ability to follow the commands to love God and our neighbors. Can we really do that? Do people ever go beyond and actually transcend themselves by loving those whom they would not naturally love?

I’m not sure, when I look at the Christian experiment, that I see much evidence of these relationships that are closer than blood. I mean, maybe, if we were willing to “fake it until we make it” then we would be able to overcome. Isn’t that what faith is really about, doing things that are uncomfortable, going against our own natural condition, or an exercise? I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t always feel like loving each other and yet going through the motions of a relationship, in those tough times, is how their love became such pure gold. Sixty years of marriage is impossible for many today because they’ve decided to be ruled by what is comfortable at the moment.

So when church people say they can’t love, and I’m talking about any kind of love, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t believe. It is agnosticism, denial of the humanity of another, and have refused to see the command of Christ as being actually true. When we decide we can’t love as we ought to love or pretend that we are loving while we truly are not, we are essentially making Scripture into a lie. At that point we are nothing but animals following after our programmed instincts and selfish desires. Do you truly love the body of Christ as much as you do your own blood?

I’m not there yet…

Breaking Down Identities

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The other day I was filling out a survey and came to the questions about my race and gender.  I paused for a second, “what am I today?”  And decided to select what applied to me in that moment, which is the answer that I would typically use when asked those questions, and yet continued to ponder this question of identities.

I understand why these categories exist, we do have tendencies and traits as a part of a demographic group.  Generalities and stereotypes certainly do have some basis in reality and I won’t deny that.  However, what makes me bristle a bit is what this grouping too often does to relationships across category lines.  It is divisive, it robs us our uniqueness as individuals and also puts us at odds with those deemed to be different from us.

It is too black and white.  Too simplistic and encourages a distorted picture of reality in emphasizing that one similarity we share in common (or one difference we have) over everything else.  The labels themselves are even dumb.  I’m not actually white.  My skin is a shade of brown.  Furthermore, I probably only ever started identifying as white because someone told me to fill in that box as a child and I mindlessly complied.  

The idea of “whiteness” is a social construct and has come to mean much more than it ever did before.  Now some claim that everything from work ethic and politeness to mathematics is somehow a part of being white.  Which is appalling ignorance, unexcusable, given the contributions of people of all skin shades and cultural backgrounds to civilization as we know it.  All people should be offended by that nonsense.

I had a classmate, a Jamaican immigrant, brilliant at math, well-spoken, very polite, the son of an engineer or university professor as I recall.  And, by the current color obsessed paradigm, he’s more ‘white’ than I am.  It is a backhanded insult to the many, like him, who have natural talents that don’t fit within the narrow categories or grievance culture narratives of the racially prejudiced left.

Which is the crux of the matter.  I hate these categories because they lie.  As Mark Twain quipped, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  Sure one color group may, collectively, produce more elite athletes, another more classical musicians, and another mathematicians.  But those group statistics tell you absolutely nothing about individuals nor why some individuals achieved these outcomes.

Much being attributed to color is actually culture.  In Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and America, there are as many cultures as their are shades of skin color.  Some European regions are known for their industriousness and superior engineering, others for their laid-back attitude and art.  The same is true of Asian cultures.  The same is true of African people.  So how do we know color has anything to do with these differences?

The two biggest lies of our time…

1) The myth that skin color is synonymous with culture.

2) The myth that group statistics determine individual outcomes. 

Yes, there may be some statistical correlations between certain behaviors and skin color categories.  But that doesn’t mean that what applies to one of a certain category applies to all.  For example, many women love pink, but that doesn’t mean the most or even many women are fond of that color.  My younger sister defies many of those sort of feminine associated things, she’s not afraid of any critter, has reptiles for pets, and that does not make her less of a woman than those who freak out at the sight of a spider.

Correlation is not equal to causation.  And the late George Floyd has more in common with me, as a working class schlub, than he does with the Harvard educated, son of a privileged WASP mother, who calls himself Barack Obama.  It’s true.  Look it up.  One half of Obama’s lineage is as Yankee as you can get, a great great […] grandfather being the first to build a gristmill in the State of New Jersey, back in the 1600s, later elected to the state Congress.

