There are some characters you meet online and never forget.
Such was the case with Wayne_in_Maine, who could come off as a sort of cranky or cantankerous old man and yet seemed (even then) to have a golden heart under the bluster. There is a way or an intuition I have, that can cut through the harshness on the surface. I can just know when someone is full of themselves and cruel despite their nice-sounding words or truly compassionate despite their surface-level unpleasantness.
Wayne was the latter kind.
The first thing notable about Wayne was that he was intelligent, he had been a nuclear engineer, could articulate his arguments well, and clearly was not going to be backed into a corner. The second thing was that he had a very unique journey and a different perspective from the other ethnic cultural inhabitants of the MennoDiscuss forum. He had gone from a hippy leftist to a conservative-minded neo-Anabaptist and could speak with authority on matters of science unlike the religiously indoctrinated parroting their fundamentalist teachers.
Initially, I saw him as a sort of threat to my worldview, another person compromised by secular influence trying to get Mennonites to shift to his views, and yet later his perspective would actually strengthen my faith when it faltered against the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the appearance of age in the universe.
Because of Wayne, I learned that young-Earth Creationism (or YEC) is not necessary to have a sincere and grounded faith in Jesus Christ.
In fact, it might actually be a liability and cause many to fall into a serious crisis of faith when they go to university, study biology or almost any science and find out the case for YEC is not as clear as it was presented. That Wayne, a rational mind and well-educated, could both reconcile modern scientific theory and his faith was more useful to me (a critical thinker) than some Hammy tourist attraction put there to feed the confirmation bias of fundamentalist midwits. I came around to his position and haven’t looked back.
I have long respected Wayne despite our sometimes clashing and my occasionally coming away feeling unappreciated by him.
He was a man a conviction. He gave up lucrative career paths, actually tried communal living, literally sold all from what I recall, and had come much further in developing his own perspective than most do.
However, despite my respect, Wayne’s version of Christianity didn’t appeal to me. He had, inadvertently, pushed a friend of mine away from Anabaptism with one of his responses. I still believe his take on the rich young ruler account misses the mark, where he read the response of Jesus as a sort of legalistic prescription rather the same as we understand Luke 14:26 where Jesus says if someone “does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
I know, for a fact, that he did not take that literally. He came across, from my limited ability to see, as a very loving father and committed husband. I can’t imagine him hating his family to prove his commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, he was adamant about being completely Anabaptist in his perspective about wealth or warfare, an inconsistency of thought that bothers me about him and others of that fold. It did annoy me too when he characterized the Orthodox tradition as “smells and bells” as if worship was supposed to be something other than a beautiful or full sensory experience.
The Cancer and Change
After I heard about Wayne’s cancer diagnosis, none of our previous sparrings mattered much to me. Wayne, despite our differences, was a true friend and someone that mattered to me. It was especially important to me, given my mourning of Uriah, to talk to someone coming to terms with their poor prognosis and yet not giving up hope.
When I reached out on Facebook Messenger, mentioning Uriah and my desire to meet with him, he replied quickly and with more warmth than I had expected. There was no standoffishness, as had kind of been a feature of his personality, he reciprocated the desire to meet and we talked about various matters of faith.
I took a look at some of the MennoNet discussions he was involved in and got a laugh together about the various bad arguments being used. That’s one thing about him, his humor was dry and always fun, or at least fun when you were on the same side.
It was a sort of therapy, talking to this different side of the pragmatic engineer. Truly, it was special, the man that I saw emerge in this final trial was different. My own thought was that this was the Wayne that was always there under the snide comment and cynicism. Men can put up their walls, to not appear vulnerable, and that was no longer there. We were just two old keyboard warriors with nothing left to prove to the other.
And that’s not to take away from anything he said as far as the grace he was given to endure to the end. It was definitely something spiritual. His testimony of faith was clear. As a friend described him, in this transformed version, “It was like he became a totally different person. Happy, cheerful, optimistic.” He would not be defeated in death and I wanted to hear more about how a rational man, such as himself, given my own struggles, could continue in hope of the eternal.
I had to think of this Scriptural passage:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
More important than all of his intellectual endeavors and Christian apologetics, theory or theology, is Wayne’s undying faith through trial is of the greatest comfort to those still in the fight. I never did get to have that face-to-face meeting that we had committed to upon his planned move to Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter and grandchild. We had planned to meet in order to give us both something to look forward to when he did.
Now that meeting will have to change locations. Wayne took his final breaths yesterday evening, on August 12th, a couple of days after his 65 birthday. By God’s grace, in triumph, we’ll see each other on that other side.
I’m sad that Wayne remains a man that I’ve never met, in the flesh, despite our interactions over the years. However, in his terminal illness, there was also a man that I never met, that softer side, and feel blessed have finally met this man. I loved him and believe that he loved me too. I’ll remember our last interactions for much more fondly than our first. It was beautiful to see his golden heart revealed.
I’ve always been a sort of magical thinker, my hopes always far outpacing my realities, and to the point that sometimes when my dreams would finally come true the pleasure had already been exhausted.
I had so wanted a go cart growing up. On the school bus ride home my mind would start to wander into the fantasy realm. I would picture a shiny new go cart, like the ones in the catalog, waiting for me at the end of the driveway and would actually be disappointed when it did not end up being true when we would finally pull up to to my stop.
That’s not to say that I didn’t love the old go cart that my dad would finally weld up, using a rusted frame as a starting point, and an old lawnmower engine. Anything with four wheels, that ran on gasoline, that could be slid around corners, definitely scratched that itch. Still, my vivid world of make-believe did not always end with any fulfillment.
In my adulthood this tendency to be way out ahead of myself did not get any better. I’ve cried, on more than one occasion, thinking of my beautiful bride walking towards me up the aisle. And not in sadness either, it was in bliss having momentarily put myself in that wonderful place. Of course, given that I never even so much as went on one date with this young woman, I pretty much ruined that music.
The world between my ears can be a paradise. A place where there’s such thing as innocent love and anything is actually possible. I used this as an escape. My school years spent doodling and hoping for some kind of rescue from the mundanity of the classroom.
