Typically we do not let customers past the front counter. We prefer to work off of complete drawings and do most of our business over the phone or by email. However, a few years ago, we got a call from a potential new customer, apparently a building contractor or developer, and he wanted to have a sit-down meeting to discuss this project. So we decided to make an exception.
His name rang a bell. And given his antics to this point, I decided to do a little online search and found out rather quickly that he had been convicted of both forgery and fraud. From what I could gather in the news reports, he had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors, but spent the money elsewhere and never actually finished the projects.
So when this brash middle-aged man showed up at our office, I already had him sized up and advised my employer to collect upfront if he ever did actually order. The meeting wasn’t all that beneficial. I already had the overview of the condo project he was proposing. What I really needed was a completed set of architectural plans. But, for whatever reason, getting critical dimensions was a fiasco. He was the draftsman, using his rudimentary AutoCAD skills, and did not seem to understand why we need to know exactly where the bearing walls were.
But what did come out of the meeting is that he had been incarcerated, something which he played off as being political persecution, and during his time behind bars he found inspiration for a new ministry. They have a website. I won’t name this man or the ministry for multiple reasons. However, this site does have a donate button and also lists a board of directors, with bios, and includes a couple of members who share his surname.
Anyhow, despite his grandiose plans, on paper, we have yet to sell anything to him. He has gotten updates on the quotes about once a year since then and more recently has given plans, similarly half-baked, for another large development project. We’re not holding our breath on any of these grand ideas ever breaking ground.
Still, there is something about this man’s essential character that has intrigued me and it seems to parallel a particular brand of Protestant religion that could be summed up this way:
They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
(1 Timothy 4a-6 NIV)
Forgive Me, I’m Grandiose!
The one thing that jumped out to me about this particular man is that his ministry is focused on forgiveness. In his testimony, there is lots of talk about his personal growth, and the sins of the other incarcerated men he met, but no admission of guilt or expression of repentance. Now, that said, he does seem to be sincere enough, and I don’t want to extrapolate too much from that omission. And yet, that is where the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually begins, with our humility and making restitution if we can.
What it looks like to me is that this is a guy out to impress. A product of health and wealth evangelicalism. I mean, it isn’t just enough for him to keep having Bible studies with those he met. No, he needs to build a ministry empire, a huge complex complete with a basketball court the he drew up, with himself being the center of it all.
This is a good time to look at how the passage quoted above continues:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
(1 Timothy 7-10 NIV)
So many in America seem to be obsessed with size and comfort. Bigger is better. And give me heated seats with leather too! People flock to mega-churches, like Joel Osteen’s, looking for some of that low-commitment high reward religion.
But for every one of the televangelist salesmen who made it, there are a hundred other Evangeli-cons with ‘ministries’ writing books or seeking donations for their vision and never quite getting there.
You would think that the Christian life was more about having a campus and private jet, with flashy seminars, like Bill Gothard in the 1980s, and not about following a guy who gave up the power of God’s throne, who even transferred his ministry to his disciples rather than stick around:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
(John 16:7 NIV)
There is something to be said for starting something and then getting out of the way. Or at least being happy to just do what is within your reach already rather than keep dreaming about bigger. If Jesus was willing to exit stage left and step out of the picture so the disciples would be able to do “greater things” (John 14:12 NIV) who are we to ever cling to our own ‘ministry’ ambitions?
Whether they start out being good or not, many of these parachurch organizations lack appropriate oversight, exacerbate the flaws of the founders, and end up hurting people or embroiled in scandal. Perhaps more should heed the warning of James:“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Perhaps more, taking this to heart, would bridle their tongues rather than appoint themselves as the big cheese out to teach or impose their perspective on the masses?
I know the rush that comes from having an audience. When a couple of my blogs went viral I had thoughts that it may be the launching pad to something even greater. But, fortunately, that blew over and I’m really not in need of that kind of pressure. My goal, right now, is to be the best husband and father I can be and any ministry besides that will need to come from God. As grandiose as I can be, the thought of thousands of people following after my lead is absolutely terrifying, and thus I’m glad to be a bit player—I don’t think I could be saved from myself if I were too popular or powerful.
It seems many, raised under Biblical preaching, fall easy prey to get-rich-quick scams and religious frauds. Instead of heeding St Paul and being content with food and shelter, they chase wealth and notoriety or position for themselves. Despite the rebukes of Matthew 13, they clamor for titles important to their peers, like missionary or pastor, they’re self-important people, creating a new parachurch organization rather than falling under an established body that may require them to be accountable to more than their fawning yes men or adoring fans.