It is a complete farce that a coal cracker kid, raised in rural West Virginia, is advantaged over a college educated “person of color” working as a Wall Street broker.  Nah, I’ve been around, I know how the cultural elites sneer at ‘deplorables’ and work overtime to make sure that they know their place.  Class privilege is often misidentified as color privilege and misidentified by the very people who benefit most from spreading out the blame for their own sins.

The son or daughter of an immigrant wage-slave has more in common with the ‘black’ category than the trust fund babies of any color pointing the crooked finger.  This is what grates me the most.  In the real world blacks and whites work together.  Out on the road, hauling commodities for the man, I swung the sledgehammer as much as that ‘black’ fellow beside me.  

So do I really need my prissy, Che Guevara T-shirt wearing sociology professor cousin, son of a doctor, who could somehow afford to travel the world taking photos while I worked for $7.50 an hour, lecturing me on things that I don’t understand as a white male?

No, no I do not!

Those who associate certain outcomes or behaviors with certain colors of skin, who only ever see skin color in their analysis, are the true racists.  There is a stronger correlation between fatherless homes and negative outcomes than there is between skin color and negative outcomes.  In other words, things commonly categorized as a color privilege is more strongly correlated with family structure.  

Look into mass shooters.  

Not at all excusing their violence, but many of them were estranged from their fathers, struggled to fit in, and it is hard not to see this as being an insignificant factor in their outcomes.

Think about that when discussion of privilege comes up.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be gained as far as political power in a “the fatherless unite!” campaign.  Racial division, by contrast, is an easy sell.  Skin color, indeed, is the low hanging fruit of human difference.  Tribalism comes naturally, all you need to do is convince people that they are somehow fundamentally different because of something superficial and their confirmation bias will do the rest of the work for you.

Breaking the Bonds of Designated Identities

I’m not going to minimize the importance of life experience and family inheritance in shaping our identities.  I was born into a conservative Mennonite home and that identity was very important to me.  In public school it made me a religious minority, subjected me to many inquiries, what would now be called micro-aggressions, and some bullying later in life too.

The strange part is that, while being the Mennonite kid amongst my school peers, I never really felt like I fit in with my ethic church peers either.  After years of rejections, both in romantic endeavors and even as far as filling offices or missionary opportunities.  Finding my place, complete acceptance, within the Mennonite culture had eventually become an obsession.  I desperately wanted to be the good Mennonite for reasons that I can’t fully explain.

That pursuit came to an end with a young woman who declared, “I can’t love you the way that you want to be loved.”  

Mercifully, over the same time, a truly fatherly figure, Fr. Anthony, an Antiochian priest and college professor, took me under his wing to help me through this collapse of my Mennonite identity that had left me with a meaningless existence and suicidal.

I had to break from my ethnic and religious identity because I had no other choice.  It was not pleasant.  I loved, and still do love, many parts of the Mennonite culture.  My parents are wonderful.  My church was not one of those Pharisaical nightmares all too common in that denomination.  But, as Fr Anthony offered, maybe I had simply “outgrown” the tradition.

And, truly, in Christ, we are all called to a higher common identity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

St. Paul, in the context of the tumultuous days of the early church, spent much time addressing the many competing identities within the church.  He took on the religious elitists, bluntly telling them to castrate themselves in one letter, and spoke up for those being excluded on a class or ethnic basis.  That’s what he’s doing in the passage above, emphasizing that in Christ we can all be “children of God” and share one identity together.

The astounding part is that the church then, like the church now, still struggles on this point.  Even in the conservative Mennonite church, where we were basically all from the same ethic and cultural background, there were definitely tiers of acceptance.  Some simply check more of the ‘right’ boxes, are more popular, find the beautiful adoring wife, have all the opportunities, work their way up the ranks quickly and others not so much.  In short, the words to the Galatians are as relevant now as were then.

