There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media. In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population. The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie. It was before my time. But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda. It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.
Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:
“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print. I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is. In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform. As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”
Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference. However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth. What led to this severe reaction? Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.
Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types. Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted. Why? Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits. But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.
What does “Real Christians” actually mean?
The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference. At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right? But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians. The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian. No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him. It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist. This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization. So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.
As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out. And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.” To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.
So why deny it?
Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?
Why not be Mennonite and own it?
The real issue goes deeper. Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites. The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form. Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians. The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church. Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.
The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture. This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.
There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them. This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.
Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…
What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face. For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.
This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice.
First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied. Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me. Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant. It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.
In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies. So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.
And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application. In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice. It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.
The Truth sets free!
The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising. It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does. For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do. The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.
But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth. No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be. We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness. We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices. This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)
Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels. I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us. This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts. When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.
Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see. In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith. It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians. It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.
All lies have an element of truth. In fact, a misleading narrative, in order to have any convincing power, must contain many true statements.
It is not the off-the-wall and totally unsubstantiated claim that is the most dangerous. No, it is the half-truths, the facts out of context, the misunderstood statistics, that are most deceptive. Effective lies employ facts, they work our emotions and attempt to frame even our own experiences into a deceptive narrative.
The biggest lie of our time is the so-called “anti-racism” of the far-left. Call it woke, call it social justice, Critical Race Theory, Equity committees, or anything else, it is all fundamentally the same thing and that common thing is to promote division over identities.
The sad part is that many will stop reading here and leave without understanding. They might see the statement above as attacking their good intentions, as being ignorant, and a lack of comprehension of what those things listed truly are.
First, discrimination is real.
People are discriminated against on the basis of height, body shape, ability, intelligence, credentials, wealth, political views, affiliation, having a disease, personal history, gender, and, of course, skin color. Any category of identity or appearance can be used as a reason to deny and mistreat people. Ultimately, we’re all a minority of one and most have faced some form of discrimination.
In this country, the United States, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities have faced a significant level of discrimination. Chinese weren’t allowed to hold certain jobs, Germans were forced to scrub away much of their cultural heritage and unique identity because of war propaganda, Japanese sent to internment camps, Mormons were lynched, as were Republicans, and of course the horrendous exploitation of African Americans as slaves and then the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that followed.
This legacy of discrimination, especially in the most severe cases, has undoubtedly left its mark on various communities.
Second, power dynamics change with context.
Be the wrong person to walk into a biker bar and the welcome will be anything but warm. Go to Philadelphia, get off the beaten path like my family did, and the McDonald’s may be a rather hostile environment where the staff servers others ahead of you and then make your tired little sister cry because they dumped a massive pile of salt on Happy Meal burger.
As a Northerner, in the rural South, I was a bit nervous about standing out too much for my accent, did the sons and daughters of the Confederacy hold a grudge?
I was definitely a fish out of the water getting off the bus stop in Compton!
I think we all feel a little uncomfortable out of our own context, away from our own cultural tribe. I know from traveling abroad, being surrounded by people who eat unfamiliar foods, speak a strange language, look, act and dress differently, this can feel a little threatening and unsafe. No, it is not because the people are unfriendly or show any signs of contempt for you, as a foreigner, it is just that you don’t know the risks, customs, or what to expect.
Stepping out of the airport terminal, into the steamy Manila heat, filled me with a mix of excitement and anxiety as I clung tightly to my bags and scanned for the face of that one person of millions that I hoped would not beat, rob, and leave me for dead.
It would be really easy, had I had the wrong encounter, to generalize and conclude that Americans were unwelcome. If on my own turf, if treated badly, I would assume it was a bad individual and not a reflection of all in the community or culture. But amongst those who are different in appearance, it is very easy to make broad generalizations based on a couple of bad experiences. Being in a room full of strangers, especially those who seem to know each other or have something in common, we feel vulnerable or powerless. And sometimes there is actual bullying and discrimination against the odd ones out in a given context.
