Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

One Nation or the Divide

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“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

(Malachi 4:5-6 NIV)

That end to the Old Testament has intrigued me.  It contains a very clear either/or option.  Either the people heed the message of Elijah or the land will be totally destroyed.  God desired all to be saved, to be united in love for each other, and yet also doesn’t force the relationship and eventually the opportunity for reconciliation will end.

This is how John the Baptist was introduced in the New Testament:

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

(Luke 1:16‭-‬17 NIV)

Very aspirational. 

Unfortunately, we see how this would eventually work out for the nation, as a whole, of those who didn’t repent or turn from their religious elitism.  We see it in the following pronouncement of Jesus:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,  a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

(Matthew 10:34‭-‬36 NIV)

Many picked or else. 

They choose their own destruction rather than heed the message and accept the offer of repentance and life. 

I’m convinced it didn’t need to be that way, that had the people accepted their Lord and Savior, the city of Jerusalem would’ve stood and would not have been destroyed by the Romans.  It was political division, the insanity of the zealots (including Judas) pursuing their own version of social justice, the complacent ruling class unable to make up their minds, that ultimately doomed the city to destruction.

Jesus is uniting or divisive.  The choice is ours.  Like it or not, the Gospel lays out a choice between unity or division.  The truth will set you free or you’ll stay in bondage to your sin, to your preferences, your prejudices and perish.  If we would truly choose Jesus then we would let go of all of our other identities, grievances and special privileges, we would be united in love. 

Many who profess Christ today are more like those who rejected him.  They choose tribe over unity, they choose political gain over peace, they accuse others while being as guilty or more guilty themselves.  We would be wise to do as Jesus told his disciples regarding those who refuse to hear, to kick the dust from our sandals and move on to those more receptive.

Peace Through Separation 

This theme of peace through separation is throughout Scripture, one example being Abram and Lot:

“…quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.  So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.  Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

(Genesis 13:7-13 NIV)

Lot picked the area close to the city, pitching his tent towards Sodom, Abram went the other way, and the strife between their clans ended.  Nobody was offended, there was no reason to be offended, seperation to avoid unnecessary conflict is a peaceable solution. 

We see the same happen in the New Testament:

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, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

(Acts 15:36-41 NIV)

Imagine that.  A sharp disagreement, even within the early church, leading to a parting of ways.  And it actually seemed to work for the best.  Sometimes the best solution to an irreconcilable difference is to go different ways.  It seems that actually enhanced rather than take way from their respective ministries.  At the very least, we see this affair being stated matter of factly and not a cause for additional drama.

There is, however, at least one case of separation gone awry and that’s when Pharoah refused to let the children of Isreal go.  He had refused after first bring asked nicely, relented only after a series of plagues that increased in severity, then changed his mind once again and pursued those seeking freedom from him.  Why?  Well, because he was exploiting their labor and knew letting them go would cost him.

That is also how an abusive spouse acts.  They simply can’t tolerate someone wanting to get away from them, they’re insecure, they need to have control, and would sooner murder the other person than allow them to go in peace.  They can’t stand that someone would dare to expose their own ugliness and will slander the other party rather than repent of creating the conditions that led to the other party being uncomfortable remaining with them.

A Christian is able to walk away in peace, without things ending on their own terms, but those who are exploiting others or trying to advantage themselves cannot.  Is it better that there is no seperation?  Sure.  Is separation wrong when remaining together becomes unbearable?  Absolutely not!  In short, seperation is a peaceable solution for peaceable people.  But tyrants, who must have their own way, will refuse to leave others be.

Two Groups, Presenting an A-B Option

About six months ago, in response to the increased promotion of tribalism, I started a group on social media “One Nation Under God…”  The point was to present an alternative to these divisive forces.  A place where people of all colors, creeds, genders, or orientations could celebrate our common humanity together.  The idea being that we could act “one nation” rather than allow our differences to divide us.  I featured a picture of a diverse group of American children and posted feel-good stories of people overcoming conflicts, Good Samaritan acts, and kindness. 

Love Thy Neighbor

That group, which is representative of my highest aspirations and my desire to be unified with all, only attracted a handful of friends and remains at only a few dozen members.  I would rather that we learn to get along, to hear each other’s perspectives, to find our common humanity, and respect our differences. 

That’s definitely my option A. 

However, around the start of the new year, after a contentious election season and continuing strife, seeing some voices were not being represented, I decide (on a whim) to start a group where disenfranchised rural people could find a home.  My group description contrasted “two different Americans” and went on to note the differing cultural values between rural and urban people, with a lament of double standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution.  

The point? 

Well, on one level, it was option B, to advocate for an amicable divorce rather than continue the perpetual conflict and subjugation of one half of the country or the other every four years. 

But, on another level, it was still in hopes of option A, to make those on the ‘other side’ aware of this grievance, to hopefully find a listening ear, and then find an understanding together.  In other words, it was the same reason that any other peaceful advocacy group exists, to give some a voice in the conversation, to say our culture matters, to stop sweeping our issues under the rug, and have a dialogue.

First and foremost, the group was created as a haven for rural people, who tend to be more reserved and too often get dominated by their socially adept, politically powerful, urban counterparts.  There was no hate or contempt for those on the other side of the divide, only a listing of different cultural values, a lament of double-standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution to irreconcilable differences.  Rural people have the same desire to feel safe, to feel reasonably represented, and speak against the cultural imperialism of the truly privileged as anyone else.

Many people are fleeing urban areas to escape tyranny and violence.  And they are all welcome to live in rural areas.  But, that said, those bringing their problems with them, their tribalism and hate, are best staying where they are rather than have them bring their divisiveness to us.  Little old Asian women aren’t being physically assaulted by grown men in central Pennsylvania and some of us would rather keep it that way.  We believe in equal justice under the law, merit and not quotas, and no special treatment for some over others.

Respect our values or let us go our separate ways.  That’s all.  Option A and B.  Hear the grievance and maybe we can patch things up.  That’s always possible.  But, respond with more accusations and hate?  Yeah, that will only confirm my own reason to leave.

Pharaoh’s ‘Woke’ Army Is Outraged

I was blindsided by it.  A friend went me a private message to alert me.  The eye of Sauron had found The Rural Divide and the legions of far-left sympathizing, the hoards of apologists for wokeism and closed social justice warriors were on their way to overrun this resistance to their totalitarian agenda.  Behind the buttery smooth words, of well-trained passive-aggressive Mennonite-borns, there was seething rage—a sea of hatred, irrationality and nasty accusations

Murder in words.

Only one person reached out for an explanation.  A few others to heap condemnation and clearly unwilling to listen.  Even some old friends were unwittingly used as pawns.  But the truly disappointing part is that those who led this campaign know me enough to know that their characterization of the group was a lie.

For those who don’t know me, I was the religious odd ball at my school (as a conservative Mennonite) and found my place amongst the other misfits. One of my close friends, throughout my school years, came out of the closet in highschool and never once did I think of him as less a person than me. My cafeteria clique consisted of the only Roman Catholic and Mormon guys in the school, an ethnic Indian Hindu, a Filipino Seventh-day adventist. My other closest friend was an atheist fellow.

After school, I’ve only ever dated women categorized as “people of color” according to the current jargon. I’ve punched an openly racist Kansan (not my finest moment) and lost my job as a result. I was obsessed with the Civil Rights Era and fully embraced what Martin Luther King Jr said about content of character over color of skin. My assailants are mostly whites who grew up in ethically homogeneous enclaves, homeschooled, often privileged over me and extremely gullible too. They, like their forbearers, seem to believe that their own poop don’t stink.

So Woke.

Anyhow, back to the present drama, one particularly sanctimonious religious elite, likely trying to impress his peers with this virtue signaling display, suggested that those who joined the group were not even Christian. 

Imagine that, you get a random request for a group, decide to accept the invite to see what it is, and bam suddenly you’re out of the Kingdom.  Wow!  Yeah, I’m thinking this extremely judgmental elite confuses Christianity with cancel culture.  Or maybe it is that they are from a conservative Mennonite background where a marriage partner who separates from their abuser is often treated as the guilty party?  The apple doesn’t always fall far from the tree, does it?

I’m sure they are too ‘woke’ to carry on the prior generation’s opinions regarding abused women leaving their abusers.  And yet, under this new facade of social justice, they carry on the exact same attitude in regards to those who wish to be separated from those that routinely accuse, slander, and belittle them?