There are many who will have had their reward, their name being known here and not in heaven. Many more are led astray by these ‘spiritual’ guru con-artists who exploit their itching ears and insatiable appetites.
God of the Paradox
Naturally, we’re drawn to the awesome. A spectacular sunset or sunrise, powerful war machines, the massive pyramids or majestic mountains. God too is frequently put in terms of his boundless attributes or those events like destructive floods, miraculous parting of a sea, and even the creation of the universe.
Why would God, obsessed with size and power, be interested in man?
The answer is that God is as much God of the still and small as the feats beyond human comprehension:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(1 Kings 19:11-13 NIV)
Elijah had just witnessed something incredible prior to this, fire from heaven, and one would think may cement his faith. But he still fled into the wilderness, terrified of a wicked queen and wanting to die.
We may think that God is like us, loving to intimate with shock and awe. And yet God is as present in the still and small as anywhere else.
You can’t have a relationship with a powerful wind, an earthquake or fire.
So maybe rather than the performance with a light show or having a following of thousands, we should seek to be like the One who wants to be personal and intimate with us? Indeed, it is not the charismatic preacher, aloof in those designer jeans, raking in six figures nor those who parachute in for a charity project before returning home to their comforts, who make the most difference. Rather it is those who have integrity, who admit their faults, and who live at the same level as those whom they love.
This is the true Gospel:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)
This is why wealth and power too easily stand in the way of following Christ. Sure, we can always say that if we had more resources we could do more. But, in reality, being rich in resources often comes at the expense of the mission of introducing others to Jesus. How can we ever claim to represent God who became man when we need a private jet, fancy literature or sponsors back home, to follow Him?
Dare I say that those many who most confidently claim to be the representatives of Jesus are, in truth, the most full of themselves?
Satan was obsessed with glory for himself and Judas loved money at the expense of mercy for others. We should take this into consideration before seeking the spotlight for ourselves. It is better to remain humble.
The way of Christ is suffering for the sake of others—not to build a ministry empire that seems to be suspiciously about us. It is about those visiting those imprisoned for their righteousness—not about demanding others spare us the consequences of our own sins.
Of the many issues that are defined by false dichotomies one of them is most glaring and that is who bears responsibility for lust. It is very clear that Jesus makes us responsible for our own wandering eyes:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
(Matthew 5:27-30 NIV)
This is the ultimate case for taking personal responsibility and why I don’t buy it when men try to blame women for their lust or claim immodesty caused sexual assault. If poverty is not an excuse for looting or theft from those with something desirable, why would a victim of rape be considered even partly responsible for what was done to them?
If people can blame-shift for one behavior they can for all.
There’s always an excuse for aggression and yet Jesus says that we are responsible for even managing our temptations.
It makes sense. In a world full of advertising telling us to consume, moderation depends on our learning self-control. McDonald’s did not make you fat. No, your choice to bend to the urge to grab yet another Big Mac, on the way home, did that. Ultimately, A truly moral person learns how to avoid stumbling blocks and would sooner remove their own eyes than make excuses.
So where is the false dichotomy?
Well, while we can’t blame fast food restaurants for obesity, we have recognized that advertising does influence decisions. Marketing would not be an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars if this were not the case. For this reason it is worth being aware and acknowledging reality, it is our responsibility not to lust and it is also just smart to recognize the power our physical bodies have over others.
The Two-way Street…
People love to display their bodies for the attention and recognition it brings. We have body building competitions and beauty pageants for this reason. Our bodies are beautiful, like great art, and especially attractive to our sexual opposites.
Some want to have it both ways: They want the positive attention that their bodies bring them and then become angry about being objectified by men. It is as dumb as a sugar daddy being upset about the “gold diggers” when he was the one flaunting his wealth as a way of gaining access to women. If you truly want other people to value you for your personality then make that the centerpiece by being modest about your other ‘assets’ and also seeking others on the same basis rather than being superficial.
The response to overbearing purity culture, where women are wrongly blamed for male struggle, is to deny biological reality and that being sexual attraction. That is to say this ridiculous notion that a person can wear the most revealing and provocative clothing then be upset when they’re objectified. It would be like me claiming that I can walk into a gay bar, wearing hot pants and a tank top, then claim I wasn’t inviting attention.