As a Mennonite in a public school, I was always keenly aware of being different. I was asked questions, often containing assumptions and annoying, had nicknames based around my religious (and ethnic) identity, it is a behavior called “micro-aggression” according to the current paradigm. Being called “Jebediah” or hearing derogatory comments about Mennonites didn’t exactly leave me emotionally unaffected. There was always (and still is) a feeling of safety and security that comes from being with people of my own sub-culture.
Third, I’m completely opposed to racism.
I have long taken a stand against racism and discrimination based on appearance.
Even the concept of race itself does not actually make much sense.
Why is Barack Obama black when his mom was a privileged New England blue blood, white, and that lineage half of his genetics? What percentage of African blood does one need to be black? Why does skin color or a few unique physical features determine another race, but not hair color or height? Why aren’t redheads a separate race?
The definition of race, according to Merriam-Webster, is “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” and could actually mean that Mennonites and Amish, with their unique genetic disorders, are a race. But the reality is that it is mostly an artificial barrier, something arbitrary, a category based on mostly superficial things, and not science-based.
This first step in eliminating racism is to reconsider the existence of race. Race is not real or at least no more than Mickey Mouse. It is simply lines that we have drawn, like the political and geographic boundaries between nations, and the bigger difference between people is actually culture, but don’t take my word for it:
Culture has enormous effects on social outcomes. The influence of culture on social outcomes is not just a hypothetical—there is a great deal of evidence that culture has a large effect on many of the unequal social outcomes that some would like to ascribe to biological differences between races or sexes. Those who urge us not to deny that biology contributes to human nature have a point, but they often short-change the significance of what really makes the human species exceptional—our culture.
There is a multitude of reasons why some like to emphasize racial differences and try to make culture synonymous with race. The first amongst them is political power. By convincing people that some others are inferior or a threat, based on some category of difference, you can harness their anxieties as a means to get votes. Blaming behavior on genetic predisposition is a license for color discrimination and also a ready excuse for bad behavior.
If we ever want to overcome racism we need to understand race is purely a social construct.
What is false about anti-racism?
Being raised in liberal America, post-Civil Rights era, meant being indoctrinated into the teaching of Martin Luther King. It was not colorblindness, as often framed, rather seeing the person first rather than judge on the basis of outward appearance. But this liberal order is currently under assault. Even reciting the passage out of the “I Have Dream” speech, about not being judged by the color of skin but by the content of their character,” will be met with the ire of the “anti-racist” left.
Well, strange as it is, the far-left push for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ is not about race at all. No, in their worldview and framing of experience, it is always about this supposed power struggle between the majority (within their culture) and those deemed to be marginalized and oppressed. In other words, if skin color were removed from the equation entirely it would not matter, this ideology seeks to find any difference in outcomes and call it an injustice.
The term “white privilege,” for example, is indicative of race. That is how it is defined, as the perceived advantage of those with lighter skin tone over those of darker complexion, and yet that’s not truly what it is about. That’s simply the bait. The term is a divisive tool and cover for an assault on religion, property rights, traditional marriage, and other existing beneficial structures of civilization that stand in the way of the far-left’s self-declared ‘revolutionary’ ideological goals.
For sake of analogy, think of the gag when you tap a person on the opposite shoulder to make it appear that someone else in the room did it. I mean, nothing but a harmless prank in that case. However, it could also be employed as a diversionary tactic, where you get two other people arguing so you can take advantage of the ensuing chaos to pursue the actual objective. It is misdirection.
Many, in taking on racially divisive terms like “white privilege” fall for the ruse, they respond by pointing out all of the advantages black Americans have. This, in turn, can easily be presented (out of context) as proof of racial prejudice and only fuels the fire of resentment across color lines. Many black Americans, for their part, are very aware and sensitive about their racial identity and not without cause either. Unfortunately, this also makes them vulnerable to political opportunists who seek to exploit this history and experience of prejudice. It very quickly escalates into an unsolvable tit-for-tat mess, nobody on either side realizing they’ve been played for fools.