Christian Identity Makes Difference Beautiful

One of Mennonite cultural distinctives that I had rejected early on is that of uniformity as a part of Anabaptist non-conformity teaching.  My own church wasn’t nearly as strict as some.  But there is an undercurrent, undeniably, that if a girl talks more than average she’s a “flirt” or a motorhead guy with a nice car was somehow materialistic compared to a wealthy business owner with three farms.  Pity the artistic types in those churches more traditional than mine.

By contrast, an Orthodox Christian friend, gave this wonderful description:  The church is like a garden, full of different plants and plants, all watered by the same source.

That is the ideal.  

Unity in Christ is not about erasing all differences.  Galatians 3:28 is not turning us into an androgynous ‘multi-cultural’ blob of completely equal outcomes.  Jesus was not a Communist.  Having “all things in common” was not about forced wealth redistribution or reparations.  Certainly not about getting mine.  Rather it was about bringing our diversity of talents and abilities, bonded together as the body and blood of Christ, to the church.

Diversity can be a strength.  Not talking about superficial skin deep token ‘diversity’ achieved through quotas either.  Instead, what I love is those of many colors, many backgrounds and classes, working voluntarily towards a common goal, having found a shared identity that transcends all others and allows the entire group to reach full potential.  Competing identities keep us in conflict, but through Christ we could create the most beautiful harmonies.

In the end we must free ourselves from identities that keep us at war with each other.  However, that is not something we do ourselves. There are many misguided efforts.  Many are embracing divisive political ideologies, like critical race theory, that will only produce more hate and mistrust.  Condemning “whiteness” or heaping praise on “people of color” and otherwise playing favorites on those currently deemed to be victims is never going to do anything besides add to the confusion.  

Only in Christ, in repentance, in faith, can our differences in gender, culture, color or class be something beautiful. 

Christian Answer to the Perfect Church Myth

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One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.

As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.

Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.

The Seeker Versus Slanderer

The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)

There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.

There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.

This is what we should seek after:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)

Casting Pearls Before Swine

Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

(Matthew 7:6 NIV)

It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.

There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.

Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.

No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves.  They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.

It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.

I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.

Correcting Our Orientation

Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.

Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.

Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.

Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?

Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?

This was what Jesus told the disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

(John 13:34,35 NIV)

This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.

I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.

The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)

To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

There Can Be No Understanding in the Absence of Faith

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Recently a business page erupted over an earlier post that had offended some. The post, a rather mild meme suggesting that we not judge anyone on the basis of outward appearance, was removed and the owner immediately apologized. They claimed that they had not intended to post the meme, that they did not agree with the content, and this explanation was plausible given that the account doesn’t usually post anything besides menu items.

And yet this did not please the mob. These hate-filled individuals continued to assail the business even in response to the post expressing solidarity with their particular cause. There was blood in the water, the sharks circled with merciless indifference to the pleas and the appeasement strategy clearly was not going to ward off the continuing attacks. They were going to be branded as a horrible and insensitive person no matter what they said. No explanation good enough. Nothing they did prior mattered and there was no way to atone. Last I saw they were open talking about closing up shop as the verbal onslaught carried into a second day after another vain attempt to explain.

The perpetually offended can only ever see through the lens of their victimization and can’t ever be pleased. The mistake many people make, like this hapless small business owner, is that they assume they are dealing with someone like them, someone who can be reasoned with, who wants stability and peace. But I knew a few of the characters in this mob. These weren’t all good people trying to make the world a better place. No, not at all. Some, despite growing up in the same community as me and given every opportunity for success, had made a career out of conniving and seem to thrive on creating chaos for good people. They force others to tiptoe around them while themselves being totally uncaring about the suffering they cause others.

Of course, if you call these clingers to grievance out on their hypocrisy they will suddenly find religion and retreat to “only God can judge me!”

Grievance, in the case of this type of person, is a manipulation tool. It is exploitive of a cultural propensity towards compassion. Those who ply the grievance trade are not interested in solidarity or equal treatment, they are miserable people who want supremacy over others and thrive on creating conflict for their own gain. The only way to win is not to play their game.