Modesty is not about preventing others from lusting so much as it is about not advertising what we’re not willing to give to all. If I don’t want anyone to stare or appreciate my Shelby GT-350, I’ll keep it under a cover in the garage and never take it out on the street. Our bodies are an object, they are the most wonderful of physical things, and to appreciate this is not a matter of lust or sin. We should not be offended when people take notice of what we have very publicly displayed.
Finding the Balance…
Jesus said what he did about responsibility for lust as an instruction to those who are trying to be moral.
What he did not do is contradict what others in Scripture told us about being modest nor did he recommend making a big display of our various valuable assets for all to see.
While it is not my fault if my car gets stolen and, indeed, it could happen anywhere—I still understand that the streets of some Baltimore slums are not the place to park my new car with the keys in the ignition.
What this does not mean is that immodesty is an excuse for sexual assault.
Without exception, all cases of lustfulness and sexual abuse are wholly the responsibility of those who are commiting the immoral act. But we should understand that 1) our bodies (albeit sacred) are a desirable object and 2) there are many evil and immoral people willing to take advantage of the unwise. Being an adult means understanding that the world does not always live up to our own ideal we must therefore take reasonable precautions.
Sure, we can curse gravity when we get stumble-down-the-stairs-drunk yet it makes more sense to acknowledge the reality and avoid known risks. For example, wearing a skirt that only leaves the last little bit to the imagination, then going to a frat house party and getting totally wasted, is obviously risky behavior. By denying contributing factors we are, at some point, the enablers of negative outcomes. We should teach our children to protect themselves by being aware of enter-at-your-own-risk situations.
It is why my wife has warned me against talking too openly about my many fanciful dreams in her home country: Although my ambitions are far bigger than my wallet. Some people hearing may misunderstand—think that I’m incredibly wealthy—and this would potentially make me or my family a target for crime. I could complain about this, claim that I should be free to express myself as I please, but that won’t save me from a kidnapping or being murdered.
To be clear, many (if not most) cases of rape and sexual assault have absolutely nothing to do with what the victim wore or where they were. It was a relative or someone they knew who took advantage of their trust and they really could not have done anything better. And, again, even if the victim was ‘immodesty’ dressed, they did not cause the aggression inflicted upon them. If we don’t tell people who were carjacked that they should have left their car in the garage, why would we ever tell a girl that her exposed legs caused an assault?
My point is simply that bad people do exist and aren’t deterred by a lecture about respecting other people or their property and bodies. We know not to put our valuables on display in a seedy neighborhood—it’s just unwise.
Appreciate the Good…
Many who rejected patriarchalism are more the embodiment of the very toxic attitudes that they claim to oppose than those whom they accuse.
As the saying goes, “When you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you,” we should be careful in our zealousness for a cause not to fall into our own delusion.
Or as Jesus taught:
“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 7:3-5 NIV)
Browbeating moral men about “rape culture” is no better than religious fundamentalists who constantly guilt-trip conscientious and modest women about male lusts.
The vast majority of men are not rapists nor is someone a “rape apologist” for stating the truth about sexual attraction and additional risks for women. The fact is that there are bad people in the world, willing to exploit the vulnerable if allowed, and that is why we put locks on our doors. Clothing is just one of many layers of defense and also a way to keep the focus on something other than our bodies.
We take for granted the religious laws against rape, theft or murder, as if such things are written into the substrate of the universe, but the reality is that this is order built upon moral men who use their strength to protect rather than exploit. It is truly only under the protective umbrella of civilization that a person can expect to walk around (without the direct protection of their clan) and not be immediately set upon by predators.
We should, therefore, appreciate the good self-controlled men and distinguish between them and the bad.
There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media. In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population. The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie. It was before my time. But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda. It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.
Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:
“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print. I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is. In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform. As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”
Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference. However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth. What led to this severe reaction? Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.
Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types. Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted. Why? Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits. But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.
What does “Real Christians” actually mean?
The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference. At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right? But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians. The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian. No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him. It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist. This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization. So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.
As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out. And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.” To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.
So why deny it?
Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?
Why not be Mennonite and own it?
The real issue goes deeper. Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites. The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form. Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians. The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church. Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.
The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture. This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.
There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them. This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.
Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…
What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face. For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.
This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice.
First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied. Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me. Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant. It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.
In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies. So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.
And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application. In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice. It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.
The Truth sets free!
The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising. It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does. For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do. The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.
But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth. No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be. We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness. We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices. This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)
Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels. I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us. This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts. When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.
Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see. In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith. It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians. It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.