The prime example is how the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting is framed as being white privilege, the riots in Kenosha supposedly an expression of anti-racism. The narrative pushed by the corporate media is that Rittenhouse was some kind of far-right nut job looking for trouble, a counterprotester, and gunned down protestors at random. In reality, Rittenhouse had family connections in the city, he was there protecting a minority-owned car dealership, he has actually expressed support for BLM, and his attackers were all white men. He wasn’t there to oppose justice for Jacob Blake. He was there because of the destruction the night before and to defend the innocent from harm.
The three white men who attacked Rittenhouse are protected from scrutiny, under the “white privilege” rubric, for being classified as oppressed. It is not in spite of, rather it is because of the violent criminal history of these three white men that they are considered victims by the left. The left assumes that people behave the way they do because of circumstances, they blame-shift responsibility for violence perpetrated by their own and use narrative as cover for ideological agenda rather than a means of transmitting truth. The left is not truly against discrimination or anti-racism, they are about gaining power over others by any means and this racial wedge is simply an effective tool.
The lie that color is culture
Underlying the Critical Race Theory (CRT) and any of the rebranding attempts used to “start the conversation” or sell this anti-liberal divisive ideology is an assumption that race and culture are inexorably linked. It is, not too ironically, the one thing that both the ‘woke’ and actual white supremacists agree on. They both teach and believe that skin color determines behavior.
This is why those pushing CRT reject the call of Martin Luther King to see past color and judge by the content of character instead. To them people behave the way that they do because of their race, that skin color basically determines culture and character, and therefore it is oppression for the majority to impose any kind of order or at least not when it goes against their own leftist political agenda. Any cultural standard, like the idea people should work for their own food, is classified as oppression and racism.
Both white supremacists and far-left theorists present differences in behavior and statistical outcomes, between racial categories, as being primarily driven by genetics. They, unlike liberals, who see a larger role of culture and assume that economic circumstances play a part in shaping outcomes, see race as being what determines culture. The only difference between the two is that white supremacists see this as a reason to subdue and subjugate some races, while the far-left sees it as a reason to subjectively excuse or accuse people along color lines. Both are equally abhorrent. Both reverse cause and effect and provoke hate.
The first problem is that even if genetics did determine outcomes, why stop with categories of race? We all know that Europeans all have their own unique cultural groups, as do Middle-Easterners, Africans, and Asians. It is the basis for stereotypes. We know Italians to be big talkers, Germans as industrious, Russians for drinking lots of Vodka, and the same thing could be done across any racial division. It is sort of like Native American tribes, they were not all the same, some were warlike and conquered their neighbors. Some were nomadic, others building massive cities. To lump them all together is plain ignorant, it is the heart of racial prejudice and poor analysis.
At this point, some, at least on the right, would be eager to get into statistics showing the correlation between race and criminality or IQ. To them, this is smoking-gun evidence of the superiority or inferiority of collective racial groups. They would use the athletic advantage of African Americans, given the domination of black people in professional sports, as undeniable proof of this overall thesis. And, certainly, we could get into a discussion of the structure of the Achilles tendon, Testosterone levels, and whatnot that would go on forever. However, all this obsession on physical racial differences ignores both the large overlap between groups on the standard Bell Curve and also the role that culture plays in shaping these outcomes.
The lie is that race predisposes culture. That some are genetically predisposed to violence or laziness and therefore should be exempted (or excluded) and granted special permissions. It completely ignores the reality that categories of white and black are far too narrow given the diversity of outcomes within those labels, that there are two many other influences on behavior to settle on only an inborn genetic nature. Yes, perhaps some of our personality is predetermined and travels along with skin color. But we cannot rule out that these behavioral predilections are not mostly a product of nurture or culture.
The left needs to have race determine culture in other to push forward a victim narrative and this idea of systemic racism. If culture (behavior) is genetic and not a choice, then some can’t be held accountable for their own poverty of criminal activities. This is a new variant of Marxism. The German philosopher, Karl Marx, saw us as products of class rather than independent moral agents, which was the basis for class warfare rhetoric and license for violence against those more successful. The left wants African Americans to believe that they can’t thrive in the broader American culture. That’s a lie.