These visions were often grandiose. A child scaled B-17 would land in the school yard. I would run out to meet my faithful crew as the teacher and 5th grade class would watch in disbelief, stunned, as we revved the engines and were on our way to the nation (later a planet with two suns) that I benevolently ruled along with my brother Kyle and cousin Mel.
Truly, I had always thought that Kyle and I would always be together, build a house with a chimney in the center, like the ruins that I saw on a Civil War battlefield. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem possible then (despite our fights) that we ever be separated, let alone hours apart, and I really can’t claim to have gotten over that disappointment yet. He moved on, it seems that I could not.
And I have lived a sort of Peter Pan existence. Holding on, hoping that some day the love that had eluded me, child-like and innocent, would finally magically arrive to rescue me from my torment for having failed to achieve. I long overstayed the youth group. Until I had my happily ever after, what choice did I have? Get old by myself and alone?
Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and I lacked the necessary social tools to approach an attractive young woman—let alone convince her to date me.
Years would go by, where I would convince myself, “this time will be different,” and end up leaving the church retreat no closer to my goals and disappointed. These beautiful wonderful thought going in would slowly morph into a nightmarish reality as opportunity would pass me by and I would be left with only my profound loneliness again.
It was only in my mid thirties that this optimism would crack and the pattern of hope followed by disappointment would finally overwhelm me. Brimming with outsized expectations, I would arrive at the weekend, and suddenly shut down. The wheels came off, I would collapse into the nearest couch, curl up, unable to push myself to try again—eventually ending up a sobbing mess.
The pressure had become too much. The difference between my hopes and reality too insurmountable.
Sure, I could entertain my delusions, the right one was going to finally arrive, we would look at our feet, shy at first, we would talk, she would smile at my earnest thoughts, I would finally be at ease and soon enough we would be walking hand in hand out the back of a church. But the chances of that were as good as Gatsby somehow being able to turn back the hands of time and Daisy would be his.
My collapse from exhaustion came at the tail end of decades of forced optimism and sweeping aside my rational fears. I did not want a world where my being 5′-8″ tall and rather unathletic disqualified me. Love, to me, especially pertaining to my female religious counterparts, was supposed to be something transcendent. Unfortunately, what I got instead was a brick wall of rejection.
Life is especially cruel to those with a high ideal. If I were less able to see the marvelous maybe I could have more easily moved on to more practical aims. But I could never get my head out of the clouds nor was I willing to acknowledge the harsh truth about romance. The young women were also chasing their version of perfection and that perfect man wasn’t me.
Somehow, despite a mind that could span universes, I ended up being thirty years old living in Milton and thus ineligible for that kind of love. How does a dreamer, still holding to those childish notions of escape, ever recover from that terrible pronouncement?
It wears me out thinking about it.
It makes me think of another novel and protagonist, Ethan Frome, an injured ruin of a man. His house reduced in size as he limped, painfully, through what remained of his life. Not even granted the merciful end to his suffering of that suicide pack those many years before. Perhaps my life would have been better had my secret world been a little more stark, desolate and devoid of life?
Remember that viral video, from a few years ago, that has a bunch of young people lined up in a field?
As the music plays, we hear an announcer tell participants this is a race for a $100 bill and then proceeds to list off statements that will allow some to advance. If both parents married, if they had a father figure, if they had access to private education, if they never had their cell phone shut off or had to help their parents with bills, and the list goes on.
However it seems many of my former religious peers, raised in conservative Mennonite cloisters, prior to watching this video, had been completely unaware of this ‘privilege’ of family structure. Suddenly their ignorance had been revealed. But, some, rather than simply ponder and reflect, used this new knowledge to bludgeon others and suggest that anything less than feeling deep shame equal to their own is somehow sinful.
One problem with being raised in a religious culture where indoctrination and conformity is preferred to open discussion is that many coming from this background are nearly incapable of critical thought. A media presentation like this dazzles them and there’s no reason they can imagine to question the conclusions. They see what they’re supposed to see, what was carefully edited and prepared for them to see, and what the lecturer tells them to believe.
The video, unfortunately, frames things in terms of race. The one announcing even explicitly saying “if this was a fair race…some of these black dudes would smoke all of you.”
It’s ironic that this man plays on racial stereotype, the perceived athletic advantage that some have, while simultaneously making the case that privilege is about getting the money at the end of a race. He undermines his own thesis. If some young people, as a result of their athleticism, can get into a prestigious university, how is that not also privilege?
More importantly, where does that leave those of us who neither had the athletic prowess nor the academic chops nor wealthy parents to provide for our education?
My father was absent, out on the road weeks at a time, I went to public school because my parents couldn’t afford the Mennonite school tuition, I never had a cell phone growing up and also eventually had to pay rent to my parents for the privilege of living under their roof, is that unfair?
Who is to say that a person raised in single parent home is truly at a disadvantage to someone with a learning disability?
And is it actually true that those with non-athletic scholarships didn’t earn any of that reward through their own hard work?
A big problem with the presentation is how it frames privilege in a very narrow and misleading way. The list of factors is extremely selective. He never mentioned the many other disadvantages (or advantages) that can shape outcomes, things like physical stature or gender, affirmative action and health. There is also no attempt to explain why these factors should be weighted as they are. Ask different questions and the completion of the results may completely change.
Breaking Down Privilege
The problem with the privilege narrative is not that it highlights the advantages that some have over others. We all know that an athletic tall guy is more likely to dunk a basketball, and have a girlfriend, than the 5′-5″ tall perpetually last-picked dude. All of the things listed in the video may very well have an impact on outcomes and yet there are so many other things people overcome that never got mentioned.
The message is right, in that we should be aware of the disadvantages others face, but does a disservice in framing privilege almost entirely in terms of race. And, with that, feeds insecurities, builds upon division, encourages animosity or guilt—all without providing any actual solutions.
To get to solutions we need to break down the framing:
1) Not About Race
The irony of the “white privilege” claim is that, when we get to specifics, the advantages some have are often not actually about race.
Fatherless homes, for example, have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the choices of a prior generation. My dad took responsibility, he provided for his children, my mom remained loyal to him despite his shortcomings, and us children benefited.
Do you know who else had that privilege?
The daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama.