Reminds me of this:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!  “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

(Matthew 23:29‭-‬39 NIV)

It is interesting, first, that this passage above contains both a loving lament and harsh condemnation, both in the same thought.  This goes back to the either/or proposition of Malachi.  Second, those who killed Jesus, along with the other prophets, thought they were the enlightened and righteous ones.  Saul, who latter become St Paul, harassed, pursued and killed Christians thinking this was God’s work.  He found fault in others despite being murderous himself and it was only after repentance that he could see.

The very same people today, who are heroes in their own eyes for attacking peaceable people today, would likely be cheering loudly for Jim Crow laws a few generations ago, or aligned with Bolsheviks in Russia and Nazis in Germany before their atrocities were fully known.  It’s amazing the similarities between abusers, both then and now, rather than live and let live or leave when unwelcomed, they “pursue to town to town” and demand their piece of God’s people like the mob of degenerates in Sodom wanting a to ‘know’ Lot’s angelic visitors:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

(Genesis 19:4‭-‬5 NIV)

The far-left is equally aggressive today in pursuit of anyone who would rather not be with them.  If you’re putoff by their nastiness they’ll accuse you of an “ism” or being “phobic” and harass and lie in an effort to have their way with you.  To them you have no rights as an individual, you belong to them, and if you refuse their advances they will  break your door down…

And those outraged about The Rural Divide acted in the same manner.  They attacked in a swarm, relentless, demanding to know why the group existed, trying to infiltrate, and were no different than that enraged mob picking up stones to murder St Stephen for his paraphrasing of what Jesus said:

“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.”

(Acts 7:52‭ NIV)

A Time To Reconcile, A Time To Choose A Side

If anyone in that cabal of hate and hysteria would like to approach me and apologize, I’m more than willing to forgive the slanderous attacks.  Unlike the far-left, I believe in repentance, that people should be forgiven of their faults and can change.  I’m willing to reconcile with any of those who participated in this spreading of malicious nonsense about me.  A simple apology admitting that they misunderstood or were misled into believing my group was something it was not would be sufficient enough.

There are those whom I blocked on social media for their racism or otherwise rude and elitist behavior that I would gladly welcome back into my life if there was a hint of repentance. That’s option A.

This is option B:

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.

(1 Corinthians 5:11 NIV)

St Paul prefaces this by saying that he’s not speaking against association with sinful non-Christians, who God will judge. But he’s talking about those who profess Christ and yet refuse to repent of their sin. This excommunication is necessary to maintain our own integrity and as not to confuse our non-believing neighbors. It applies, not in cases of different preferences, but in cases of clearly defined sin and lack of repentance. In case I’m unclear:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions.

(1 Timothy 6:3‭-‬4 NIV)

I’m sure this was just St Paul’s white cisgender male privilege speaking right?

More toxic masculinity, I suppose?

Whatever the case, if even Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways over a dispute, both early church missionaries and leaders, then why is it so offensive or wrong that some would rather peaceably divide rather than continue in a quarrel?  Isn’t that what happened with Abram and Lot when their groups were in conflict?  Abraham going the way of the country and Lot picking the life of the city?

In the end, it is laughable that any Protestant religious separatist, especially these proud social justice preaching types who still identify as “Anabaptist” and refuse to seek membership with the universal church, would be at all critical of those rural folks who wish to have a separate space for themselves.  Their hateful reaction confirmed every reason why The Rural Divide exists.

The Rural Divide is a group open to all shades of skin color, even those of other cultures, but only where there is mutual respect and not cultural imperialism. And, yes, the unrepentant ‘woke’ nationalists can stay out.

Relax, folks, it is just a Facebook group.

Everyone else has their safe space, wants their communities and values to be respected.

Why not the rural minorities?

A Man Under Authority

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At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns transportation in the Philippines ground to a halt and left Charlotte with a dilemma. She had started a new job and didn’t want to lose her spot in this highly competitive market where the position would soon be filled. But how would she safely get there from her apartment?

A world away, and definitely sympathetic to her plight, I did not want my ‘bhest’ to throw away the time that she had spent training. She has studied for this new job diligently, had made me proud, and it was not an effort that I wanted her to sacrifice. However, I was also very much concerned about her well-being. Baguio City is not like small-town Pennsylvania, her uncle Roland had been murdered a little over a year ago, and it isn’t recommended to walk in the dark all alone.

How was I supposed to advise her?

In the absence of a firm understanding of all of the dynamics of her circumstances, not wanting to impose too much on her autonomy and push her one way or another, I equivocated. My answer was a meandering non-answer where I expressed my thought that she should do what she could, within reason, to keep her new job. But then, I also restated the risk of her attempting to go try to find a way, in the early morning hours, with the uncertainty of the shutdowns.

She would do what she knew was appropriate, all things considered, right?

Then, in the early evening, her morning, I received her call and was greeted by Charlotte’s harried voice. She had decided, interpreting my indecisive words as an encouragement to go, to set off for work by foot, in the darkness, and was now a little spooked. And, obviously, in no position to offer any form of physical protection.

Now I was both worried and feeling guilty, I had failed in leadership, she had sought my direction and my non-committal tendencies had seriously endangered her.

Anyhow, we were debating, should she continue on or go back when the call abruptly dropped. I tried to call and nobody picked up. She did not respond to messages either. Now, service is spotty in some parts of the city, all of those steep inclines and valleys, and we will routinely need to call again. But this time around there was silence. No message, no nothing. What happened? Something horrible, unthinkable? I tried to keep those thoughts minimized, and prayed, as the minutes became an hour.

As it turns out, she had made her way to work, after the cell service had got spotty, and went right to her duties having arrived a bit late.

All is well that ends well?

But that whole episode made me think very seriously about my role in Charlotte’s life. Had something gone terribly wrong that day, wouldn’t I bear some of the responsibility? She wanted my input, invited me to help her to decide and I refused to offer the clear guidance she needed. That is not a mistake that I wish to repeat. Leaders are called upon to make decisions and should not be neglectful of their duties.

What Does It Mean to Be a Man Under Authority?

The blog title phrase, “a man under authority,” comes from this Gospel account:

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 8:5‭-‬13 NIV)

There is so much going on in that passage that it is very easy to miss the commentary on what makes this man’s faith, a pagan soldier, greater than that of an entire religious nation. This detail, while overshadowed by the response of Jesus, seems to be an extremely significant and is context completely necessary for understanding the statement about “great faith” that follows directly after it. What was it about this man that made him such an extraordinary and commendable example of faith?

The answer, of course, is that he was “a man under authority,” a soldier able to both give orders and also to take orders. He, a good soldier, understood his place, that he was a part of something bigger than himself and was, therefore, able to submit to those in positions of authority greater than his own. He, unlike the faithless Israelites who rejected the authority of Jesus, saw someone who was doing extraordinary things, had a need, had faith, and went to him for help. He realized that the word of Jesus had authority, like that of a military commander, and trusted.

So a pagan soldier knew more about faith than all of the unruly religious snobs who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people and yet rejected that same divine authority come in human flesh when they should have believed. Unlike the Roman centurion, who submitted to something bigger than himself as a way of life, as a soldier, they were too arrogant, elitist, and pig-headed. These sanctimonious religious zealots claimed to have faith in God, but really only believed in their own authority and supposed right to rule.

It is, incidentally, why these unbelieving rebellious hypocrites would eventually get crushed by Rome despite having the fortification of Jerusalem. They, rather than unite against their common enemy, even fought for supremacy amongst themselves, within the walls of the city, rather than submit to each other and do what needed to be done. Sure, they all may have claimed God as their authority, but they truly lacked faith and, for this reason, were routed by the well-disciplined Roman soldiers who did know how to fall into rank and fight together as a unit. A Roman soldier understood that falling under authority was necessary to win battles. They could overcome superior numbers because of their discipline.

Abuse, Neglect and the Leadership Gap

A man unwilling to submit to those whom God ordained is unfit to lead. There are many who fall on this side of the spectrum in the Protestant church, men who demand that their own wives and families submit to their own “headship” in the home while absolutely refusing to fall under the greater authority of the church. It is very little wonder that women and children, raised under such hypocrisy, end up following in this example of rebellion rather than submit. A true leader is someone who leads by example, is someone willing to sacrifice their own privilege, even their life, both for the greater authority and those under their protection. A man who cannot submit to those above or before him and also demands the respect of others below or after him is in it for his own personal gain. They are not leading as Christ led. Period.

However, there’s another type of man, equally unfaithful, possibly in overreaction to the controlling hypocrites, who neglects his duties. He, in his passive approach, also disobeys the authority of God and leaves those under his roof vulnerable. In reality, this kind of leader is as much (or more) in rebellion against his own head (Christ) than the abusive hypocrites. Sure, he may claim that his easy-going and tolerant approach is to demonstrate Christian love. However, that is a lie. Men who refuse to lead, as commanded, force others into chaotic and dangerous situations.