Religion produces culture and shapes outcomes
One of the most wonderful things about being rejected by my own ethnic kind is the opportunity it gave me to learn how much people are truly the same. I’ve never dated an ethnic Mennonite, nor a white American-born woman, and not as something deliberate either. In other words, I was open to any race and simply had more luck with those different from me.
But each time, whether an immigrant, black, white, or the infinite shades in between, Hispanic, Algerian, Egyptian, Cantonese, Filipino, or Congolese, slightly better educated or more athletic, these women had much more in common with me than was actually different. In some regards, they remain more my kinfolk than the conservative Mennonites who could not love me the way that I wanted to be loved. And, here’s the truth, while racial and cultural differences are always an interesting conversation, it is similarities in religion that formed the bridge of our common bond.
My bhest, Charlotte, is an Asian woman. A Filipino to be more precise. And yet her ethnic heritage is actually Igorot. The Igorot tribes live in the Cordillera mountain region of Luzon. They are known as ferocious warriors and only a couple of generations removed from head hunting:
A tribal war usually starts after a tribesman takes the head of a member from another tribe. Head taking was a rite of passage into manhood. The offended tribe can demand retribution. If the one taking the head desires continued peace, influential tribal leaders are sent to the other tribe to negotiate. Compensation is paid and the accord is sealed with an exchange of articles. If no agreement is reach then a war challenge is issued by the offended party.
This cultural arrangement would make for a rather uncomfortable existence, at least when traveling alone on the edge of tribal boundaries, and resulted in plenty of bloodshed, no doubt. However, while still carrying on some of the tradition, the practice of headhunting is a curiosity of the past rather than a reason to be fearful of getting a haircut while visiting Baguio City, which is now a big tourist destination for other Filipino people and the hub of the Igorot world.
Well, not the genetics.
Let me tell you the story of Charlotte’s family, the terrible tragedies they have (at the hands of wicked men) endured, what made the difference for them and how it is a path forward for us. The violent lifestyle of Igorot tribes changed with the conversion of many of their ethnic kind to Christianity and this has produced significant changes in outcomes.
An Igorot family that forgave
As a writer, as part of my trying to make sense of the world, I do not want the suffering of others to be for naught. But I know that this subject matter is personal and painful for Charlotte and her family, so understand that I share this with conflicted feelings. On one hand, I want to protect those whom I loved. On the other, I want to create a better world for our children by this very practical testimony of faith and sacrifice.
Charlotte’s grandpa converted to Christianity and even started a church in the village. He was a respected man, an elder in the village, and was called to settle a land dispute between two parties. However, the party he went against was evidently enraged. He hired an assassin. And Charlotte’s grandpa was murdered in the night, shot in his own bed, leaving the family without their beloved Patriarch and with a trauma that is visited upon generations.
Now, the traditional Igorot way of handling this would be to take matters into their own hands. However, rather than seek blood for blood, this first-generation Christian family chose to forgive. No, they would not have opposed justice for the killer. But civil authority is weak and overstressed in this region, this meant nobody would face legal penalties for this murder. A tough pill to swallow for sure.
And yet, that’s not even the most extraordinary part, they knew who the hired killer was. They knew who he was and would actually allow him to eat with them! Talk about heaping coals of fire! The only thing is, they did not forget nor did they let him off scot-free. There called him Judas. Referring to the Apostle who betrayed Jesus for money and his obsession with political power. Which is an apt description. So even with this forgiveness, there was still a bit of poetic justice and a not too subtle call for repentance.
One morning, several years ago, I was getting ready for work and received a call from Charlotte. I have never collapsed to the floor before in my life. But, I was immediately overcome with emotion, when I heard those words “they killed uncle Roland!”
My heart sank.
How could this be?
The man who so selflessly served his family, a wonderful father who would smother his children with love despite being exhausted from a long day of work, a provider, a leader in the community, and someone who would help anyone. The friend who welcomed me into his home, along with his lovely wife, aunt Geraldine, was murdered in a most brutal fashion, by thugs hired by a jealous business rival.