Not only that, Sasha and Malia, had access to private school, prestigious universities, and other opportunities that a working-class child (such as myself) could only ever dream about. Sure, they may have similar skin color to Trayvon Martin, but that’s where the similarities end and to say otherwise is to be absurd. The average blue collar white person has more in common with racial minorities than anyone in the ruling class.
My school friend, Adam Bartlett, the one who eventually killed himself and another man, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Not only that, but he wasn’t all that athletic, wasn’t a great student, had nothing given to him by his parents, yet we’re supposed to believe that he had this thing called “white privilege” and was actually better off than the daughters of the President?
This idea that privilege is about color, that fatherless homes and poverty is a matter of race, is the very definition of prejudice. It is a message bad for the racial minorities whom it both disempowers and discourages. It is also wrong, an injustice, to the many people deemed privileged who face the exact same challenges and never get as much sympathy or help.
The truth is that statistics never tell us about individuals. There are many born into poverty and poor conditions who do overcome their circumstances. It has as much to do with attitude, the things we believe and are told to believe about ourselves, as anything else. The very things that can be a disadvantage in one case can be motivation in the next.
2) Let’s Address Culture, Not Color!
If we’re truly interested in changing results then we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Why do some children grow up in single parent homes, in poverty, while others do not? More importantly, what can we do to prevent this from repeating?
Woke nationalism, a far-left Marxist political movement adjacent to this sort of privilege propaganda, would have people believe that more money (in form of reparations or government programs) is the solution to disparities in outcomes. Rather than address the root cause of disparities, they blame-shift and promote acceptance of toxic behavior.
Black Lives Matter, for example, doesn’t support the reestablishment of traditional families. And, worse, many promoters of the “white privilege” narrative would have us believe that things like work ethic are somehow related to skin color. They are explicitly encouraging the very things that the video would have us believe hold people back from success.
Just today, while writing this, a BLM leader in London, was shot in the head. Her story not all that uncommon in the inner-city, where gang warfare and honor culture, a criminal underground, leads to many violent ends.
Are we truly supposed to believe this is black culture?
Should I celebrate that the majority of shootings in my little corner of the world are perpetrated by a rather small minority?
My answer is a hard N-O to both questions.
No, we should not accept fatherless homes as normal nor be an apologist for the honor culture that so often leads to violent outcomes.
No, skin color does not, should not, should NEVER determine our behavior.
It is culture, not color, that is shaping outcomes. And to conflate color with culture is the very epitome of racial prejudice. Seriously, saying that black people must act differently, must be more expressive, must prefer particular kinds of music, must talk a certain way, is the same kind of ridiculous thinking behind minstrel shows. We should be beyond this, we should be judging by content of character rather than color of skin, stop promoting foolishness!
3) Life Is Not Competition
The most egregious presumption in the video is that life is a competition and ending up with more money is the goal. Talk about spiritual rot posing as enlightenment!
Sure, your bank account may be somewhat a product of the home, community and culture that you were raised in. Hunter Biden certainly has an advantage over me in terms of earning potential given his father’s high political profile. And, trust me, it has very little to do with anything he’s done. For sure, if he were the average Joe, if the 1994 Crime Bill applied to him, he might be in jail for a long list of crimes. But that ‘privilege’ doesn’t mean he’s a success compared to me, does it?
Some extremely wealthy and visibly successful people are extremely unhappy with their lives. No amount of access to private education, cell phones, health care, or whatever, is going to solve a feeling of inferiority or self-loathing. And, if anything, more wealth in the hands of a disgruntled person will only enable them to do more evil. I mean, was Hitler, a struggling artist and disenfranchised military veteran, improved by the power eventually given to him?
No, not at all.
This idea, in the video, that life is a competition, that more material wealth equates to success, is completely wrong and deserving of the severest rebuke. What is truly shameful is that those religious folks sharing this message never once stopped to consider the metrics of success presented. So much for the first being last and last being first, as Jesus taught, apparently to them life is all about the accumulation of stuff and political power.
Maybe if we would, instead of pitying and patronizing people, start preaching the truth, start telling dead beat parents, or anyone making excuses for themselves, to repent—then we would see positive change?
But that would require us to see others as being our equals, capable of choosing good behavior. It would require being unpopular and to stand at odds with the virtue signaling of the social elites. Those who are honest about matters of culture, who confront woke nationalism and racist lies, they are the only people systemically oppressed.
Jesus Defies Privilege Narrative
No, matters of bad character and toxic culture are not fixed by more money, consider this parable:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
(Matthew 25:14-30 NIV)
Of the parables that Jesus told, this one has to be one of the most harsh and counterintuitive. I mean, who can blame this servant, given so little, for burying his talent?
Was it fair that, before the investment phase even began, the “wicked” and “lazy” servant was already at a severe disadvantage?
While this parable affirms the idea that what we’re born with has little to do with what we’ve done. However, it departs radically from the central notion of the video that success at the end of life is “nothing to do with what you’ve done.”
This flies completely in the face of the social justice gospel and, frankly, everything that comes naturally to me. As one who always felt like the servant given little and thus was fearful of God, this parable confounded me. Didn’t the initial disadvantage, the unequal distribution of wealth, shape the outcome?
Are we now going to say that Jesus lacked understanding, compassion or sensitivity?
Should we cancel Jesus?
We could replace the wealth or talents of the parable with “privilege points” and not change the message. Jesus who said, “to those much is given much will be required,” also said those who are given less by God should be appreciative and invest well rather than make excuses.
In other words, if you have no father, you can wallow in the disadvantage or choose to invest in the next generation so they do not suffer as you did. If you were excluded, as I was, on the basis of lacking stature and athletic abilities or other things not within your control, you can harbor the grievance, let it take over your life, or you can use it as motivation to do unto others what wasn’t done for you.
The reality is that Jesus was being far more compassionate in addressing the spiritual matter at the heart of many negative outcomes and ignoring questions of fairness. Furthermore, life is not a competition for material gain, it is not about the rank we attain in society either, and to frame it in such a way only shows a complete lack of discernment. The privilege narrative is not only racist to the core, it is also at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Instead of chastising innocent people for their alleged color privilege, trying to burden them down with guilt. Instead of telling some people that they lack the ability to be successful simply on the basis of their outward appearance or place they were born, which is a total lie. We should love our neighbors, rebuke this notion that life is a competition for money, and call all to repentance.