My reluctance to offer clear direction could be some of my own natural disposition and a tendency to be indecisive. It also could be in reaction to patriarchal abuse. I did not want to be one of those domineering and controlling men. I would rather empower others to make their own decisions. But, that is the positive spin, my equivocating was also a product of not wanting to take responsibility for the decision. Instead of putting someone at ease who was looking for advice, by offering them something concrete, a clear “I think you should stay home to avoid the risk,” I forced Charlotte to guess what I truly wanted and made her vulnerable. It was neglectful, weak, and not any better than the patriarchal abuse on the other end of the spectrum.

Yes, a good leader empowers those under them. But this empowerment comes from their offering a hedge of protection, through loving guidance, rather than throw them to the wolves of anxiety, doubt, and indecision.

This running joke about a man asking his wife, “where do you want to eat?” and getting an ambiguous non-committal answer, demonstrates this. This is supposed to highlight a tendency of women, but also perfectly describes a male weakness. It is actually both a symptom of a faithless people pleaser (ie: Adam disobeyed God to eat the apple because Eve handed it to him) and plain old laziness. It takes effort to lead. Sure, the man could’ve taken some time to contemplate what restaurant options there were, came up with his own preference, and then presented the list to his significant other. But it was far easier for him to put her in the hot seat and then pretend that the indecision was her problem.

Male lack of leadership, at least when leadership requires sacrifice, is a chronic issue. Many men need a good hard elbowing in the ribs, like Mary urging Jesus “do something” when the wine ran low at the wedding of Cana, or they will never step up to the plate. Ironically, it does often take a woman to bring out a man’s strength. And yet the chances of a linguini-spined sad excuse of a man getting married or landing a date is in the negative. Most women want to be heard. However, if they wanted a faithful companion and follower, a creature that waited attentively on their every whim or never offered any kind of loving direction, they would get a dog.

Weak Non-commital Men Need Not Apply…

There is this misconception, in this democratic age of female ’empowerment’ and feminism, that sameness of roles will lead to happiness. Many have confused equality of rights or opportunity with the sameness of roles, responsibilities, and outcomes. Both men and women, in this paradigm, have been done a great disservice.

As a reformed “nice guy” who refused to lead for fear of stepping on toes, then complained how women would choose those arrogant self-serving jerks instead, I’ve learned that there is a third and better option.

Women don’t actually want a “yes man” and will, in fact, run from men with insecurities. Sure, they may complain about the opposite extreme, of an overconfident and domineering male specimen, some of those abused by men will decry “toxic masculinity” and find a pushover excuse for a man to feel safe. But most women long for the security of a man that both listens to them and knows who he is enough to kindly tell them when they are wrong. It is sad, this composite of strength and gentleness, of meekness, is a rarity in this world of feminized men and overcompensating fools, but a man who gets it right is irresistible.

There is nothing in this world more pathetic than a man devoid of passion and, rather than take the risk of responsibility, waits on others to make decisions for him. A man who speaks with authoritative power is attractive. Nobody wants that milquetoast, weasel-worded, and non-committal “nice guy,” and too often this display is little more than a lame attempt to curry favor with the female gender anyway. Women want, and frankly need, a man who can say what he means and mean what he says. No, not an authoritarian, not a man lacking in the humility to be wrong either, but someone with the wisdom and discernment that comes from life experience. The man without passion never goes outside of what is familiar and comfortable, is afraid to fail, and has nothing to offer that is uniquely masculine.

I can most certainly understand the frustration of single men. The world is full of mixed media. On one hand, women are demanding power and control for themselves, on the other hand, they are showing up in the millions to watch movies like “50 Shades of Grey” about the perverse and abusive sexual domination of a woman. Secular women fantasize about a “Handmaid’s Tale,” even wear this weird costume as a protest of the patriarchy, and yet these same women apparently long for a government that can exercise absolute control and will keep them safe. It is contradictory and exasperating. Men are told things like “must be 5′-10″ or taller to ride” and then also told not to objectify women. It is a hot mess.

I ran into a different version of this impossible expectation in conservative Mennonite women. They are reminded, ad nauseam, about women needing to submit to men. They are deathly afraid of being stuck with some dude who will stifle their dreams, is unworthy of their respect, and holds the trump card of submission over them. This pushes normal female choosiness to a whole different level. The only control they have is the veto before a relationship even begins. Like the young woman who lamented not being able to pick her own clothes after marriage. Insane! Is it any wonder that many are terrified to date and some flee to leave this nonsense behind?

Here’s a hint: If your religious culture needs to continually pound instruction to women to submit, then you’re 100% without-a-doubt doing it wrong.

In the end, most women do not thrive with a man who isn’t a man. Sure, some women who suffered abuse may gravitate to weak and ineffectual men, as to be in control. But most men value a man who is strong, who is able to protect them from threats (both physical and emotional); one that both listens intently and speaks with a comforting authority that is rare in this tumultuous time. I mean, not every man is cut out to be Keanu Reeves. We can’t all be six feet tall and appear to be chiseled from rock either. However, a man should learn to be reliable and committed, unselfish, and protective.

Christ the Paradox…

Leadership is not about calling the shots, being the boss, or the big man in charge. It does not stifle or rob others of their autonomy and ability to speak to things that matter to them either. No, rather it is being Christ-like, being the strength, and an example of self-sacrificial love, to those more vulnerable. The kingship of Christ is not tyrannical nor passive, firm or gentle depending on the need, he both knew how to submit unto death and also how to speak in an authority unrivaled. He’s both lamb and lion, teacher of the faithful and protector of the flock, merciful to the sinner, and a judge of all.

One of the most interesting icons portraying Jesus is called the “Pantocrator” (Greek for Almighty) shows his face with two different halves. One half shows the compassionate Good Shepherd, giving a blessing, the other shows a stern expression of a mighty ruler. It is very interesting when you cover one half of his face and see the contrast. Many today seem to follow after their own hippy-Jesus, a “you do you” bro dude, but that is not the man we see in Scripture who confronted and will judge the world. He’s Lord of all. That teacher and judge is the image below:

Pantocrator

That in mind, Jesus, while sometimes giving a sharp rebuke, also did not simply bark orders at the disciples while refusing to fall under authority. No, he was also in submission to his own head, the God the Father. One of the most profound statements in Scripture, given the divinity of Christ, is this, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’m not sure how all of that works, how someone can be both fully human and fully God. But we do know that Jesus, the man, had to submit to God the Father and with that led by example.

Ultimately, the example of leadership Jesus showed is one of self-sacrificial love. Jesus was a man with divine authority, but also a man under authority and willing to suffer for the good of others. He did not lead in a spirit of entitlement nor use his authority to privilege himself at the expense of those under his leadership. He protects his flock, he is their advocate and defender. He prayed alone while his disciples slept. He suffered and died for our salvation rather than take the easy way out. A man following in the example of Christ steps up to the plate. He does his job without complaining. Taking full responsibility for those under his care. He commands respect due to his character, not because he demands it and, like a good soldier, is a man under authority.

Charlotte needs me to man up, take responsibility and not be a pathetic mess of excuses and equivocation. But I can’t expext her to respect me if I’m simply doing everything for myself, addicted to substances or even just my own selfish ambitions. She should have a man who is confident, in his place, and offers her security rather than leave her feeling uncertain. A good man, a true Christian leader, gives others a place to thrive.

As a final thought, men must be allowed to grow into their leadership role, a man never given a chance can’t show his potential. And sometimes those men who appear to have it all together in their teens and twenties aren’t all that they seem. Look at Judas compared to Peter. Judas had his act together, he was trusted with the money, had all the answers, yet betrayed Jesus at the end and took his own life rather than accept his failure. Peter also denied Christ three times. But, unlike Judas, he repented and became the leader of the church. So, don’t lose hope simply because you are not where you want to be and don’t try to do things on your own strength either. We are not worthless nor are we gods, but we are soldiers of faith and only as ever as worthy as the authority we are under.

There Can Be No Understanding in the Absence of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

The Victim Gambit

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

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

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

Case and point?

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

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

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

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

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

Yup. That’s me!

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

What?!?

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

Good Faith Vs Everlasting Grievance

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

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

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

Score keeping kills relationship

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

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

What Would Jesus Do?

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

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

Matthew 10:14 NIV

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

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

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

Matthew 7:6 NIV

Incidentally, that is preceded by this:

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

Matthew 7:1‭-‬5 NIV

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

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

Walk away!

