Closer Than Blood…?

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

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

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

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

The Quote…

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

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

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

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

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

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

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

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

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

Is It All Fake?

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

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

Amish community spirit…

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

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

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

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

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

Either that or it is all made up.

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

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

My moon shot…

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

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

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

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

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

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

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

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

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

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

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

The Impossible Love

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

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

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

I’m not there yet…

Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based on a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward-facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash-landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

I prefer open racism…

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I shook my head as I read a social media post from a well-meaning white friend thanking various “people of color” for not doing him harm because of historical and current injustices.

Many of his friends liked the post—a vast majority of the affirmation, despite his diverse mix of friends, came from his white friends. On the surface his post is contrite or considerate and praise-worthy.  What could be wrong about a man owning up to the sins of his own kind?

But under the surface of his post lurks something insidious.  It uncovers a secret expectation that “people of color” should be irrationally violent and thus are deserving of his praise when they are not.  It is a demeaning and belittling message cloaked in empathy.  It actually reinforces an awful stereotype.

Think about it: Would it be praise to thank a white man for being civilized or would it be patronization and a backhanded insult?

What is more disturbing is this persistent idea that a whole race should be held accountable for the sins of one of their own.  Apparently I should be judged by the depraved acts of Dylann Roof (and every white man in history) because I share his skin color and gender.  But isn’t that exactly the logic of every racist in history and the way of thinking we are trying to escape? 

I believe ‘white guilt’ is a symptom of racist thinking rather than a solution.  When we thank “people of color” for not harming us as white people we are perpetuating the idea that people should be judged as a race rather than as unique individuals.  It is a tribalist suggestion that violence against a whole race is justified therefore we need forgiven as individual members of a racial tribe.

But this thinking is racist to the core.  It keeps “people of color” as something separate from us.  It treats them as something to be pandered to in a way that we would never do to another white man.  (My thanking a white man for not killing me today would be taken as foolishness or sarcasm.)  It is also saying that we expect irrationality and violence from them—which is exactly the same reasoning of a racist killer.

We cannot help but see people as white or black.  We should not be ignorant of historical injustice or continuing racism either.  But we can stop believing that people are fundamentally different because of their skin color.  Part of that is not apologizing in a grandstanding fashion for our own skin color.  Part of that is not treating “people of color” as inferior by thanking them for things we would not even thank a small child for.

We recognize calling a black man “boy” may be insulting.  We also see the battle flag of the Confederacy (the “rebel flag”) as symbolic of racism.  However, do we see subtle racism of those who’s words betray an expectation that black people should be irrational and violent?

I myself prefer those who display their true colors openly, because then we know what we are dealing with and don’t need to dig through the layers of carefully hidden prejudices to find the truth.