“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:6 NIV)
The other day someone commented, in response to a blog, that it was a “vicious attack” and then thumped me with a Scripture reference that I promptly forgot to read. But they couldn’t have read much more than that particular proof-text because, otherwise, they would be doing less Bible-thumping about my lack of their religious refinement and their protest sounded remarkably similar to those offended who stopped Jesus to ask him if he realized that his words were insulting to them.
My words were not slanderous nor untrue and not written to be meanspirited either. In fact, I never even mentioned a name, because my point was not about the person, it was about the behavior and errant ideas behind the behavior. Sure, it was a rebuke to those who engage in this sort of thing, but certainly not as severe as the preaching of Jesus and definitely not as scathing as what St. Paul had to say to these sorts of religious bluebloods who were trying to influence others to live by their standards:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
(Galatians 5:1-12 NIV)
Paul was taking direct aim at the Judaizers (equivalent to the “good Mennonite” or others who hold their mastery of a particular tradition as a point of pride) for burdening others down with their rules and employed a very crude double entendre to make his point. I mean, circumcision is literally to “nip the tip” of the male genitalia, as part of the Jewish tradition, and Paul is telling them he wishes that these men would cut off the whole cucumber to prove how superior they are. Of course, he’s also saying he wishes they would leave the church, compares them to a contaminant, and is definitely not mincing his words to be polite.
Jesus would not have tickled the prissy ears of the pretentious. He was provocative. He would likely be called a racist today for using “dog” in reference to a Canaanite woman. St. Paul too, he would surely have made the religious prudes blush then and would have enraged our social police. Both men threw their rhetorical bombs at those who felt too secure in their self-righteous positions and they made no apologies for it. The truth is sometimes harsh. Waking people from the stupor of their pride can take some colorful persuasion. Yes, absolutely, we must keep our own pride in check, but passive and mealy-mouthed men are not living the example of Jesus.
In the end, the opinions of some clucking hen, taking offense on behalf of a man quite confident in himself already, means nothing to me. As the old saying goes, “Throw a rock into a pack of dogs, and the one that yips is the one that you hit.” Feel free to shatter my “glass house” of hypocrisy if you see where I do not live up to my profession. It is better that I am insulted today than be forever damned. Niceness is not a synonym for love and Jesus was not some “you do you” hippy either. And this insulted woman would know that if she would read (or was able to comprehend) the Bible. Jesus didn’t come so that we can be feckless and ineffectual, he came to upset the status quo and the religious elites were his favorite targets.
It is better that I rhetorically cut false teachings to pieces now, while those holding them can still be saved, than allow anyone to go unwarned to final their final judgment and be cut to pieces, thrown in a fire, and destroyed. The yelps of those insulted and offended are proof that the message is true enough to not be laughed off as a joke. Those using the Gospel of Jesus to sell their political-ideological Social Justice wares, trying to enslave others to their repackaged Marxist philosophy, will find no quarter here. I will whip them, and whip them good, with the truth of God’s word.
One could say, that as one raised in a religiously fundamentalist setting, I’m especially sensitive to the signs of this mindset. And, by signs of fundamentalist mindset, sometimes literally signs. Whether it be their fifteen passenger van plastered with “Jesus loves you” stickers or a sort of passive-aggressive message using a judgmental sounding Bible verse in their front lawn. This sort of display is their version of Evangelicalism.
This Evangelicalism, if it can truly be called that, has never really appealed to me for various reasons. No, there’s nothing wrong with religious expression in words. But, that said, this is not the “true Evangelical faith” that early Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, highlighted in a poem that used the words of Jesus urging faith of action rather than mere words. It comes off as more of a virtue signal, arrogant, like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own moral superiority to the Publican, than it does real self-sacrificial love and true Christian virtue.
Some of problems with this sort of thing is that it can give a security of doing something when it is likely of very negligible value. No, I’m not saying that we can’t put our signs up and also minister in more effective ways. However, this sort of well-intentioned effort can easily be misunderstood and actually detrimental to the cause. It can also tell people something about us that we do not intend. Preaching and proselytizing certainly has a place, but this kind of signage is not a replacement for that and can also put an unintended highlight on an overly simplistic perspective.
Public Displays of Progressive Religion
There are many well-intended people who sympathize and support the far-left. The left does a good job of seizing upon social issues and creating compassionate sounding slogans that have broad appeal. There is no need to question the sincerity of those who believe leftist dogma. However, the dogmas themselves should be examined.
In my own community, a college town, there are many yard signs proclaiming the virtues of the inhabitants. From the signs in various languages telling passersby “no matter where you are from, we’re glad to have you as our neighbors” to the ever-popular “black lives matter” proclamation that has popped up everywhere, these people feel the need to signal to the world with their political platitudes. Of course, with political platitudes, there is often over-simplification and misrepresentation of complex issues.
This essay is a closer examination of the “we believe” sign and what it misses…
Each of these points, while having one face-value meaning that most would agree with, is loaded up to be partisan accusations. In other words, if you disagree with their interpretations, disagree with the narrative that they accept uncritically, then you are the problem. They assume that everyone who disagrees with their sloganeering is a denier, racist, bigot, xenophobe, or generally hateful, and yet they themselves aren’t nearly as virtue-filled as they presume themselves to be and are often in closer alignment with the violent and abusive elements in our time than those whom they condemn.
The display of these dogmas is truly a sign of ignorance rather than virtue or enlightenment. It is a sign that the occupant is probably a leftist Kool-Aid drinker and not a free-thinker forming their own opinions based on the facts.
Let’s unpack these statements…
Black Lives Matter
An Associated Press story from 1997 cited a poll that indicated almost nine out of ten black teenagers said that racism had a negligible impact on their lives. However, if we were to do the same poll today, I doubt we would get the same results. What changed? Has this country actually become more racist in the last two decades or is there something else going on?
The implication of the statement “black lives matter” is that black lives do not matter to many of us. That, of course, is not true. Speaking for myself, I took the idea to heart that “content of character” matters more than color skin and try to treat everyone according to their actions rather than their superficial differences. I’m also fully cognizant of the past injustices faced by many black Americans, along with the continuing differences in outcomes, and this is all concerning to me. There is no denial on my part.