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

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

Missing Mennonites and Misallocation of Care

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I recall my tears shed after the Nickel Mines school massacre, an incident where a man decided to take his disgruntlement out on some Amish girls, shooting them in the head one by one, before taking his own life. They were targeted, no doubt, for their innocence and vulnerability, what normal person would not be deeply troubled by such horrendous thing?

My emotion was wholly appropriate, especially for someone living in Lancaster County at the time, and yet was quite a bit different from my response to other very similar incidents. For example, when a deranged individual slaughtered dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I did not shed a tear. I can’t tell you exactly why that is, it was very similar to the public school that I had attended and a child is a child, but somehow I was simply more removed from the tragedy and had to contemplate why I would value the Amish girls higher than those other children.

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Of course, the key to understanding this is my identity: 1) I was born and raised Mennonite, 2) the Amish are the slightly more peculiar religious cousins of Mennonites and, 3) as someone with an Amish surname, they are actual (albeit distant) cousins in my case. Sure, I had never met those girls nor did I know their particular families, but I could certainly identify with their culture. I could see something of my own childhood, of my family and of my religious identity in them, I mourned my own loss of innocence as much as their suffering a terrible evil.

Sandy Hook, by contrast, while tragic and as terrible, involved people who were less connected to me and thus my reaction was more muted. It just was not as personal to me and therefore I did not feel the same depth of pain. Had I known a child in the school my reaction would have been quite a bit different and perhaps a bit more like the day the child of a close friend died—that is simply the reality of our limited human perspective: One death, if it is made personal to us, will overrule the millions worldwide who have died in similar circumstances.

“A single death is a tragedy; A million deaths is a statistic.”

For Better Or Worse, Nobody Loves Everyone

Many Americans, back in the days when bumper stickers were more common, had “God bless America” message stuck to the backs of their automobile. It was one of those ways a person could show their care for all of their American neighbors and regardless of party affiliation, religious identity, country of origin or gender. Nearly all reading that message (given that it was displayed on American soil and not shared worldwide) shared that same identity and thus should have felt equally blessed by the message.

However, there is that small, but hyper-competitive segment of the population, who (like Topper in the Dilbert cartoon above) simply can’t appreciate what other people appreciate and are determined to outdo their neighbors with their superior virtue. It is that spirit that seems to be behind the bumper stickers in retort to the “God bless America” variety, and proclaiming with great piety: “God bless the whole world, no exceptions!”

Of course, that “no exceptions” part at the end is necessary in case their less sophisticated neighbors, who only expressed love for those actually present and able to read the message, wouldn’t catch the drift.

It has made me wonder, does that same person never tell their spouse or significant other that they love them specifically?

Wife: “I love you, Barry!”

Husband: “I love all women, including you!”

Nothing smug or sanctimonious about that, nope, nothing at all demeaning of the other person either, it is simply a man with a far bigger love than that which can be exclusively reserved for one particular woman and is therefore extended to all women in the world.

Right…

Anyhow, I question if someone who claims to love everyone actually loves anyone.

Yes, certainly, the “God so loved the world” of John 3:16 doesn’t exclude anyone. We are also told that following after Jesus means that our loyalties to our family are secondary (Luke 14:26) to our calling to bring God’s love to the world. Still, we are also told that a man who doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) and also see love expressed for particular groups and individuals. So God loving the world doesn’t mean that our own love is not especially for some. In fact, while we are instructed to do good to all people, there is also special emphasis given:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Love starts locally. Loving our neighbors means caring about those who cross our paths, preferring those right in front of us over some theoretical duty to all of humanity that is never made manifest in real life. In the story of the good Samaritan, remember, it was those who were too important or thinking of responsibilities down the road, who didn’t attend to the suffering soul beside the path of their greater ambitions. In other words, it is the simpleton, with heart, who stops to help you jump start your car and not the self-important pretentious snob, with a global vision and yet can’t see what is right in front of them.

Bottom line: It is good to love those who are close to us and even to prefer investing in those who, like us, are members of the household of faith. If a person cannot especially love their neighbors across the street, whom they have met, then how could they possibly love those whom they have never met around the world?

For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20‭ NIV)

Of Igorot and Mennonite Tribes…

When uncle Roland, a man I had met during my stay in the Philippines, disappeared and was later found murdered in an empty lot, the call for justice went out across social media. It spread like wildfire amongst a certain part of the Filipino population and that being the members of his Igorot tribe. The amazing part is that this collective effort very quickly located the stolen van and only potential lead for this vicious crime. The people who located the van? They were Igorots too, they happened to be on holiday in the “low lands” and spotted the abandoned vehicle.

Mennonites, like Igorots, also take notice when one of their own is missing or harmed. There have been several cases over the past few years that have exploded across the Mennonite online community and made a few individuals into household names. I mean who, in the Menno-sphere, can forget that young married couple, Marco and Mary Ann Kauffman, his life cut tragically short by home invader? Or the disappearance, and later reappearance, of Rodney Sweigart? When a Mennonite is in trouble it is natural that others of their religious tribe, even those who have moved on, respond with extra care and concern.

I was reminded of this once again when I could not resist sharing the story of a young woman, Sasha Krause, who vanished from a Mennonite outpost in Farmington, New Mexico.

Dozens of similar posts about missing persons have crossed my newsfeed, there is likely very little that my sharing (as someone on the other end of the country) will do to help, and yet there is this sort of tribal solidarity that compels me to take an interest, to be somehow involved and share. This young woman could as easily be my sister, my cousin, or any of the number of young Mennonite women whom I know and care about.

Tribal identities, like family identities, are a good thing in that they provide individuals with the protection of a group. The world we live in can be a very rough place and not a place that is very easily navigated alone. We, in the developed world, have a wide range of social programs that attempt to fill individual needs, but the best efforts that government put forward rarely come close to what can be offered by a community of those who share a religious, cultural or tribal identity in common. We have finite resources and prefer to distribute them amongst those who share our common biological heritage or cause.

The Two-edged Sword of Tribally Allocated Care…

Both Jesus and St Paul showed a heightened concern for those who shared their religio-cultural background. They certainly did not hold back in terms of criticism. In fact, their commentary on their Jewish people could be very easily misconstrued into anti-Semitism and very soon was quickly used that way once the Scripture became a subject of individual interpretation in the wake of the Protestant movement in Europe.

Likewise, when a concern goes viral on social media, especially when it involves a particular religious minority group, the feedback can quickly turn very negative. Prejudice can rear its ugly head, those with an ax to grind see an opportunity to promote their own grievances. There are always those who had an unfortunate encounter with that particular tribal group and it was the only bad thing that ever happened to them. So, in the minds of these offended folks, that tribe has become the root of all evil and representative of everything bad in the world. Those full of toxic bitterness will, in the guise of empathy and concern, sow their seeds of destruction.

Very rarely does publicly broadcast dirty laundry do much good when it comes from a tribal outsider without a real or personal connection to those involved. When you leave a tribe you pretty much lose any credibility within the tribe, you have made yourself an outsider by rejecting the group identity and therefore your opinion does not need to be taken seriously by the in-group anymore. To those in that in-group you will be viewed with suspicion, as an external threat to their group cohesion, and summarily dismissed. I’m not saying that is how it should be, that’s just how it is, people do not like judgments coming in from the outside and react defensively in most cases.

Tribal identities very often come with tribal obligations. Those who are showered with concern from within the tribe, even those who did not ask for it, in many cases are expected to give something back in return. Tribes have a sort of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” arrangement that can go terribly wrong when the devotion to an individual from the tribe does not match the commitment that is reciprocated or vice versa. Feeling betrayed by your own is some of the deepest pain a person can feel. Indeed the world is a very lonely place for those who have been neglected or abandoned by those whom they expected would love them.

But, worse than that, tribes, while easily able to spot sin in all other tribes, too often shelter their own abusers or never see their own shortcomings as a group. Some tribes will, too often, send into exile those who dare to confront or challenge their status quo of the group. This is one thing Mennonites and motorcycle gangs have in common, albeit in different forms, the criminals enforce a “snitches get stitches” code” and too often Christian denominations misallocate forgiveness (for only those who have learned how to exploit their system) rather than follow the order of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Expel the wicked person from among you!”

There is also something more insidious when tribes become too insular or only concerned with protecting their own and that being their lack of care for those that are outside of their identity group. This misallocation of care is up last on my list, but it is certainly not the least as far as things that should concern a Christian.