As abstract minded as I am, always living in my own head, the only evidence of the Gospel narrative that works for me is that which is experienced or practical. I know the apologetics and intellectual arguments, but none are able to bridge the gap or overcome the reasonable doubts.
This idea that we can find God by climbing a tower of human knowledge is very appealing and especially for those of us in this age of information. It is a feature of Protestantism, where the soteriology is centered around the text, an individual’s ability to comprehend and then accepting certain propositions, which ends up being very Gnostic.
The blog, a few weeks ago, that questions resurrection apologetics, left things hanging as far as an alternative. If we can’t prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus died and rose again, as an actual historical event, how can we believe anything in the Gospel? Of course, we can’t prove the resurrection or any past event, how could we?
But is truth really about the past tense or some kind of intellectual theorem? Or is it something we relate to personally, that we must experience for ourselves?
Truth in Narrative
The most compelling evidence for the Gospel is the truth of the narrative itself and by that I mean how the older I get the more I realize that people behave exactly as those in the parables Jesus told and the accounts of his ministry. No, it doesn’t absolutely prove the extraordinary claims, but the Bible as a window into human psychology and sociology is quite fascinating.
Jesus started his ministry with a broad appeal, people wanted change and he quickly developed a following. It is very easy to gather a crowd by proclaiming to be the source of hope and change. But, as his teaching progressed, and it became clearer that his kingdom was not about the political power the masses wanted, and he started to say some weird stuff as he got to what would be required, the crowd thinned.
People don’t want the truth, they want their truth, to be validated for what they already believe. But Jesus taught the way to truth was by partaking of his body and blood, to make the sacrifice play, relying on faith and God for their sustenance rather than their own human reasoning. That’s why it was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler to attain eternal life—he was relying on his own goodness to save him.
Truth in Symbolism
It is interesting what freaked out the crowd in Jesus day also is a bridge too far with many who profess to be Christian:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
(John 6:35 NIV)
And he doubles down when the audience begins to grumble:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
(John 6:53-56 NIV)
This is what followed:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
(John 6:60-66 NIV)
This was a rejection of materialism. He was pointing to something mystical, something that transcended their understanding of reality, their version of the universe and thus they fled from him. It is also very interesting that the coming betrayal of one of the twelve is mentioned by Jesus in this context, that perhaps this is where Judas Iscariot became disillusioned?
My own Anabaptist religious roots, given the Zwinglian influence, is very agnostic as far as the Mystical Supper. While being strict fundamentalists otherwise, like insistence on a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Creation narrative, in the book of Genesis, they will deny the substance of the words that Jesus said (above) that caused so many to fall away from Him. To them being a “follower of Jesus” takes a very practical turn and too practical in that it ignores the mystical in favor of the rational.
But, if one believes that Jesus actually walked on water or really turned water into wine, why would they ever question (or try to reinterpret) when he says “this is my body” and claim it means something other than what he said?
The thing is, yes, there is a practical, even a humanist, component to Christianity and yet it all must be in this context of Communion with God or it is only human effort. And, to go a step further, no, it is not all about barn raising practicality either, it is about truth in worship. We don’t do what we do in a spirit of utopian idealism, we do it because we believe their is a substance of bread, a bread of heaven, greater than what we can sense with our taste buds.
Truth in Action
There are many who are into the pageantry of religion, wearing the ‘right’ colors or cut according to their tradition, yet not willing to live out the actual substance of faith and Communion. Yes, the Orthodox understand that Christianity centers on the mystical, that there is no spiritual life outside of partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Still, it is a denial of Christ, and not true mysticism, when the rituals are not a reflection of real love of our family:
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)
The book of James was inconvenient for Martin Luther and also for all of those who would rather keep their religion between them, their own understanding of a book, and God.
But the truth is not about our own personal knowledge or judgment. Judas could quote the words of Jesus as good as any of the other disciples. And yet it takes more than our understanding a set of propositions or a mental exercise. As Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” That is where the truth is, in our coming together, in our loving each other as Christ first loved us:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:7-12 NIV)
In the parables Jesus told, in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, there is truth. Also, in our partaking in the mysteries of the Church, in our Communion together as the body of believers, there is truth. But the truth that us most significant, and the only real Christian apologetic there is, is the truth of our love for each other. That is the truth of Christ Jesus, who came in the flesh to demonstrate the love of God.
True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on. If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?
Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus. This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic. Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.
It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument. I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?
So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:
1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree
Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles. Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.
However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim. The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.