But the left does misrepresent the issue. The left denies that individual behavior matters. They would have us believe that the exceptions, where a black person engaged in criminal or otherwise suspicious activity and has a negative outcome, an anecdote, is somehow representative of “systemic racism” against all black people. This, of course, is completely racist and wrong thinking. No, if Barack Obama had a son he would not be like Trayvon Martin, he would be like Obama’s daughters who went to elite schools and live extremely privileged lives.
This popular assumption that police brutality is exclusive against black men is in denial of the many (lesser-known) examples of white people who died in similar circumstances. Names like Daniel Shaver, Tony Timpa, or Zachary Hammond, and many others may not be part of the “say their names” list, they are certainly not household names like George Floyd, but they also left behind loved ones and were potentially the victims of injustice. White men are, in fact, disproportionally killed by police when crime rates are factored into the analysis.
It is a huge disservice to the black community to tell them that the unfortunate outcomes are all about skin color and completely leave out other very significant contributing factors. The truth is that anyone engaged in criminal behavior, using dangerous drugs, and actively resisting arrest is at many times more risk at a violent end than those who do not do these things. There is zero evidence that a law-abiding black person is at more risk of being a victim of police brutality and, if anything, given the excessive coverage of a handful of cherry-picked anecdotes, black lives matter more.
The “black lives matter” narrative is false. Black men are not being hunted down and killed. Many black people are quite successful and would be even better if they were not lumped in with those few “bad apples” that are having negative outcomes related to their own decisions. What has changed since 1997 is that, for divisive political reasons, racial minorities are being constantly told that everything is a result of their skin color. The left has taken control of the black vote through fear-mongering and many well-meaning people think that they are helping to further the myth.
No, this is not to say that racism does not exist. When a troubled white teen, Dylann Storm Roof, murdered nine people, all black, in their house of worship during a Bible study, it is quite clear that racism is a serious issue that must be dealt with.
However, it is equally racist, and likely much more damaging, to play white savior, or to hold black people to a lower behavioral standard. The racism of lower-expectations is a tacit agreement with white supremacy and unhelpful. Racial minorities are not children in need of our special protection, they can and should be treated like unique individuals and responsible for the consequences of their own behavior like anyone else.
Unfortunately, the black lives moniker is being used to push a far-leftist ideological agenda. The organization Black Lives Matter is thoroughly Marxist and has little to do with actually addressing issues that lead to negative outcomes. Feeding black anxieties, thinking that we are helping people by making them feel even more different than they already feel, is wrong and racist. Frankly, once the thin veil of good intentions is removed, putting “black lives matter” on a yard sign is patronizing and pandering, it is a promotion of racial tribalism and exploitative.
Woman’s Rights Are Human Rights
There are many who seem to think that the fantasy world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is somehow representative of the real world. Protestors donning bizarre red robes and white bonnets, ironically attack and extremely accomplished woman, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, on the basis of fiction induced hysteria.
Barrett, by reasonable measure, by being nominated to the most powerful lifelong office in this country, would disprove the narrative that women are being denied equal rights. But, because of her Catholic faith, and anti-religious bigotry, she is being treated as if she is unqualified and dangerous by those who clearly cannot discern between reality and a television drama.
This idea that women are being denied human rights, which is implied by “woman’s rights are human rights,” is based on the assumption that equality of opportunity should lead to equality of outcomes. It is an assumption that denies the reality that people are different, choose willingly to do differently than others do, and thus do not have the same outcomes.
In other words, if there is a wage gap between genders that does not indicate discrimination on the basis of gender and could be explained by a long list of differences in interests and performance.
More to the point, the reason I do not earn the same as a CEO is not anything to do with my height, gender, or race. I do not earn what a CEO does because I have no desire to enter into the hypercompetitive world of business, to climb the corporate ladder, and do as they do. Sure, I could claim that it has something to do with my height or what have you, CEOs do indeed tend to be taller than average men, but I’m also not a candidate to do the work of a corporate executive based on many other things and would be foolish to suggest that I have a right to their greater compensation.
Another idea is that a woman should be granted special privileges, like free reproductive services and paid maternity leaves, or she is somehow being denied a human right. This is contradictory and absurd. Nevertheless, it is also part of the sentiment behind the statement on these signs. The idea that a woman deserves extra compensation and should be entitled to more legal protections, because of her natural differences from a man, goes directly against the notion of equal treatment.
Women, as those having capacities different from a man, should and do have unique opportunities and privileges from men. That is good. Men should be required to pay child support if they are a party responsible for the conception of a child. They should probably also compensate her for the wages she has lost due to her pregnancy and their copulation together. However, a woman should not have a special right to be exempted from the results of her own choices. Birth control and other products that must be paid for or provided by others are not right.
But the bigger issue on the minds of many women is the abortion question. Abortion, by the left, is often framed as a women’s rights issue. They speak of a woman’s right to choose and yet neglect the true crux of the matter. Those who are opposed to abortion do not make an argument against human rights for women. No, what is truly at stake, the real issue, is whether or not the fetus (which could be female) also has human rights and thus legal protections. Much of the anxiety about women’s rights stems from a gross mischaracterization of the alternative view.
As a religious conservative, I’ve run into a few misogynists and some patriarchal abusers. Yes, women have too often been given a second-tier status and this mistreatment should be addressed. However, first the most part, women are held in high regard and respect even in the most traditional religious circles. People have different perspectives on what role people should play in society, some think a career or money is more important than family and relationship, some rare individuals may favor denying equal rights to women.
But, that said, there are many more who believe the unborn should be denied rights. An honest discussion about abortion would be one where it is accepted, as a precondition, that both sides are arguing for human rights and irrational dystopian imaginations remained in their place as cheap entertainment.
No Human Is Illegal
It is really strange that the same people who would flippantly dismiss rights for the unborn suddenly become extremely upset with those who believe that we should have border enforcement and designating immigrants by their legal status. This comes across, again, like the other statements, as being moral grandstanding and not a truly well-thought-out position.