But, again, despite the identity of the killers (and who hired them) being known, despite the police lacking resources to investigate and prosecute, the family did not seek vengeance. I mean, for some time, I would fantasize about taking my own anger over what was done out on these wicked men. Still, in the end, what would that accomplish other than continue the cycle of violence common in tribal honor cultures the world over?
The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.
(Proverbs 28:1 NIV)
Now it is said that the man responsible for the murder, upon realizing what Igorot tribe uncle Roland came from and knowing their reputation for violent retribution, went into hiding and only goes out in disguise. Not sure if that is still true, nevertheless Jesus saved him even while he remains lost in his sin, and he should pray for God’s mercy on his soul.
Let’s talk about Haitian work ethic
A prejudice many sanctimonious Americans have against Haitians is that their poverty is the result of a lack of ambition or work ethic. A point of agreement between many on the ‘common sense’ right and ‘woke’ far-left. And yet, as one who has been there, who still has a deep respect for a particular Haitian family despite our estrangement (on social media) over political differences, I can say unequivocally that this generalization is a lie.
Looking at the county of Haiti, the poorest in our hemisphere, it would be easy to assume that this is entirely a reflection of the people. And, indeed, corruption does abound, there is something reflected of the character of a people in a nation and the fatalistic Voodoo religion likely does play a role. But what a lot of people do not realize is that there are a lot of good people stuck in a feedback loop and, once broken free of the cycles of poverty and violence, could be extremely successful.
First, I think of that Haitian man, in Port Au Prince, heaving a truck body on his back. That is many things, but it is not lazy or lack of work ethic. The amount of determination and strength this took, for such little compensation when he finally got it to the metal scrap yard at the port, required extraordinary motivation. I had to think about my own complaints, making tens of thousands out on the road, and how this man would be both able to do my job and probably be much more grateful as well.
Second, that young man who showed up outside the church us Mennonite ‘missionaries’ were painting as part of our well-meaning desire to serve others. This young Haitian man, thin and possibly malnourished, confirmed one of my fears prior to going on this youth group trip. He, with pleading eyes, begged, “I can paint!” We could have employed him and a crew of Haitians, with American supervisors if need be, for a year with the money that went towards our airline tickets. He was willing to work, but lacked opportunity due to circumstances completely out of his control.
Third, let’s talk about my Haitian immigrant friends. All of them have gone further with their education, have worked their tails off, and have proven themselves to be real go-getters. Beyond that, they have always been hospitable to me and I have many fond memories from the time with them in Brooklyn or elsewhere. Their agreement with divisive racial politics aside, I see them as people of great moral character and more than my equal in many regards.
You stick the child of a hard-working American in “little Africa” in Haiti and there’s a very high probability that they will not live a comfortable life in suburbia. In Haiti, there is a sort of systemic oppression. The elites in that country squandered opportunities for their people. The political gridlock and misguided charitable efforts produce poverty, and the culture as well. Yeah, duh, people in such a chaotic environment are likely to score lower on a standardized intelligence test or even give in to despair. Just like children from fatherless homes (white or black) are often disadvantaged. The differences in outcomes are a matter of culture or circumstances and not of race.
Furthermore, if you look at Appalachia or Coal Region, or any blue-collar town where the industry has left, the results are often no different. These “deplorables” are not privileged people and have more in common with inner-city minorities than the social elites who sneer at them. (I mean, take this UC Berkeley professor putting his anti-rural bigotry on full display.) The customs and costumes vary and yet the actual substance does not. Black or white matters less than frequently believed. No, work ethic has nothing to do with skin color, nor does faithfulness in romantic relationships nor propensity for violence.
There is little doubt that our genetics do have an impact on our outcomes. Being bigger and stronger, smarter or more attractive, is at least somewhat predetermined. It is not all nurture.
Still, race is a construct. People certainly are not predisposed to culture on the basis of the race category they are placed in. Behavior is a choice. No, we do not choose our cultural conditioning, the neighborhood we were both into, and a vast number of factors that help to shape outcomes. We are judged by our appearance. But this does not mean we should.