So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag. He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.
But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation. The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection. It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance. An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.
So what about this shift in thinking?
Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room. In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.
When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.
As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus. Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution. The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason. And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.
The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists. There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.
We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs. I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward. No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?
2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics
Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation. I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke. And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.
He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts. The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart. And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.
That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters. Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims. It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.
In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people. I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience. But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable. It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.
So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition. I will accept that he was brought into the church. There is no reason to take issue with any of this. And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development. And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists. A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.
3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great
Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source. There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great. Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.
And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree. Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.
The biggest lies are always laced with facts. It is how so many people are snookered. A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves. They may have credentials and compelling stories. The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union. That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.
The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?
Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true. Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained. No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical. Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?
The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great. It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.
4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back
Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism. This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough. It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.
And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.
Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender. However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.
The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter?
It really does not.
5) Why Die For A Lie?
Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman. She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage. But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits. There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.
The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection. As in who would die for something that they know is a lie? And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.
But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false. Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them? Some did. But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?
It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious. As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened. Why? Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?
So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before. I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way. For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.
Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want? I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter. That doesn’t make Mormonism true. No, this is just how we are. Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies. What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.
Is That Really the Best We Have?
I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer. I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.
That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.
Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics. It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.
In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons. He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker. However, the same is also true for why people believe. We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this. It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.
It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism. Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture. But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves. I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.
Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven. They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith. It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.
The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all?
Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?
It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget. And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd. Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.
The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy. A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true. There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative. First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years. Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else. And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?
This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either. My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is. It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us. What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love.
Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…
Put away those pink vagina hats, feminists, 2017 might as well be 17 BC, this is the current year, now wearing such a monstrous thing on your head is a clear sign of bigotry and transphobia. How would those ‘women’ with penises feel? A pussyhat is worse than a Confederate battle flag or MAGA hat and completely insensitive.
A decade ago answering the question of what a woman is would be easy for most people. My mom is a woman. That’s what we call the part of mankind that is able to give birth: A womb-man.
But, in the age of far-left ‘woke’ politics, this isn’t so easy anymore. And this is the reason why, Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Supreme Court nominee, when asked, “Can you provide a definition for the word woman?” replied, “I can’t, not in this context, I’m not a biologist.”
Now, some are calling this question a trap, which it is. It is a question intended to reveal the true character of Brown Jackson and it has. Brown Jackson has shown herself as someone beholden to far-left extremism and unwilling to state a basic understanding that doesn’t need a biologist to get it right.
This is someone whom we are supposed to trust to make judgements on such matters, being interviewed for a job that is all about providing the final legal interpretations. Will she also refuse to weigh in on the language of the law because she’s not one of the writers? “I’m sorry, but I can’t rule on this, I didn’t write the Constitution.”
Alas, I think this is a selective lack of basic comprehension of what even children can figure out. And we all know that it is not fair for a biological male to change his name, take some hormones, and then dominate women. However, in the current ‘woke’ political paradigm one must pretend that a man competing as women is somehow stunning and brave.
The true irony of all this is that the pushers of the very same identity politics that moved Brown Jackson to the front of the line, which is completely about dividing people up into categories as a means to exploit their base tribal instincts, nominated someone who claims to suddenly be unable to distinguish women from men.
Man, I Feel Like A Women
And as far as the appeal to credentialism, I’m not sure any biologist would want to be declared to be transphobic and a bigot. It would be a quick route to losing their job or funding, being cancelled, to risk offending the most powerful of marginalized. Let’s hope this USA Today clip doesn’t represent a scientific community consensus or we’re in for a rough ride:
If this is indeed true, if there is “no sufficient way to clearly define what makes someone a woman,” then the solution to the alleged pay gap is to have more men identify as women, right?
If Jeff Bezos becomes Jen instead, would that be a huge victory for women?
Would it then be sexist to question the business practices of Amazon?
All of this is absurd. A word that can’t be defined is meaningless. We might as well remove it from the census form as it would be impractical to consult a biologist to help decide what gender we on a given day. If it is that difficult to define woman, then we may all be women and who can say otherwise? Who hasn’t sang along with Shania Twain, “Man, I feel like a woman”?
Transgenderism is truly a bigger threat to the special privileges of women than anything patriarchal. It is essentially to say that the category does not exist, that anyone who identities as a woman can be a woman, and therefore all should have access to those spaces typically reserved for women. Lia Thomas has arrived to erase the best efforts of women.