Tribal Misallocation of Care…

I understand why people prefer their own families and tribes. It is something we are biologically hardwired to do. Religions are forced to hijack familial language, like “brother” and “sister,” in reference to fellow members in hopes of capturing that level of relationship within their ranks.

I’ve observed (and years before a book with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria in the title) that my high school cafeteria would segregate along racial lines.

Tribalism has long frustrated me as a force of division and strife. What side of the OJ Simpson case someone came out on, for example, had much to do with a person’s race. The evidence available was the same, yet 67% of black Americans (polled in 1995) thought Simpson was innocent while a vast majority of whites saw him as guilty, that gap has since narrowed. But what that shows is how our perspectives are skewed by our tribal identities and the potential for terrible injustice this presents. The same is true of other identity divisions, such as gender or political affiliation, we tend to see only what is good for our tribe.

Over the past few years wished that I could somehow harness some of the tribal love that is on display in the various GoFundMe campaigns involving one identity group or another. An American, with the right group connections, can easily raise thousands or even hundreds of thousands and despite having insurance, government programs, etc. Meanwhile, a far greater need overseas will often only get a mediocre response because the people don’t look like us, we don’t know them, or simply cannot identify with their struggles being too far removed. That and, given the number of scams out there, we can’t trust outsiders.

Still, we should consider those less fortunate, those less fortunate than the unfortunate members of our own tribes, and love them too. That is the greater implications of Christian love, that our love will erase some of those disparities in care. If we truly believe Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” and that we (as a church) “are all one in Christ Jesus,” then will we ever be satisfied with misappropriation of care based in those listed identities? Can a person be a feminist, a nationalist or an activist for lessor identity groups and a Christian?

When a Mennonite goes missing or is harmed it is easy to understand why other Mennonites take special notice. The idea of having equal love for all of humanity, even those whom you never met, is silliness. That said, when our tribal identities mean indifference or lack of equal empathy for other people whom we encounter who are outside of our group, then we are also putting our Christian identity second. It means we have made an idol of ourselves, our own identity, and should consider the words of Jesus:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. (Luke 6:32‭-‬34 NIV)

Tribal Expansion…

Love starts locally, it means loving our own tribes. We must learn to love our own, those close to us are sometimes the most difficult to love or hardest to hold accountable. We should love our Trump-supporting neighbors as much as we love the Congolese refugee, the Democrat party loyalist as much as we do the unborn. Christian love has a global reach, it must reach across partisan lines, and should always make us wish to expand the borders of our tribe.

I believe Jesus would weep as much for Muslim children killed by a drone strike as I did for those Amish girls. God loves the missing or exploited Filipino worker overseas, who is only known by their family, as much as the Mennonite online community hopes for the safe return of Sasha Krause. We have our favorites, but God does not.

Christian love, in purest form, turns a world full of misfits and outsiders into one family where everyone belongs and nobody is left behind.

The Church In the Age of Narcissism

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The idea of individual rights and liberty has evolved into a defiant “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude. This toxic individualism can be in reaction to abuse, a response to the failures of authority figures or simply a person’s naturally narcissistic disposition.

As a product of American culture, I’ve always believed that people should be free and still believe this. It seems that totalitarian states, while certainly able to build great monuments and copy the innovation of their rivals, do often stifle creativity and limit the potential of individuals. A right to self-determination has enabled many to pursue their passions and helped in bringing about progress in terms of technology and medicine.

However, there does seem to be a point where unchecked individualism begins to be a threat to our collective advancement. And we are now to the point that it is not safe to so much as assume an individual’s gender based on the evidence without potentially triggering a violent, over-the-top and completely abusive backlash.

In this age of narcissism, it does not matter what has been established for centuries. It also doesn’t matter what the consensus is on a given topic or what the various authorities tell us. No, all that matters is how the individual imagines themselves.

Narcissism Enters the Church

In the church, this narcissism is often hidden under a mask of spirituality and sanctimonious blather. Sure, many will claim the Bible as their ultimate authority, yet they will reject anything it says about respect for the elder and submission when it is convenient for them and their own ends.

It is absurd, truly, that people are rejecting the very foundation of the rights that they assume. They tear down structures and institutions without realizing that they are unraveling the very things that have produced and protected the concepts they take for granted. They are dangerous in that they are too dumb to realize that everything they believe currently did not originate within them. Everything, even their ingratitude, and resentment of authority is a product of the times they are in,

They are not free, they are just ignorant of the collective consciousness that nourished and created their grand delusion of independence. Or, worse, they only recognize the negative contributions of the system without ever considering the benefits. They are not so pure or undefiled either, they have their own motivations and are woefully lacking in self-awareness. It is only a lack of humility, an idea that there is nothing to be gained in deferral to an elder or expert, that the individual knows all simply because they have basic reading comprehension and elementary knowledge.

Sadly, the erosion of confidence in the collective, mistrust of authority in general, does not make the individual any more competent than the system that created them. It doesn’t mean that they are themselves better qualified to be arbiters of truth than the hierarchies of flawed individuals that they aim to replace with their papacy of one. But it does destroy our chance for unity, it does make individuals extremely vulnerable to the deceptions of their own ego (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV) and boiled down is nothing more than self-worship.

How the West Was Lost

In the West, this ego trip may have started with the Pope asserting his own authority over the church, to unilaterally decide matters for himself without counsel and led to the Great Schism. But eventually, it trickled to ordained men doing the same in protest, relying on their own individual authority and understanding of church tradition to start their own denominations—before their attitude spread to the laity who rejected their authority as well.

The reformers, in their exuberance, eventually denied the very tradition that established the canon of Scripture and yet, through circular reasoning, still clung to the book as being authoritative simply because they believed it to be so. This led to others, more enlightened, who saw the irrationality, went a step further, rejected even the book as written by men and written by men whose authority they could not accept. The cold might be preferable to those lukewarm, at least they can’t use “well, the Spirit led me to [insert whatever]” and must attempt a rational argument instead.

At least the secular scientist is subject to peer review. They can’t simply declare something for themselves or rely on their cohort of like-minded advisors, like king Rehoboam who reject the advice of the elders, ran with that of his unwise cronies, and ended up creating division. A biologist, unlike the windbag pontificator in the men’s Sunday school class, has at least had to earn his credentials and must carefully make a case with evidence or will be treated as a joke by colleagues. Those feeding their own individual tastes from the Biblical smorgasbord, oblivious to their own biases being read into the text, can’t be made accountable.

Unfortunately, science and human rationality have also reached their limits. The intellectual enterprise could never answer questions of why we exist, an accumulation of facts could never fill the void left by religion, most people can’t keep up with the brightest minds in various fields and yet many (on both sides of any issue) speak more boldly than those who have spent years of rigorous study, confident because they read something on the internet. There is a growing mistrust of all authority and structure. Political ideologies push the research and echo chambers have replaced serious discussion.

For example, in climate science, there is plenty of grey area between Greta Thunberg’s emotional alarmism and the actual evidence. Sure, there may be some consensus on a current temperature trend and human contribution, but there is no such thing as settled science. At very least there is no reason to assume that warmer weather is automatically a catastrophe or the cause of all things bad. And there’s definitely some hysteria involved when you have a CNN anchor speculating, on-air, about a possible connection between an asteroid and climate change. Is it any wonder that more are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense?

On the opposite side of the coin are those who use the above, the misuse of science by media sensationalists and political activists, as a reason to dismiss all science. I’m talking, of course, of those (often religious fundamentalists) who deny what is well-known about the general shape of the planet and physics. They use a form of reasoning, they are not wholly irrational individuals and yet seem to be motivated more by their mistrust of all authority and undying trust in themselves. They are much like the far-leftist who refuse to see gender differences as real (while, in contradiction to themselves, claiming that a man with feminine traits is transgendered), they have made their own opinion an article of faith.

Eventually, if things do not change, we may soon not be able to hold civilization together and return to our roots of tribalism. Christendom was the force that once brought Jew and Greek, man and woman—people of vastly different social status—into fellowship with each other through their allegiance to Christ. From the beginning, the church had a definite structure and also ordained leaders to decide the weightier matters. But that order has dissolved, often in reaction to abuses and always to be replaced with increasingly arrogant smaller entities. The current narcissism is only the final step before the total collapse.

How To Break the Trend Towards Narcissistic Chaos

Groups of people, institutions, can certainly fall victim to their own collective confirmation bias. Again, authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thought destroy innovation and limit potential. But the individual, especially the individual who resists all authority, is even more vulnerable to being blinded their own biases.