Lies can shape outcomes. If we are told, over and over again, that this one distinguishing characteristic is of primary importance, we start to believe it. My being 5′-8″ tall, for example. This is a definite disadvantage, there is prejudice against men of shorter stature, statistics show this clearly, but dwelling on this only compounds the problem. Things like short-man syndrome or insecurity only increase the disadvantage. Isn’t it better to tell people to be confident?
That is what is so troublesome about the racial narrative of the far-left. It encourages people to believe that race determines culture. This is part of their broader push to blame bad behavior on circumstances and undesirable outcomes on oppression. But the real crime is that they’re robbing individuals of their agency and saying that we cannot transcend or change our stripes. It is essentially anti-Christian and racist at the core. If a person is what they are because it skin color then prejudice and discrimination is justified. This is not the way forward.
Racism is the idea that we are fundamentally different because of skin color, that culture and behavior are determined by race. It is a framework, a lens, that discards any evidence to the contrary or, worse, attempts to delegitimize the people that go against the narrative. This happened in the segregationist South. It was almost worse for white people who stood against the racism there. But it is happening now, where racial minorities who stand up to the political far-left are the biggest targets of ridicule and hate.
If a ‘black’ person has a job and is a productive citizen, the racist left attacks this success as internalized racism. If a ‘white’ person enjoys other cultures, they are vilified for appropriation and accused of theft.
The ‘woke’ left must guard these color lines or their divisive political ‘theory’ falls apart.
The reality is that behavior is not inexorably tied to skin color. Culture is behavior and evolves. Loud and obnoxious or reserved and shy, it could be a result of social contagion and cultural conditioning more than something genetically preprogrammed. What is called ‘black’ culture today will change. The mainstream American culture has also dramatically been remade over and over again. We don’t have duels to settle ‘gentlemanly’ disputes, petticoats have long gone out of style, my German identity has largely been assimilated into the melting pot and my children will have values slightly different from my own. The same is true in Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere.
The reason why the left seeks to break cultural cohesion, with CRT indoctrination (or wherever it will be renamed now that it is being scrutinized) and conflating race with culture is that a coalition of minorities is more powerful than those who would represent the cultural norm. Think about it. Most of us think we are unique, most of us could frame our “lived experience” as being disadvantaged. Much of this, in actuality, is an illusion of our own knowing our own struggles and not knowing what others have faced. Oppression narrative frames this as being a matter of only some identities, not a shared human experience as it truly is. We’re all a minority of one that must negotiate within the broader social space. Culture can unite. It can bridge differences in racial or other identities.
The left wants morality to be subjective. There is no good or evil in their perspective. There’s only what is politically expedient to them, a means to obtain power and control for themselves or those like them. Every system designed to create equity will eventually only end up unfairly advantaging a different group of people. Allow pedophiles to follow their passions, like everyone else, and children will be exploited. They will destroy liberal institutions, in the name of helping those marginalized, and only ever make us all subject to their own dictatorial whims without solving any injustice in the end.
I have little doubt that many seeking “social justice” or “equity” are good and sincerely caring people. But they are participating in a divisive framing of things that will only lead to more injustice. The term “white privilege” promotes prejudice and anti-racism is truly hyper-racism. Their critique aimed at structures of civilization, like marriage, religion, property rights, will only result in more insecurity and hurt.
The Christian alternative to race obsession
The church, not an equity committee, is supposed to be the center of community and healing. We can’t solve a spiritual problem with a political solution. We can’t fix the world without addressing our own hearts first.
CRT is a cheap counterfeit for the Gospel. It encourages us to externalize blame rather than repent of our own sin and let God judge others. Rather than project our own guilt on others, or accuse, decide who has too much, is racist or whatever, this is the Christian ethic:
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
(James 4:11-12 NIV)
Politics is a competitive affair. It is a constant battle for position. And one of the cheats to gain power is to rile people up and use them as pawns to take out those who stand in the way of their agenda. This is done through vicious accusations and evil surmises. It is the very opposite of what James instructs, which is to focus on our own behavior rather than judge others.
The Gospel is about creating a joint identity that overcomes our differences:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
(Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)
Christian culture is for all identities. The salvation Christ brings is free to all and thus can’t be appropriated.