The Victim Gambit

Years ago I had been invited to join an online discussion forum. I signed up with a sort of naive optimism, thinking it would be a place for intelligent conversation about things pertaining to theology and my religious sect. But my delusion did not last for long. The site was a lightning rod for the damaged and disgruntled, many of them ex-Mennonites or sexual abuse victims, some of them back for their revenge and others to commiserate.

Of course, I had a great amount of compassion for those who had bad experiences. There was no excuse for what they had gone through and I would gladly stand with them against the abuse they had experienced. However, their experience did not reflect my own nor the values I had been taught and I refused to be the whipping boy for things that had nothing to do with me. I’ll take the weight of the world upon my shoulders sometimes, but I’m not one to allow myself to be bullied.

It was in this encounter with grievance personified that I learned an important lesson. You cannot negotiate with those clinging to and defined by their grievance. Even goodwill gestures will eventually be reinterpreted in ways that a normal and healthy mind could hardly even imagine.

Case and point?

There was a woman on the site, maybe ten years my senior, with a slow burning hatred towards men. She had been sexually assaulted years ago and was completely devastated by the experience. But despite this pity me presentation, they struck most people as being a somewhat reasonable voice and who, along with me, had been given moderator powers. Of course it was important to me to have a positive working experience with them for this and other reasons. I did some outreach and very soon learned of her unfortunate experience many years ago and deduced that it still played an outsized role in defining her worldview.

One Sunday afternoon this chronically depressed individual was expressing their misery and woe, again, and I decided I would do something to try to cheer them up. I drove a little over an hour to where they were to chat face to face and had some vague hope that this would help our communication online as well where my voice or intent was frequently misunderstood by them. The afternoon didn’t go badly, as I recall, and she invited me to McDonald’s nearby for a snack. I had thought about paying, but was slow to the draw as I considered how that would be interpreted and decided we should both pay for our own so this would not be misconstrued.

This kind gesture would come back to haunt me. A few years later I did begin to date and things online began to deteriorate. My moderator counterpart had started to act like a jealous lover and I was too dense, at the time, to figure it out. It all culminated with a bizarre accusation from my girlfriend’s mother (also in a very abusive relationship) using the unique semantics of my moderator counterpart. I knew the source and confronted the source. But I was met with denials, they straight up lied to me about their attempt to sabotage my relationship and claimed to not know what I was talking about. However, eventually, keeping up the pressure, they did confess to the nasty gossip they spread and that could have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, that I had caught them did not improve our relationship. If anything, it made them more determined to undermine me. They had the ear of the site founder (someone who was not frequently on the forum and missed much of the ebbs and flows of things) and, over a moderation technicality, playing the victim, petitioned to have me removed. He obliged the request and I was livid. Had I kept my wits and been a bit more coniving or even just explained my side in more measured tones, I would likely have done better. Still, she had far more practice at her gambit and had been behind the scenes undermining me as well.

Now I had a grievance too. I had always taken the role of feeding controversy to help keep up traffic to the forum. It was all harmless fun for the most part, bantering back and forth. But this time I was not in a playing mood, this person had attempted (and failed) to destroy my new relationship, now they retaliated against me for exposing them (in private) by “having my head” as a moderator and so I took it up with the newly minted replacements. It was in this discussion where an accusation came out, from her, that left me completely aghast.

Yup. That’s me!

She accused me, on the basis of my goodwill visit to her years ago, of being a “cheap date” because, out of an abundance of caution and as not to mislead about my intentions, I did not pay for her Big Mac!!!

What?!?

The insane part is that none of these new moderators called her out for this insanity and it would not have gone over well if I too directly explained why she had absolutely no appeal to me. The designated victim always gets special protection. I suppose it would be cruel to say that this bitter, self-pity consumed and misandristic woman was one of the least attractive people I’ve ever met and had absolutely zero chance of a romantic relationship with me? However, with my help, she was able to successfully poison my relationships there and had me flailing without recourse. Little did I know that even a sincere act of kindness could be weaponized against me.

Good Faith Vs Everlasting Grievance

Good faith refers to the foundational assumptions one must make about their counterpart in a negotiation. All relationships are, to a certain extent, a negotiation and we must trust the intentions of the other person or a productive relationship is impossible. If a person always interprets everything you say or do in the most negative light possible there is no way to effectively communicate. If you express sincere intentions or do something friendly, a poisoned person will see this as an attempt to manipulate and essentially bribe them.