Loss of Meaning and Purpose
The one thing that is hard to define in this postmodern age, where a woman can’t even say what it actually means to be a woman, is our direction. Even with the rejection of God and questioning of truth, a prior generation of academics and scientists could agree on basic definitions enough to advance.
However, as this nihilistic deconstruction of meaning (and thus purpose) continued, as the very things that built civilization have become progressively eroded over time, it is become increasingly difficult to form a productive consensus. If many can’t even be objective about gender and what it means to be a woman anymore, how will we decide anything if this goes further?
Language is becoming detached from the meaning. This is a wedge driven by those perpetually stuck in dithering indecision, who are often insulated from real world consequences, who can afford to live in abstraction and denial. But it is not sustainable, we can’t build strong and safe bridges while declaring engineering and mathematics to be racist.
At some point there is reality, cold and harsh, that doesn’t care about our feelings.
Our elites are basically like those ridiculed for their debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a needle. They have become totally impractical, useless as far as executive decision making and a real threat to social order. Those unable to settle any matter definitively, let alone those truly more complex and nuanced, can’t build a future together.
It is a luxury, the ultimate privilege, to never have to define or decide anything and still be able to live.
The guy, trying to impress his date with his wokeness beside me, doesn’t actually live by the dogmas he is spouting, he can yammer on endlessly about his theories, but to sustain a relationship he’s going to have to make a commitment to something, eventually, or no woman will keep him around for long.
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.
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.
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 me—with getting my own conflicted heart right.
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.
My grandma, a firstborn (and her mother as well), I’ll always remember her as my fierce defender, giving grandpa a sharp rebuke after I came in crying having crossed gardening implements with him while defending an unauthorized dam project. She wielded her matriarchal authority well, always able to stand up to grandpa as need be and yet never in a demeaning or inappropriate way.
My mother, also a firstborn in her family, was always willing and able to plot her own course. She sent us to public school, after stopping in at a local Elementary school and feeling comfortable with the staff there, which is unusual in conservative Mennonite circles where everyone else was fleeing to the safe spaces of parochial and home school alternatives. She taught us to think and now, as a grandma, has helped to start a medical clinic, which she currently manages.
My eldest sister, a firstborn, was a trailblazer. To pursue her childhood dream of being a medical doctor, faced a strong headwind of conservative Mennonite cultural ideas as to the appropriate role of women. She was always an overachiever, set the bar impossibly high for me, she was all-state violin, she finished in the top tier of her class and did this as the child of two high school dropouts. Her academic success continued throughout her university years and into medical school. She now runs a pediatric clinic for Amish children with genetic disorders.
My little sister continues to impress. She has always been her own person, able to hold her own with three older siblings, and has also progressed with her own education. She’s a registered nurse and, more recently, a certified midwife. Petite and pretty, as she is, she is quite capable of speaking her mind and has always kept me honest in any kind of intellectual discussion. She is both sensitive and practical, feminine and fearless or at least she’s not afraid of snakes like I am.
The point is, I have always been surrounded by strong and independent women. Sure, my grandma, my mother, and both sisters (at least through their time in school) all dressed according to conservative Mennonite religious/cultural tradition. But this outward appearance did not mean they were oppressed, the women in my life would never allow it, and that’s how it should be.
Women Should Be Given Special Protection
One of the results of feminist backlash against patriarchal abuse is the idea that the differences between men and women are entirely a social construct rather than something of nature. Of course, this is in defiance of science and things that are easily observed. Men and women are physically different, that’s how we make the distinction at birth, and also slightly different in our natural programming.
Sure, not every woman wants a pink ribbon in her hair. We’re all unique individuals. And, absolutely, women can do the same mental and basic physical tasks as men. Women can be engineers, men can be hairdressers, and there’s nothing at all wrong with those who go against gender stereotypes. But, generally, when women are allowed to be women, and men are allowed to be men, there are distinct tendencies that emerge.
There is social conditioning or expectations pertaining to gender and yet it isn’t all a construct. Consider the fact that female athletes suffer more injuries, like ACL tears, due to their physiology or hormonal differences. Men do tend to be physically bigger. Women are also capable of doing something that a man can’t do. Women are generally better at some things and men are better at other things. It’s just our biology at work.
For this reason, absolute equality is not ideal. Female athletes may complain about unequal pay and yet none would want to compete on an equal field against men. Men would completely dominate female sports. There is no woman out there that would be able to beat the most elite men for their positions in professional or even collegiate sports. Take the UPenn swimmer who now identifies as a woman, allowed to compete in the NCAA women’s competition despite being born with male genitalia and competing as a man only a few years ago, who is now crushing women’s records.