There is no such thing as the “social justice” Gospel. Our ‘equity’ does not come from political action. It comes from Christ and loving those whom He loves. Unlike the political alternative, this is a positive focus, us using our love to build humbly rather than destroy with accusations:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)
Proverbs 6 calls “a person who stirs up conflict in the community” detestable to God. It is because these contests are limiting our collective potential and destructive.
Orthodox Christianity is about looking inward rather than outward. It is about finding a common union in Christ rather than dwelling on differences. It promotes leadership through self-sacrificial love rather than by political power and change that comes through personal repentance rather than reforming systems, this is the way:
It is worth noticing that, after acquiring spiritual understanding, the defects and faults of one’s neighbor begin to seem very slight and insignificant, as redeemed by the Savior and easily cured by repentance—those very faults and defects which seemed to the carnal understanding so big and serious. Evidently the carnal mind, being itself a plank, gives them this huge significance. The carnal mind sees in others sins that are not there at all.
(St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena)
The other day, I had a ‘woke’ online acquaintance (presumably, someone who still goes to church) respond to something I wrote with a proclamation about racism existing. The weird part was that my post had nothing to do with race whatsoever and was simply me venting my frustrations with a multitude of things including the slow progress of Charlotte’s immigration. For whatever reason, he saw race and pounced on the opportunity to promote his racially divisive worldview. As in the quote, people obsessed with a particular narrative “see in others sins that are not there at all” and are truly only projecting their own sins.
We must first correct the beam in our own eyes before we can see clearly to help others with the splinters we perceive in their eyes. If we want spiritual transformation and social change we need to shed our own judgemental black and white thinking first. The path out of this sinful delusion of racism and divisive race obsession is repentance.
Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.
Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3-16 NIV)
I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.
The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?
The Joke Was On Me
One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?
Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.
My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.
It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?
Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.
My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.
For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.
The Church Both Militant and Triumphant
As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?
But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.
The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.
There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?
When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?
It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.
The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.
The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons
As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.
It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.
For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:
Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)
Can you imagine that?
Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!
But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)
The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.
Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.
The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal
What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.
Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?
Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.
The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.
Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:
“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”
“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”
Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.
Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.
Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…
Oh No, Not Again!!!
Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.
So I’ll start with that one…
“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”
Yes and no.
The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.
However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.
The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.
“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”
One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.
However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.
For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.
“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”
This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.
Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22-24 NIV)
And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.
Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.
“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”
Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.
However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.
The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.
“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”
+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)
“I know an Orthodox and…”
It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.
This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?
The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.
For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.
But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.
A fellow Christian (and conservative) friend asked me to list the problems I had with Donald Trump as a Republican candidate. The hard part is knowing where to start.
Trump claims to be conservative. He is definitely saying things that resonate with those who are concerned about jobs, border security and immigration. But, I believe proven character and integrity is far more important than what a person claims about themselves.
Trump supporters are convinced he is genuine simply because he says things they want to hear. Yet seem to forget that the art of demagoguery is to say what plays well with a particular crowd. Trump is shrewd enough to make a sale, but is he honest?
Myth #1—Trump ‘says it how it is’ and is honest.
Trump’s claim to fame is not personal integrity or conservativism. He is known for salesmanship and a bestselling book, “The Art of a Deal,” where he talks about creating a big impression. In other words, try to create an appearance of success and dazzle.
Trump parroting popular prejudice doesn’t make a him honest anymore than me moonwalking makes me Michael Jackson. There’s a strong possibility he may just be saying what some want to hear in order to make the sale. Those saying that Trump ‘says it how it is’ might want to consider who they are dealing with.
Trump, like the used car salesman who sold you that clunker, is trying to make a deal with you.
Sure, he might not be saying what ‘they’ want to hear, just as a used car salesman might also act like he’s at odds with the management because the deal he is making with you is going to cost ‘them’ too much. But that doesn’t mean you take the salesman at their word on it!
From a Christian perspective, there is even more need to be discerning and skeptical of claims that sound good to us:
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-5)
Trump has claimed a mythological net worth of near nine billion dollars, but Trump’s actual net worth is half of what he claims according to Forbes. So is Trump clueless about his own business holdings? Or does he know that the attention span of the average person is short and that he can dazzle people with a huge number that they’ll never check?