Yes, certainly authorities do fail, alas even the President of the United States is human and makes mistakes, but that does not mean that individuals are all equally qualified for every role. It is always good to question the experts. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can miss the obvious, laypeople are not all total idiots because they lack a degree. At the same time, this overreaction to abuses and failures is even more dangerous.

No, the Titanic disaster does not mean engineering is untrustworthy nor does the 737 MAX being certified by the FAA before a couple of deadly crashes make the whole institution a waste. The alternative of everyone being right in their own eyes, being their own expert, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life. The reality is that we are better off with authorities, those who have made a career trying to understand specific issues and can be held accountable. Sure, even the professionals can be wrong, but there are greater consequences that go along with their license.

The church also needs elders and examples. The church should have those ordained and more respected. The idea that spirituality is a free-for-all is utter nonsense, not founded in Scripture nor the church tradition that canonized and established what is Scripture. The person who sees no need for any authority in their lives besides their own understanding or that of their cohort are the dumb beasts condemned by Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10‭-‬12 NIV)

True Christianity starts with repentance. Repentance comes with an attitude willing to voluntarily sacrifice some self-determination and take advice. It means humility and realizing that the universe does not revolve around your own individual understanding of things nor is truth a matter of your own personal opinion. It isn’t so hard to submit to an elder—even when you do not fully agree on everything—when one realizes their own fallibility and need of a savior.

Sure, hierarchies do fail and especially when they cease to be accountable to the bodies that they represent. A Christian leader always had authority, like Peter or Paul who spoke in a manner that commanded respect, but was never supposed to be a tyrant like Diotrephes. Leaders, like individuals, can be terrible failures and must be disciplined or removed as needed. But to overreact, to pretend everyone is on the same level, is no different than the pride that led to the fall of heaven’s highest-ranking angel. To reject authority besides one’s own is to repeat that same sin.

We need order, we thrive when we are able to specialize and let individuals reach their full potential, and that requires us to acknowledge our own limitations. We need an order that keeps authorities even more accountable than others, that does not give them a free pass as part of a good ol’ boys club, and actually requires that they are more submissive (as an example) than those who they hold charge over. Ultimately a church with no submission to others is a church without love, only self-love, and will offer nothing to those trying to escape the narcissism of our age.

Filipino Christians Forced To Convert, Raped.

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In an article, “Filipino Diaspora: Modern-day Missionaries of the World,” the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is put in a positive light as a way that the Gospel is being spread throughout the word:

Mary Jane Soriano, a 25-year college-graduate Filipino domestic worker, has been working in Hong Kong for some years. During her stay there, she always made a point to attend the Sunday Mass in a local church, even if her employer and his family belonged to another religion. Besides Mary’s humility, simplicity, hard work, honesty and other human qualities that inevitably impressed her employer is her indomitable Catholic faith the way she practiced—simple ways to keep her life and faith going and always trusting in God and pray daily, and be good and do good to others.

Indeed, God moves in mysterious ways, Christianity swept through the Roman empire as “a religion of woman and slaves” (probably because it gave hope to these disenfranchised people) and in that way this diaspora of Filipinos is bringing Christianity to the world. The message of Jesus, and the cross, is that we will suffer for the sake of his kingdom—but that, in the end, the sacrifice we make is going to be rewarded:

“So the last shall be first, the first last.” (Matthew 20:16 KJV)

I have deep respect for those who aren’t missionaries as an extension of their privilege, living in behind compound walls, and entirely supported by the generosity of others. OFWs may indeed be the greatest missionaries of our time.

However, there is also a flipside, according to AsiaNews.it, in an article from 2010:

“In my tens in Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed several Catholic or Christian Filipino migrants accept Islam under duress,” said Joselyn Cabrera, a Filipino Catholic nurse working at Riyadh hospital. Because of high unemployment levels in the Philippines, more than ten million Filipinos have left to seek jobs abroad. Every day, about 3,000 leave the country. Recently, a majority has gone to Arab countries—some 600,000 in all, 200,000 in Saudi Arabia alone.

And continues:

The most recent case involves a woman who was raped at work. Because of the incident, Saudi authorities accused her of unlawful extramarital sex and on 11 September jailed her in the capital.

That doesn’t sound much like missionary service. It sounds like the vulnerable being exploited, forced to convert under duress, and is unacceptable.

Yes, the New Testament is full of stories of Christians ensuring terrible persecution for their faith. Yes, by their example of suffering example Christianity did spread to the world. But, no, that reality does not mean there is not a terrible cost nor does it absolve us of our own responsibility to intervene.

Suffer With Those Who Suffer

We should never allow our brothers and sisters to continue to endure hardships due to our own negligence or lack of compassion. No, as Christians, we are called to be their advocate, to care for them as we would for a member of our own families, and act on their behalf of them—like St Paul did in pleading for 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)

St Paul, in taking action on behalf of this runaway slave, was practicing what he preached:

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26 NIV)

This is what it means to be Christian:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. (Romans 12:9‭-‬16 NIV)

Incidentally, the description “low position” in the passage above means those who do menial tasks. That is to say the domestic worker, the migrant laborer, and all those toiling away in the factories, that make our electronic gadgets, for wages a fraction of our own. We should love them, suffer with them, and share out of our own abundance as need be. Those of us living in peace and prosperity have an obligation to help those who are currently endure terrible circumstances and especially those of the household of faith.

To be a part of the body of Christ means not being too busy with our own lives to care. It means being willing to intervene in love on behalf of OFWs around the world, to carry their cross and be an example of Christ.

Carrying the Cross of the Overseas Worker

We live in a culture that has been Christianized to the point that even secular artists now encourage Christian values. We now act as if compassion for those who are not part of our own biological families, national identity or ethnic tribe and race is something normal. That we should care about these others rather than use them as had been common prior to Christ. Take the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s, “On the Turning Away,” for example:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

A Christian should never turn away from those in desperate need. We should feel the loneliness of an OFW, as those who are far from home and are separated from their families (including their own young children) for years at a time, and share their sadness. We should think about their fears, mourn the trauma of those who have been sexually assaulted and are being held captive, as slaves, by their abusive employers. We should pray, encourage and absolutely—by all means available to us—work to deliver them from their captivity and bring them home to the families they love.

Sure, it may be the job of the OFW to be a witness to the world of Christ’s love. But it is also our responsibility as fellow Christians, their brothers and sisters in Christ, to be a witness of the Gospel to them by helping to carrying their cross. If Christ himself, according to Scripture, needed help to carry his cross—then how much more does an OFW need our intervention for them? It is for this very purpose that Jesus told the disciples he would go, so that we (who are part of his body and filled with the Holy Spirit) will do greater things in his name.

But What Can We Do?

Many do have compassion. However, the problem is, how do we effectively do anything to change the circumstances for millions of people on the opposite side of the world? Even if we spent every nickel and dime we earned trying to support them and their families it would only help a fraction of those who are in need and it would do absolutely nothing to solve the actual underlying causes of this grim reality for countless Filipino people.

There is not much we as individuals can do as individuals. However there is much we can do in our working together towards a particular end. It is my hope that in my bringing awareness to this issue that others will partner with me, willing to contribute in their own small part, and together we can bring an end to the abuse.

That is why I’ve started the Filipino American Coalition of Trade (FACT) to give opportunity to those who want to make a difference for those who bear the cross as the truest missionaries of our time.

Like and follow FACT both on Facebook and also at the new blog site.

Pray for those who will spend this Christmas as slaves, sojourners in foreign lands, and victims of circumstances beyond their own control. Pray for the well-being of the OFW and their families, pray for their freedom from the economic conditions that keep them bound and separated from their loved ones, and may God be glorified in us all.

Sowing Ideas, Sticking Up For the Underdog and Getting Started

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Have you ever wondered how organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army got their start?

You can watch this video about the Red Cross for details. But the short version of almost every organization is that it always starts with an idea and an individual willingness to take initiative. A person sees a need to be filled, takes action, tells others and the effort continues to build momentum towards a solution.

Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes an idea fails because it was poorly conceived. Other times the person with the idea lacks the motivation to see it through and loses interest themselves. Still, on some occasions, there may be times when the person with the right idea arrives at the wrong time, fails to make the necessary connections, and the thing fizzles on the launch pad as unrealized potential.

Soil and Seeds of Faith

In the context of ideas, the parable of the sower Jesus told comes to mind:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The interpretation of the parable is provided later on in the same context. Jesus is referring to his own message, that of the kingdom of heaven, and how the growth potential of this seed depends on the receptivity of soil. Bad ideas oftentimes spread like weeds while the good news is trampled underfoot by the disinterested masses. But we sow should sow good seeds, all the same, knowing that some will find the right soil.