And that’s exactly why we have separate leagues for men and women.
I haven’t heard anyone say that the very existence of the WNBA is patriarchal and should be abolished in the name of equality, have you?
Women should be given special accommodations. They do have to contend with a different set of circumstances from men and thus should therefore be privileged in some situations. That’s why we have separate sports leagues, restroom facilities, among other things, to allow fairer competition, greater safety, and simply more opportunity for women. Protecting women is a matter of survival for the species.
The ‘Birkenhead Drill’ (otherwise known as “women and children first“) refers back to a tragic incident in 1852. The H.M.S. Birkenhead, a Royal Navy troopship, was sailing around the horn of Africa with 634 souls on board and collided with uncharted rocks. It began to take on water and was doomed to sink. In the chaos, where it was discovered that many of the lifeboats on the ship were unusable, the seven women and thirteen children were loaded onto the few functional emergency craft and lowered into the sea.
Originally the idea would have been to allow the men to jump overboard. However, anticipating that this might imperil the boats in the water, the commanding officer ordered his troops to “stand fast” rather than jump in, which they did—as the ship split in two and went under the waves they stood like good soldiers. This act of self-sacrificial courage does not make sense in an economy where all are equal. Why should these men have been expected to give their own lives for sake of women and children?
But the answer is quite simple. Both the womb and youthfulness represent the greater potential for our species. It is simply for sake of our collective survival, so that there is a next-generation to follow, that in these dire circumstances men instinctively know who is most valuable (usually of their own clan) and act accordingly. And thus, when there is no other way, a handful of women and children do indeed become worth the lives of hundreds of men. It’s a privilege of being a woman.
Statistical Disparities and Oversimplification
I have a new coworker. Other than experience, his qualifications are similar to my own and we perform many of the same tasks. I’m not actually sure what he gets paid, although I do know that it is probably different from the compensation that I receive. It could be more, could be less.
If it would turn out that this new colleague gets paid more than I do could we assume the reason?
Is it because he is taller than me?
Statistics do show that taller men, amongst the many privileges they have, do earn more on average than shorter men. This would make my pay deficit seem like an open and shut case of height discrimination, right? Except, it is not. There is a multitude of reasons why one employee could receive better compensation than another. Maybe he put more hours in? Perhaps he is better at negotiating in the hiring process? I mean, his height could help, who knows? But it is not a certainty and we would have to look into more variables before drawing our conclusions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to similar disparities elsewhere, like the differences in outcomes between genders, many will neglect multi-variant analysis and lock onto the most simplistic explanation. Relevant to this blog, if there aren’t as many female scientists, or there appears to be a pay gap between men and women, then this must be some sort of systemic bias against women, right? I mean, what else could it possibly be?
Of course, the possibilities are endless. No two jobs or people are alike. Assuming gender discrimination also neglects the possibility that most women may (for a variety of good reasons) choose to work fewer hours, be less assertive, or interested in promotion on average, than men with the same titles. I mean, perhaps there is more to their life than earning a paycheck? And, for the same reason, the lifestyle, most men wouldn’t truly want to be a CEO. A more demanding higher paying job simply is not desirable to most people.
Besides, there are other ways to gain wealth that doesn’t involve punching a time card. We often hear how women earn less. And yet somehow, despite this, women also make more consumer decisions and spend more than men. How are both of these things possible? Well, simply, there are other ways of obtaining resources other than going to the office. The wives of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, for example, did not become wealthy by their own market innovations or CEO-level workaholism.
A woman who wants a career should not be hindered. I believe that all people should be free to pursue what they see as best for them. There are women who are brilliant mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, they should be allowed to pursue an education and compete for employment like a man. That’s truly equal opportunity and fair.
What’s not fair is when institutions begin lowering standards to meet diversity quotas. Not only does that cheat those who are actually qualified and had to meet the higher requirements, but it will also produce a stigma that disqualifies the achievement of even for those who truly did earn their positions. The sad irony of a “diversity hire” (when someone gets the job because of their genitalia, skin color, or anything else not actually related to the work needing to be done) is that it only reinforces the negative stereotypes.