The statement is really no different from saying “no human is a bigot” and, if applied consistently, would mean no labels with a negative connotation ever be used. But we know that the left has no problem with applying adjectives when it comes to describing the perspectives of those who dare to question their dogmas. Terms like racist, homophobe, sexist or hateful are thrown about freely, as accusations, with very little thought of the very real damage done to the targets. So the left really has no problem with using negative words about other humans when it furthers their own agenda.
Worse, the far-left, Antifa in particular, without a doubt, does use labels as a means to dehumanize. Any disagreement with their current position could lead a person to being called a “Nazi” and murdered. It has happened on a couple of occasions, a person peacefully stands up to mob violence is killed execution-style and this heinous act is justified as “killing a Nazi” and celebrated. If the elimination of hurtful terms is really the goal, then we should start with the accusations, oftentimes unfounded, that lead to human lives ruined by “cancel culture” Marxist mobs and all stand together against extrajudicial killings for any reason.
As far as the term “illegal alien” used to describe those who illegally cross our border at night or illegally overstay their visas, we could call them “undocumented immigrants” and attempt to solve the problem through semantics. But, either way, an intelligent person understands the need for border security and vetting of those who wish to enter. It is not fascist or dehumanizing in the least, to make distinctions between legal classifications, there are citizens and non-citizens, legal and illegal immigrants, each of them has different rights given their legal status. Sure, we should most definitely treat all humans humanely, yet that does not change the legality of a resident alien.
Furthermore, as someone who has friends who would love to enter this country, who as a citizen has had to go through intrusive (arguably dehumanizing) airport security screenings and customs, I’m not sure why there should be special treatment for those who cut in line or disregard the correct process. The left loves regulations, they have no problem with onerous controls over speech or what a person can and cannot own. They dehumanize through their collective judgments all of the time. But then, suddenly, when it comes to a group to exploit for political gain, cries out “think of the children” or “oh, the humanity!”
Strangely, for caring so much about humanity, there is so very little concern about the son of a Presidential candidate with a laptop hard drive apparently containing images of underage girls and was recently turned over to authorities. It isn’t supposed to matter that this same left-leaning candidate has family financial ties to the biggest human rights violators on the planet, a country that dehumanizes ethnic minorities and others to the point of harvesting their bodily organs without their consent.
So, sure, maybe we need to find a better way of screening those who wish to enter our own country, but quibbles over language certainly aren’t helpful in that regard. Changing description or denial of the consequences associated with uncontrolled borders doesn’t make the problems go away or any less real.
Science Is Real
This statement is most likely in regard to climate policy and the Covid-19 pandemic response. It is ironic that those who want to claim to be on the side of the scientific and real would implore us to “believe science” as if to disagree with them is to be in denial of the scientific method. Although, as someone who has rejected religiously inspired pseudoscience and is alarmed at the increased popularity of flat-Earth theories, it is not that I totally disagree either.
However, I do digress, when politicians start to throw around words like “settled science” or “scientific consensus,” that is unsettling to me as someone who knows well enough that all conclusions must be questioned. That is science. Even physics, a hard science, was upended by the mysterious ways of the smallest particles or Quantum Mechanics. The simple understanding of the physical universe, provided by Classical physics, no longer works at this smaller level and there is yet to be a theory to unify the two. The point being that science doesn’t settle anything and a consensus is always something that changes as new evidence or a better explanation becomes available.
So, yes, science is real, but so are X and Y chromosomes and the fact that the unborn do not share their mother’s DNA. Those pronouncing “science is real” as a response to unpopular or minority opinions should learn how to argue their own positions convincingly, with science, rather than dogmatically bludgeon the conversation to death with tripe slogans. A person is not a “denier” for their questioning of the current models or opposition to those who wish to use their fears as justification for political policies that take away rights and are economically disastrous.
Disparaging a person as “anti-science” is not an argument, it is a manipulation tool, a slur, and only proves that the mean-spirited person using the term is trying to shut down the conversation. How quickly we forget the history of established authorities who did the same thing to the great minds who stood up to the status quo. A truly scientifically minded person understands that our understanding of the world is continually evolving and never ever completely settled. If anything, it is Big Tech monopolies, run by leftists, who are anti-science for their silencing of dissent.
In the end, pounding the phrase “science is real” is no more useful than a religious fundamentalist shouting “God is real.” Both statements prove nothing as far as the claim being made and, if used in such to way as to end a debate, only prove the real ignorance of the user. The people putting up signs with “we believe” have crossed over from science into a religious territory and are proclaiming dogma rather than proving anything of scientific value. They may think they are showing their superiority to dogma spewing Evangeli-cons, but are really only revealing their sameness.
Speaking of sameness…
Love Is Love
Love is love. Likewise, marriage is marriage. Those arguing on the side of same-sex unions being legally recognized as “marriage” have done a great job of framing the debate about the definition of marriage in terms of love. And, true, there is no way to quantify or measure love. So if marriage is indeed only about recognizing love, then so be it, let us deny no one the opportunity to marry anyone or anything they choose to love.
Nikola Tesla, for example, a brilliant man, loved a pigeon:
However, marriage was not traditionally about love only and nobody actually has a right to have their feelings legally recognized.
I mean, there’s no reason for me to judge Tesla for his strange love of a particular pigeon and I suppose there would be no harm in the state labeling that relationship in any manner they wish, but should that make a marriage?
I’m not convinced that every relationship is of equal value to society as the only relationship that can produce another generation of humans. A biological male and female, unlike other love parings of humans, has the unique potential to produce children. Well-adjusted children are needed for economies to grow and civilizations to thrive.
Marriage was instituted as protection for women, who tend to bear the brunt of the sexual union and reproduction process; and to create a stable family unit for the good of children. Fatherless homes are a better predictor of negative outcomes than race. It is the one thing that links inner-city gang violence and suburban school shooters. Yes, absolutely, there are many wonderful single mothers, two men or two women could also do a splendid job of raising a child, being in an unconventional home doesn’t doom anyone to failure, but if diversity is strength, and science is real, why be a denier?
The one thing disturbing about the redefining of marriage is this focus on love being a synonym for sexual gratification. Marriage, in the Orthodox Christian context, was synonymous with martyrdom and denial of ourselves for the good of another. It is little wonder that so many marriages, based upon these superficial self-centered ‘love’ relationships, end in divorce. In the end, the traditional should not blame those who have further redefined the meaning of marital love. There has been plenty of selfish and uncommitted love to go around in their own ranks.