And so it goes with any inspirational idea, even the best ideas die where there is no faith. Many ideas fail when they are faced with a challenge and the commitment is shallow. Other ideas are drowned out in the marketplace of ideas—their appeal is drowned out by the better positioned and yet inferior aims.

You get the picture.

We are both soil and sower. We can allow ideas, good or bad, to take root in our hearts, and from those ideas spring actions. Sometimes it is a seed someone else plants, sometimes we are the distributor of the seeds, but the mystery is in what causes the seed to grow. St Paul speaks of this in trying to explain who should get credit for the spread of the Gospel saying “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3 NIV) And that is the mystery that is perplexing to me.

Sticking Up For the Underdog

I had always been a bit undersized for my age. Not sure if it was a result of my premature birth or if I was out-competed at the dinner table, but on my first license (at 16 years old) I was just 5′-3″ tall and weigh only 112lb (50.8kg) as a senior in high school.

But I never lacked for grit and determination. My name, at least according to the placard that had been placed under my baby picture, means “strong-willed” and I’ve always done my best to prove myself worthy of the description. Mom called me her fighter for my surviving a traumatic start to life and that resolve, for better or worse, is a defining part of my identity and perspective of the world.

That’s why I’ve always been on the side of the underdog.

I’ve always been interested in the person who has more to overcome than others, the one who works harder than the rest and still does not necessarily come out on top in the end. It is easy to recognize and celebrate the winners. But if the effort could be measured, then the underdog is the one who has put forward the most effort and has shed the most blood, sweat, and tears. In any context or conflict, I’m always cheering for the one in the game who has to overcome the most disadvantages.

Underdog

I suppose that is why I had a deep respect for a particular classmate, a Filipino-American who stood about 5′-5″ tall and yet was the starting point guard on the high school basketball team who would put up 20 points some games. He had incredible ball-handling skills and could score in the paint, in traffic, against the trees like our own version of Allen Iverson. For someone who always thought of his own stature as standing in the way of athletic success, this was inspirational.

And maybe that is the reason why the Philippines has intrigued me?

Finding the Right Cause

I’ve always been cause-oriented or at least as far as causes pertaining to people that I care about. I have plenty of passion. But passion alone is not enough, passion needs direction and too often—given my chronic difficulty with focus—I’ve struggled to know what direction.

Some of my pursuit of the impossibility was in search of finding that thing that I lacked as far as a specific mission.

I did not find that direction where I had hoped to find it. However, in the aftermath of that severe disappointment, something did rise from the ashes and provided a path where none had existed before. With the stability brought about by a committed relationship, it gave me a reason to travel to the far reaches of the world and with that came some thought about the potential. I had first traveled to the Philippines and then a year later had an opportunity to spend time in Taiwan.

It was in that travel experience that I became well-acquainted with the hardships faced by overseas Filipino workers (OFW), began contemplating the economic reasons for this unfortunate circumstance and the potential solutions. Many seek work abroad because they have no other good options available and despite the stories of exploitation and abuse. Many become victims themselves after having borrowed money to travel to their new employer only to find things are not as promised.

I actually wrote out the strategic vision for an organization months ago. But I got caught up in the details of how to do it the right way (was thinking of getting a special website made) and it ended up on the back burner where it stayed. It was a story about an OFW “domestic worker” who had jumped out of a window and broke both of her legs to escape her captivity that finally drove me to take action. At that point, the particulars didn’t matter so much, the idea needed to be put out there, it was the right cause and something worth my fighting for.

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My hope is that the idea sown will find good soil to grow in, that others will join me in this righteous cause and that eventually, we can help to bring OFWs home. My hope is that someday those in the Philippines will not have to decide between gainful employment and their families. I especially want to make it so that fewer young women put themselves in situations where they are easily exploited. If the effort only helps one or two that is a success as far as I am concerned, but there is great potential.

So, all that said, you are invited to join me at the newly launched Filipino American Coalition of Trade blog site or the accompanying Facebook page.

Why Do People, Including Anabaptists, Repeat Their Mistakes?

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With the conviction of Jeriah Mast, the Anabaptist father and missionary to Haiti whose years of sexual abuse were finally brought to light, there has been another round of handwringing on social media. There is a definite desire for change, I’ve seen some express the need for repentance, and that is good.

However, in reading some of the response, a proverb kept coming to mind:

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. (Proverbs 26:11)

The idea of the dog eating its own vomit is repugnant. It is most likely reingesting the very poison that caused it to vomit in the first place. Would any of us knowingly do this? Probably not. But many do exactly this, they continue to lap up the very things, the errant ideas, the poison, that will keep them repeating the same mistakes generation after generation.

We see this kind of doubling-down in politics all the time. Many ideological partisans, rather than admit what actually led to their failures, blame everything but themselves and go on to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This is how confirmation bias works. Most people, rather than deal with the discomfort of being wrong about something close to their core identity, find a scapegoat to blame. People cling to the ideas they’ve most heavily invested in even after suffering through repeated failures.

With that in mind, as a product of both the culture that produced Mast and also produced the reaction to his evil deeds, I’m not convinced that this desire for positive change on the part of some Anabaptists in the wake of the scandal will bear fruit unless we can get to the true root of the problem. If anything, many who claim to be discontent with the status quo, because they do not understand the problem, will double-down on the very religious pride and cultural assumptions that produced it.

Many would like to blame organizations for failing to properly address Mast’s abuse. And it is true, CAM’s administrators really did drop the ball in dealing with Mast and then, rather than accept the full consequences, they went into damage control mode, lawyered up and attempted payoffs to victims. It is also true that his church seems to have enabled him rather than hold him accountable. However, it is quite easy to see the failures of others while never comprehending the cultural reasons behind the repeated bad decisions.

There is a folly here, grounded in pride, that needs to be addressed. It will be difficult to explain without offending some. But please do bear with me as someone who was an insider and is now viewing things with a different perspective.

What Is the Folly Of Modern Anabaptism?

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverb 26:12)

The first thing that fits the bill of folly is this better-than assumption. Modern Anabaptists are well-trained enough not to make an ostentatious display of their pride. However, it takes a great deal of pride to hold on to the very premise that makes them Anabaptist and that premise being that they (and they alone) represent some sort of radical reformation of the Church.

Since the time of Martin Luther and the many divisions that followed shortly thereafter, the answer to any problem has been to disavow and attempt to distance ourselves from it through creating yet another division. That is Protestantism 101 and Anabaptists, as those who couldn’t even agree with the other reformers or amongst themselves, are no exception. So, it is no surprise that those upset about Mast being enabled to abuse take aim at their institutions, that is exactly what their forefathers would likely do, and never realize the problem isn’t CAM or the Mennonite name.

It is a purity spiral that never identifies the real problem.

The irony is that the slice of Anabaptist that Mast belongs to is a group that has prided itself as being the “remnant” for their rejecting some aspects of Mennonite culture (including the Mennonite name) while doubling down on the Protestant revivalism that only entered Anabaptism a century ago. This, the “Charity” movement, has a great zeal for a particular version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the self-styled Anabaptists of our day as much as anyone else.

Mast, much to the ire of some, has continued to receive a great deal of support from his home church, Shining Light Christian Fellowship, in Millersburg, Ohio. Their “church statement” regarding him highlighting his emotional display and further voluntary confessions after being caught in his sin and present their “Restoration Plan” to hold him accountable. His pastor, according to news reports, speaks of the transformation he has “witnessed” in these few months since Mast fled Haiti. His wife testified to a “radical change” in her husband. And I’m pretty sure they are quite sincere about this assessment. To them, this is, no doubt, the radical forgiveness required of all Christians and what makes them truly Anabaptist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of this debacle, are those who are horrified, rightfully so, and think they need to reclaim the Anabaptist identity by rejecting the form above. They see his home church as enabling him and an example of failure all too common in their denominational context. To them, this is an egregious misrepresentation of Christ that shouldn’t be associated with true Anabaptism.

These two groups may see themselves as being complete opposites. However, in reality, they are two sides of the same coin. Both claim to want to do away with various religious forms (including the Mennonite name) and desire to be authentic Christians. Both see repentance and revival as the solution. But neither side is willing to question their own assumptions about themselves and the history behind their core religious identity—rather than question or reconsider their identity, they continue to repeat the mistake of turning back to the Anabaptist ‘wisdom’ they’ve inherited.