Not everyone is cut out to be an Olympic gymnast. It would make no sense to replace Simone Biles with a slightly overweight middle-aged male and, for the same reason, it is absolutely absurd to lower physical standards for sake of opening spots for women who would not qualify otherwise. It is not fair to individuals nor beneficial to the collective society to give some a free pass. Equality of effort and qualifications is as important as equality of opportunity, but equality of outcomes is impossible. I’m never going to land a triple-twisting double somersault. Ever. And that’s not because the system is stacked against me.
Differences in ability should not be thought of as being less valuable. Some can dance, others can carry a rucksack for twelve miles, I’m pretty sure I’m not up to either task at the moment, but I am a good friend and decent writer. None of those things are worth much in terms of monetary wealth and yet all things fulfilling in their own way. So who decides what is or is not valuable again? And is money truly the measure of value?
Money and Masculine Qualities Are Overvalued
One of the biggest lies of our time is that value is something that is measured in dollars and cents. I mean, sure, we need money to buy stuff and therefore the ability to obtain this resource is important. And yet there are many extremely wealthy and completely unhappy people. A big bank account does not provide the security, nor the sense of purpose in this world, that many seem to believe it will.
For that reason, it is sad to me to see so many people, women in particular, who seem to think that the rat race is what life is truly about. Modern parents seem to have decided the things they can provide are more important than their time together and shunt their children to daycare. It is unnatural, dare I say unhealthy (in that it robs children of a safe space) to outsource the next generation to low-wage workers. How did we get to this point where we would rather put our best efforts in for corporations, and those who would replace us in a second, over our own future?
Somehow we have become convinced that masculine interests and abilities are superior. The one thing that women can do, that is carry a child in their womb, is treated as something unimportant or second-rate rather than as the most wonderful of things. Our forebears were wiser, they understood what “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand the rules the world” and the incredible power of the nurturing mother. But, now, instead of men and women complementing each other, working to their own strengths, and being valued for unique their roles, we have them competing for the same spot.
Who sold us this bill of goods and why?
Without a doubt, women have faced patriarchal abuse and discrimination. But is the answer really to this really to measure success in terms of career and raw income earning potential? Is it really empowering women to tell them that their own unique abilities, as women, do not matter and political power is everything? I mean, it’s a lie. I have no deep love for any politician out there, not even those I’ve voted for, but have endless appreciation for my mother and would die for Charlotte. This idea that somehow money and political power are everything is cancer.
The Feminist Plot Twist
Feminism is a term invented by a man, Charles Fourier, trying to enlist women to his utopian socialist political cause. To use people politically, one divides them up into competing identity groups, feeds their discontentment, tells them they would be better-if [insert simplistic political solution to complex issue] and then can pretty much steer the resulting angry mob where ever they need it to be.
The problem with political ideologies is that they externalize responsibility for our happiness. In other words, it is an idea that if only an external obstacle, like the patriarchy, were removed (through political action) then we would finally have that wonderful life we hoped for. This is not empowering. Perpetual victimhood or continual discontentment due to external circumstances is the most debilitating of human conditions.
Furthermore, it is always false hope, intentionally so, because the ‘revolution’ must always be ongoing, the war against “toxic masculinity” or whatever scary new Boogeyman they come up with can’t end. Your happiness is always in the future and completely depends on the leaders of the movement. The solution will always be out there. It is a promise to keep you pulling the ideological cart they’ve concocted and never leads to your true empowerment.
There will always be things unfair or outside of our control. I’m not a woman, I’ll never be a woman, but I do know that all my complaints about height discrimination and the invisible barrier to my own success never got me anywhere. And truly, once disappointment festered and self-pity took root, I could’ve had all the opportunity, all the money or power imaginable, everything that I had ever craved thinking it would bring fulfillment and still not found a source of happiness.
Contentment is an inner state, a spiritual manifestation, and not a matter of external circumstances. The problem with feminism is the problem with any political ideology and that is that it will never bring fulfillment or happiness. Women have gained voting rights, a higher percentage of women graduated college than men, and yet are more unhappy than ever despite this century of feminist progress.
Could it be that a truly empowered person (male or female) is one that doesn’t measure their own success by how they compare to others?
Could it be that fulfillment comes from losing ourselves, our competing identities, in the service of others, and something greater than our gender?
The feminist plot twist is that the ideology serves those who don’t truly want strong women and merely use discontentment for their own political gain. Women are simply another pawn to thrown at their ideological enemies and only appreciated when they’re useful to their socialist masters. It is worse than patriarchalism because it has convinced many women that their unique abilities are worthless and being more like a man will bring happiness. It has not and will never empower women.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?