In the Philippines, a marriage can only be annulled, which is to say it can only be undone by proving (through a psychological examination) that a person was “incapacitated” at the time at which they entered the relationship thus the union is deemed to be illegitimate, completely null and void. That means, in legal terms, something called marriage was not a marriage and suggests that true marriage requires something more than a piece of paper. Marriage, at the very least, is not only about the feelings that two people have or have had for one another.
Love is love. But not everything called love is love and not everything called marriage is marriage. Take that to mean what it means. Or maybe words are only words and meaning is meaningless and everything is nothing?
Sure, kindness is something, but so is introspection and being a bit more conscious of the unkindness done in the name of kindness. This statement captures perfectly the oversimplification of complex topics that the entire “we believe” list represents. It indicates a lack of serious introspection on the part of those who have sympathized and/or support the political violence that has plagued our cities.
It is not friendly or generous to call someone a Nazi for disagreeing with you nor is it considerate to advocate and excuse taking from others. It is not kind to believe that anyone who disagrees with one’s own narrow perspective is intolerant, hateful, and deserves to be silenced.
If kindness were everything, then Antifa violence would be condemned, like the KKK before it, rather than downplayed or ignored. If kindness were everything, the knee jerk resistance to everything the President says or does would end. If kindness were everything, having a different perspective of when human life begins would not be mischaracterized as “war on women” or any other such slanderous fantasy nonsense.
In reality, kindness is not everything. Martial love, even redefined, is alway to the exclusion of others. Why else would we marry anyone? The consensus of social elites and established institutions has been wrong many times before. Science questions science. That is how we advanced. It is not dehumanizing to identify someone as a jaywalker who jaywalked. But it is dehumanizing to kick someone in the skull because they aren’t a Marxist thug. There is legal and illegal. Human rights should extend to all and not only those who have a voice to protest. And last, but not least, behavior matters.
Virtue starts with humility, not yard signs or mindlessly repeated mantras. Statements, especially those that come across as veiled accusations, are not an effective way to produce change. It is a religious fundamentalism in a new ‘progressive’ package. And may, like the old fundamentalisms of the past, be too oriented on religious displays or devotion in the external social realm and not enough on inner spiritual transformation. It is easy, on a sign, to proclaim love for the world. But very hard to treat the ‘deplorable’ neighbor across the street as a person with a valid perspective even if different from our own.
And that’s not to say that those putting up these signs are smug and sanctimonious. Not at all! Many progressives, my friends, are genuinely compassionate people and do practice what they preach. They were taught a certain perspective or values, it feels right to them, and are simply doing what they were programmed to do in the same manner of any other religious fundamentalist. But too often their repeated statements become a wall of ignorance and are, in fact, dogmas rather than reasoned out positions. A sign certainly is not going to convince anyone to believe as they do. So what is it really about?
One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.
As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.
Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.
The Seeker Versus Slanderer
The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)
There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.
There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.
This is what we should seek after:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)
Casting Pearls Before Swine
Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
(Matthew 7:6 NIV)
It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.
There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.
Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.
No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves. They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.
It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.
Correcting Our Orientation
Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.
Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.
Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.
Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?
Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?
This was what Jesus told the disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
(John 13:34,35 NIV)
This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.
I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.
The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)
To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
A smug and sanctimonious religious person, shockingly from Anabaptist background, tried to hijack a point about loving individuals (rather than groups) by using an example of Old Testament judgment. They literally took the other side in a post explaining the kind of dangerous tribal thinking that led to the Holocaust. This individual really ought to be ashamed and repent of this perverse use of Scripture.
Before I go too far, it is very clear, to anyone who has read a history book or the Bible, that tribe in tribe violence and genocide were the norm. In Europe, North America and around the world, all lands have been conquered from the prior inhabitants by the current occupiers. The rivers, lakes and oceans would likely be filled with blood of our ancestors and those whom were violently removed from the gene pool by our collective ancestors.
That is the natural state of things. In an age prior to society life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes, for his part, credited the formation of strong central governments for the transformation. An observation that made sense in 1651, before the use of modern governments to commit horrendous acts of genocide, I suppose?
Nevertheless, there has been been a shift of thinking from a time when it was okay to completely destroy an enemies tribe and the present. Many today, at least prior to Marxist indoctrination and regression of the past decades, would find it morally abhorrent to use one crime by one individual as an excuse to raze an entire village, steal the possessions of every inhabitant, kill all of the men and take the women captive, as was the case over and over again in the Old Testament of Scripture.
Something took us from the brutality of the Old Testament, where it was okay to judge an entire tribe based on the transgressions of a few or even one, to the idea, that underpins Bill of Rights, that all individuals should be granted rights. What took us from the time when only members of our own genetic or religious tribe have rights to the present? What led to the abolishment of slavery, something that had been practiced on all Continents, by people of all skin color designations against all other people at some point in history, before becoming unacceptable?
The answer, of course, is the one man, of the Jewish people, who started his ministry like this:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:16-21 NIV)
Jesus began with a declaration of the fulfillment of the Old Testament, after reading a prophecy about the blind being given sight, the oppressed being given their freedom, the poor having some good news and stunned his religious audience. Of course his message had a strong appeal to the Jewish people, who were looking for a tribal Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule. It is no surprise that in these discontented time such a man would quickly find a cult following and become a threat to the established religious order.
But Jesus continued to defy the expectations of his religious tribally-minded followers. He subverted their expectations by expressing admiration for the faith of a Roman soldier, an occupier, by going to the home of a Jewish tax collector (and collaborator) and by using the despised Samaritan people, the “deplorables” of the smug and sanctimonious religious people in his audience, as his examples of virtue. Not only did extend the boundaries of “love your neighbor” to those outside of the tribe, he also did it using it a person from a group that they despised.
The idea of a “good Samaritan” or a Roman with faith greater than all of Israel, common parlance today to many of us, would be repugnant to them. How dare he! How dare Jesus compare them, the self-proclaimed elites of their own ethnic tribe, to these unwoke heathens? How dare he criticize their measures of righteousness, their loud public proclaims of socially acceptable displays of sacrifice, defy their rules of ritual cleansing and then call them hypocrites! It is no wonder these hateful bigots tried to cancel Jesus.