Even Trump’s business prowless seems as grossly exaggerated. Yes, he’s extremely wealthy, but he also had a huge head start and his daddy’s fortune to build from. It is said that the first million is the hardest and there’s some truth to that. You are far ahead when you can reinvest rather than spend your income on necessities. Trump had that advantage.
Reality check: Trump’s success really is not as impressive when put in proper context. Trump is trying to make a sale, he is out to make a big impression with his target audience and willing to deceive.
Myth #2—Trump is rich and therefore he cannot be bought.
John D. Rockefeller, the world’s wealthiest man, was once asked: “How much money is enough money?”. His reply: “Just a little bit more.”
Rockefeller’s answer should be the end of this myth that the rich man cannot be bought or bribed. G.K. Chesterton took it a step further and said:
“You will hear everlastingly that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.”
I could understand how a secular person could be fooled into believing that wealth is a virtue. But a Christian has absolutely no excuse, Jesus makes mention of the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19) and may well have been paraphrasing the book of Habakkuk:
“Wealth is deceitful. Greedy people are proud and restless—like death itself they are never satisfied.”
Could it be that Trump is rich because he has already been bought?
The wealth of a man does not prove anything positive about his character or integrity. There are good wealthy people, but there are also many wealthy people who would steal from their own grandmother and wouldn’t think twice about scamming you.
Is every wealthy person a crook? No, certainly not! I disagree with those who automatically equate wealth and greed. However, in many case great wealth can be a sign of moral bankruptcy.
One of Trump’s holdings could say a bit about his philosophy in business and in life. That is that he’s in the Casino business. Sure, this is a perfectly legal enterprise, gambling is an activity many people enjoy, but it is also a game stacked against the participant, the house always wins, and the people who can least afford it are often the losers.
Reality check: Trump’s wealth may be legally acquired, but that doesn’t mean it was acquired through morally upright and non-exploitative means.
Myth #3—Trump is a political outsider and not an ‘establishment’ candidate.
During the debate Trump was asked:
“You’ve also supported a host of other liberal policies, you’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business related favors. And you said recently, quote, “when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
“You better believe it… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”
Now some may say such a brazen admission is a ‘breath of fresh air’ and refreshing honesty. I suppose a serial killer bragging about how he outwitted investigators could also be considered the same. But I’m not sure a shameless corruption is an improvement over the run of the mill variety.
If Trump were a poor person gaming the welfare system to his own advantage and bragging about it, would we applaud his shameless corruption or condemn it?
If Trump were a politician, would an ‘everyone else is doing it’ rationale and a witty response about the Clinton’s attending his wedding absolve him of guilt for being complicit in corruption?
“Donald Trump’s covetous nature is not in dispute, but what many may forget is that he’s no great respecter of the admonition not to steal, either: The man has a track record of using the government as a hired thug to take other people’s property.”
Trump tried to use government power to force a widow from her property and was struck down in court. That is the modern day equivalent of king Ahab seizing Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) and is the kind of crony capitalism that is the problem.
There’s two sides of the political establishment. One side is the politicians and the other side is men like Trump who work tirelessly to corrupt politicians. Men with money, like Trump, who exploit the system for personal gain, are just as much the problem as a crooked politicians who take their money.
Trump is as much a part of the political establishment as a Bush or a Clinton. He is not an ‘outsider’ by any stretch of the imagination. So, it is time to see past the sales pitch, do not be dazzled by a man who has never proven himself loyal to anything besides his own self-interest.
Reality check: Trump shows no sign of having embraced Christian ethics. Trump’s confessions of his own corruption come without any sign of remorse and repentance.
Myth #4—Trump will govern differently than he does business.
If we have not learned by now maybe we will never learn. But every manipulator on the planet claims that they will change if only you give them what they want.
Trump shows no sign of remorse or repentance for exploiting the system for personal gain, yet we are supposed to believe he would never abuse government power for personal gain if he secures the White House?
If you believe that, I have a bridge I am selling…