A very intelligent and incredibly talented friend of mine, in lamenting the Mast case, had this to say:

In my observation, we’ve come a long way from the early Anabaptists who understood the error of the church which was bent on formalities and conformity to their own “one church”. They said, “No, we choose instead to put our trust in the living God and trust the Holy Spirit for guidance, regardless of the cost.” Have we slipped back into idolatry? Conformity to a religion? A religion that must be protected for fear it will crumble?

This sounds right to a person indoctrinated into the Anabaptist mindset.

Unfortunately, it is also an assessment of the problem that completely ignores the reality of the situation. Mast’s church doesn’t seem fearful, rather they most likely see themselves as being very courageous for what they see as their uncompromising Christ-like stand on forgiveness. In their embrace of Jeriah’s confession, they see themselves as doing right no matter the cost. CAM, likewise, is not protecting a religion, but rather they are protecting assets they believe should go to a particular mission—that being the mission those who entrusted the funds in them intended it for—and thus the trying to settle quickly/quietly is simply, in their minds, good stewardship.

The statement, “the early Anabaptists who understood,” is practically an article of faith for modern Anabaptists. Sadly it is the very idolatry they project onto any Christian tradition that they reject. It is an accusation full of pride in that authentic Anabaptist identity they see as represented in themselves. Instead of considering the words of St Paul urging unity or considering the case of Diotrephes who arrogantly cast even the Apostles out of his church, they point to their ancestors as if this connection to a glorified past will somehow justify their next move. The folly is pride, pride in our ancestors, a belief that they were completely justified in what they did and is believing, without ever considering the negative consequences, that we should be more like them.

In reality, modern Anabaptists, like those who enabled Mast, are not acting any different from early Anabaptists. Modern Anabaptists, like their forefathers, do not feel a need to be accountable to any established authority that doesn’t conform to their own understanding of things. They reject institutions, they reject each other, they submit only to their own interpretations and believe they are more spiritual for this.

But is that really what Christ taught?

Did he tell us to run from problems and try to reinvent the church every time we disagreed with the established tradition?

When will modern Anabaptists repent of the pride that keeps the Church divided and them unaccountable?

To Save Sinners, Of Whom I Am First

Every Sunday, before partaking of communion, the Orthodox pray:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

That prayer, using the words of St Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, shows what it truly means to be oriented towards humility and should be how we understand ourselves in relation to our peers. This is in contrast to the example of the Pharisee, that Jesus described in Luke 18:9-14, who boasted about his righteousness in comparison to another man.

If we believe that we are first amongst sinners it will change our response to when others fail. No, that doesn’t mean there will be no accountability for sins either. St Paul was forceful in telling the Corinthian church to cast the wicked man from amongst them and we should have a similar attitude to his. But our being first amongst sinners does mean letting go of hindering pride.

When we can stop saying “I follow [insert name of leader],” “I follow the Holy Spirit,” “I follow the Bible,” or even “I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 1) and instead be a part of the Church together and unified in our love, that is when we are being truly humble and understanding our place before God.

This idea that we or our ancestors could somehow create the more perfect Church is pure folly and keeps us bound to repeat the same mistakes in different forms. Sure, one generation may use forgiveness in a way that enables while the next will be ashamed of the enabling of the prior and seek to distance themselves from the others. But both are turning to themselves, to the cultural assumptions implanted in them, and never allow themselves to be accountable to anyone besides themselves.

The folly of modern Anabaptists is the same as their forefathers. They believe they can escape corruption by rejecting established institutions and traditions. And yet their ancestors end up as bad or worse than the groups they left. If they weren’t leading polygamous rebellions they excommunicating each other over things they couldn’t agree on (including, ironically enough, the practice of excommunication itself) and, incidentally, nobody was excommunicated for their participation in the violent uprising at Münster.

Nope, on matters of polygamy and use of force, early Anabaptists simply agreed to disagree.

Anyhow, is it a surprise that Jeriah Mast’s abuse has spawned two contradictory sides who both position themselves as the authentic Anabaptists?

There is a great deal of pride in the Anabaptist name. It gives the user a right to exclude those who disagree, to forgive those who know how to play the system right and avoid any accountability to a Church greater than themselves. It takes humility to realize that we aren’t special, that our ancestors were as flawed as we are today and that we are indeed sinners in need of salvation. It is time to stop repeating the mistakes of our Anabaptist forefathers, renounce the spirit of Diotrephes that divides the body of Christ, and start reconnecting with the Church bigger than our own ideas.

Missionaries From Hell — Revisited

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The picture above is from a glowing LancasterOnline article, from 2016, about a couple who sold everything to start an orphanage in Kenya.

A few years ago, while at an annual conservative Mennonite revivalist effort, specifically the youth tent meetings at Terry Hill, I was involved in a conversation with a parent who spoke of their great admiration of the missionary zeal of the younger generation. To this person, the desire to travel to exotic places, purportedly to “share the Gospel,” was proof of sincere faith and fulfillment of the great commission. But, having decided that questioning this paradigm would likely be misunderstood, I did not express my reservations then.

Since then I have written two blogs, most recently one (“Missionaries From Hell?“) as part of a series on Matthew 23 and another before that (“Missionary or Imposter?“) exploring the true meaning of a quote of a famed fundamentalist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, about Christian missionary work. In both I point out the many different motives, besides a sincere desire to reach vulnerable people, why someone would leave the comforts (and boredom) of rural American life to be with a group of ambitious (and unmarried) young people. My basic point being that missionary zeal does not necessarily mean prayer cards and world travel.

My Blindspot

However, in those prior efforts, while listing the many possibilities of corrupt motivations and relating my own experiences, not once did it occur to me to add sexual predation to the list. At the time it would have seemed a bit over the top. My simply challenging the assumption that all things done in the name of Jesus are legit service “for the kingdom” may have been enough for some to tune me out. I mean, isn’t it great that some are trying to do something, even if that effort is misguided, largely ineffective and born of suspect motives?

Yes, maybe the execution was flawed, but isn’t the road to heaven paved with good intentions?

(Or maybe I’m remembering that expression wrong…?)

Anyhow, to suggest that some are there some there in these impoverished countries as a means to prey on the vulnerable would have been unconscionable until it became otherwise. When the bombshell report of Jeriah Mast’s confessions to sexually predatory behavior, both while a missionary in Haiti and also swept under the rug at home, rocked the conservative Mennonite world it immediately reminded me of the two blogs I wrote about the potential for ulterior motives.

It makes perfect sense now and should’ve years before in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky, the founder of an organization supposedly to help disadvantaged boys, the “Second Mile,” could use his access to the university and reputation as a former coach as a means to hide in plain sight, why not a Mennonite missionary?

Except, for some reason, it was unimaginable.

My concerns expressed missed and not because they were too critical either. No, if anything, I was too gentle and generous. All cultures have their sacred cows, it is risky business trying to confront them head-on, and maybe that is what caused me to unconsciously tread lightly as not to offend. But charities and church ministries are opportunity zones for wolves in sheep’s clothing. The reality is this: The same things that draw those with pure motives to the mission also attracts those looking to exploit vulnerable people.

The Bigger Issue

It certainly isn’t just the case in Mennonite missions either. In fact, the reason I’m writing is because of another case involving a Lancaster County man, a convicted sex offender, who started an orphanage in Kenya—the man in the LancasterOnline picture. Then there is that “incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham” mentioned by Hans Mast in his blog. And that’s only scratching the surface, only the most current and obvious examples, and who knows what is yet to come to light.

Do we have any excuse anymore not to be aware?

We can fairly easily detect a fraud when it is not one of our own. Like the Manhattan ‘pastor’ who wrote in USA Today about her late-term abortion, had a salary of $250,000 (“plus more than $150,000 in fringe benefits”) and recently lost her job over a harassment complaint involving sex toys. Most people know to be wary of men like televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who live like celebrities and fleece their flocks for Gulfstream jets. But the truth is that these aren’t the wolves relevant to conservative Mennonite (or Orthodox Christian) sheep and we do definitely have wolves amongst us.

We were warned…

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:28‭-‬29 NIV)

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that we all have this potential to be the imposter or to be one who looks and acts the part of a Christian, yet is only really in it for themselves. Living the part of a religious or cultural ideal often gives you access to funding, better jobs, travel, and other opportunities. Sure, not everyone who goes abroad is a sexual predator. It is likely that this kind of abuse is the rare exception of those who travel. However, sexual predation is not the only form of exploitation.

It could be argued that populating an Instagram page with cute pictures of foreign children is more for the benefit of the one posting them. In well-funded funded Western-style missions there is also plenty of power and cultural imperialism that comes along for the ride in our missionary efforts. In other words, there are many ways that a person can be a missionary from hell.