Most go along with the victim gambit out of misguided compassion or for fear that they may become the next target of hate if they were to speak honestly against the ‘victims’ own abuses. Many believe that if they continue to give in to demands, if they keep giving special deference to those possessed by their grievance, that over time this special niceness will somehow heal this wounded individual. But the reality is that those looking the other way and excusing the abuses of the abused are not helpful. No, in fact, they are enablers of abuse, they are allowing others to be harmed.

A grievance should always be heard. We should always be willing to address the conditions that lead to abuse and give those harmed by abuse a chance to express themselves. However, there are some with a grievance who are sincerely looking for answers and others who are merely using their bad experience as political leverage and a means to gain power over others. This latter group is faithless and cannot be satisfied.

Score keeping kills relationship

Those in the grievance industry may claim to be interested in conversation, but are truly out for blood and the conversation is only a means to gain entry, a foot in the door tactic or Trojan horse. Whether they are trying to sell you a bill of goods or lay waste to your city, there is no good faith in their effort. When you refuse to give in to every demand, if you stand up to their abuses, the faithless aggrieved person will lash out in anger, they will make nasty and absurd personal accusations, then blame you for their hatred. You are not dealing with the person, you are dealing with their demon that will never be satiated and must be exorcized.

When even good faith efforts to bridge a gap in understanding, when the perpetually offended person refuses to see that the problem (which was set in motion by something external) is actually originating with them and how they subjectivity process, they cannot be helped before they are able to acknowledge this and there is no option left besides distance. Those who continue to dwell in their grievance, even after being heard over and over again, should be ignored.

What Would Jesus Do?

Let’s talk about Jesus. But not the milquetoast happy hippie Jesus that many superimpose over him. Let’s talk about the real Jesus who made no apologies, who spoke critically about those who harbored resentment in their hearts and are consumed by blinding hate. There is a time to test the spirits and put some distance between ourselves and those who who absolutely refuse to hear truth:

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

Matthew 10:14 NIV

This idea that love means infinite niceness and refusal to walk away from anyone is wrong. It is because so many coddled those with a grievance, allow them to continue in their self-deception, that these people learn to use pity and guilt as a means to get what they want. As long as there is incentive to use their grievance in this way they will never reach the end of themselves and get the help they truly need.

Again, not everyone is worth our time trying to understand:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

Matthew 7:6 NIV

Incidentally, that is preceded by this:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1‭-‬5 NIV

Those who are blinded by grievance are always righteous in their own mind. They are so focused on the sins against them (real or otherwise) that they cannot see that they are the same or worse than those whom they accuse. As justified, without introspection, they are free to heap condemnation on others. They, more often than not, project their own cancerous attitudes onto the imperfect actions of others and can twist even the best-intended goodwill gesture into a terrible transgression. If you open the door for them they will see it as a form of abuse.

It takes wisdom to discern between the person lashing out who can be helped with just a bit of love and those who will only use your concern for their well-being as a means to try to enslave you to their putrid grievance demon. Those who mercilessly assail a small business owner for an errant social media post even after the owner apologized and completely disavowed the message, are beyond what normal compassion can help. Don’t allow them to win, do not play their game, their aim is only to destroy you and are only using your mercy as a means to draw you in close enough to plunge their crooked grievance knife.

Walk away!

Leaving those absent of faith, especially those who claim to be Christian yet are unrepentant about their toxic and hateful attitudes, is sometimes the most loving thing we can do. It can be the only way that finally do reflect on their own true spiritual darkness and reach for the light and love of salvation. Or, at the very least, the distance we keep between us and them prevents us from being poisoned by them. Love never means enabling sin.

Good faith begins with living out, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and all people acknowledging their culpability in the mess as a starting point. Those clinging to an oppression narrative, enveloped in grievance culture, cannot truthfully pray that prayer and should not be considered part of the community of faith until they do. Good faith means understanding “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and forgiving our enemies.