Jesus, by praising the equivalent of a police officer and a “flyover country” Trump supporter who rendered aid to a traveler, defied both their tribal identity focus and oppression narrative. They were the good guys with the right to rule. And at first they concluded that Jesus was confused, they asked his disciples why he ate with the bad people, the privileged tax collectors and alt-right trolls. He couldn’t be all that wise if he didn’t know what side of the social justice fence to be on, could he? Of course Jesus had never turned anyone away, but some excessively proud hypocritical people did reject him and his teachings.
The role of underdog and social elite has flipped at many points in history. First the Christan Jews were persecuted by the anti-Christian Jews, then the Romans destroyed the Jewish center of culture, and took up persecution of the Jesus cult spreading in their own ranks, before converting to Christianity themselves. We can mention the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land and Europe before being pushed back by the Crusades. Constantinople was a bulwark of Christianity before becoming overrun by the Turks, who never were held accountable for their Armenian genocide and that eventually the inspiration for an underdog artist and war veteran seeking a “final solution” named Adolf Hilter.
The one constant during two millennia of turmoil, of nations rising and falling, of a brief period of European domination of the world (after shedding their own tribalism) leading to the present time, is that Christianity has always been force for outreach across tribal lines. Yes, some did wrap themselves up in the name of Christ without actually applying his teachings. Progress does seem to always be a matter of two steps forward and one step back. And yet this idea of tribes coexisting, the imperfect tolerance of those who look, worship or act differently from us, is the rare historical exception.
Tribe against tribe violence was and is the norm. God even directly ordered the destruction of rival clans according to the Biblical narrative. But those looking to see Ninivah destroyed, like Jonah angry and disappointed on the hill, should stop seeing themselves as God and repent. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. So those hoping for the world to burn, especially the system that has benefitted them more than most, should be warned. Jesus didn’t come so that tribal grievances could be redressed violence against a rival tribe. He came to free us all from this cycle of sin and death.
Those promoting or justifying intertribal conflict and contempt are antithetical to Christ. While Jesus sought to erase these artificial boundaries, to free us from our mental prisons of prejudice and give us sight that sees beyond race and socal status, these impostors are like Judas. They envy rather than love their neighbors and would leave a man bloodied on the side of the road if he wore the wrong skin color or may even beat him themselves. They may couch their in the words of Christ, as compassion or concern for the poor, but their real aim is social status and political power.
Those who seek to divide the church (and countries) into competing identity groups, privileged and oppressed, have betrayed the cause of Christ and seek to bring people back into captivity rather than free them. They are spiritually blind despite declaring themselves to be ‘woke’ and have nearly the entire backing of the corporate and institutional system behind them despite flaunting a victim status. They are like the Pharisees, perpetually offended, and seek to destroy anyone who would expose them for the truly toxic people that they are.
Sure, Jesus did divide, but not along lines of ethnicity, gender or social status. He subverted, not by targeting the brutal Roman rule (or laws) nor by “down with the hierarchy chants” against Jewish religious leaders. No, instead he urged compliance, he told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when insulted and to go the “extra mile” when compelled by the occupying Romans to carry their gear. Even when delivering a withering criticism of the religious authorities, he acknowledged they “sat in Moses seat” and taught that the position itself should be respected even if the occupants were unworthy and corrupt.
Those comparing an unruly mob to an Old Testament prophet (even one as contemptuous as Jonah) and suggesting the current destruction is somehow God’s judgment have no theological or moral leg to stand on. The teachings of Jesus do not give anyone licence to judge nations, that is the work of God and the saints someday, not ours. Jesus, however, did stand up to the social elites then and they hated him. They whipped a mob into a frenzy with their false accusations, an ineffectual leader bowed to the demands of the mob and that’s why Jesus was crucified.
My own family situation was unique. As many good Mennonites do, my aunts and uncles, like my grandmother, adopted and there was no child left behind. Of course what this meant is there was some additional shades of color at family reunions and it had always seemed like this wonderful idyllic thing. And it certainly did help in the regard that it gave some children the privilege of a stable home and also likely helped us other cousins to humanize those of different color from our own.
But with this also came a negative side. Believe it or not, good little Mennonite children can also be vicious racists, being of a different skin color did indeed make that a focal point of conflict and I wonder how many seeds were planted then that fed insecurities that we all deal with and yet would be felt especially acutely by those adopted? My own feelings of not belonging did not have that one focal point, that specific thing that could be identified as a source, and yet I was still the “black sheep” regardless.
Still, I had the opportunity to talk to another self-identified “black sheep” of his family, my cousin Isaac, who like me, had a foot in two different cultures. He would spend most of the year with his white family in rural Pennsylvania, his parents my first cousins, and would also spend time with his black family in the inner-city of Philadelphia during the summer. Of course this gives him a very unique perspective on racial issues and definitely a voice worth listening to. So, when we started to argue about recent events, both of us talking past each other, he called and this is the result.
My Voice Doesn’t Matter
Taking a step back, Isaac and I are a different generation. I’ve been struggling, over the past few years, with feelings of betrayal for having embraced the ideal of racial equality and all that nonsense (which isn’t actually nonsense) about judging each other by the content of character rather than the color of their skin. Racism always seemed silly to me. What did it really matter what skin a person wore so long as they treated me decently, right? And that’s just how I would assume that most rational and sane people think. Unfortunately things are more complicated than that and that is what is creating conflict across this great nation.
My grievance started years ago, with something that I witnessed over and over again and maybe is best captured in a story from my school years when a mother, black, got on to the bus and screamed in the face of our bus driver, calling him “racist” and “redneck,” nasty things. Why? Well, he had had the audacity to apply the same standard, established for the safety of her children as much as all of us, but apparently the only thing she could see was that this white man (now beet red) was somehow mistreating her perfect darling angels for trying to impose a little order. The rest of us sat in stunned silence, the poor farmer working for a pittance was not a sophisticated man nor equipped for this kind of conflict nor were the rest of us.
That was one of many similar incidents where us polite people had to simply keep our mouths shut as some other folks got a free pass for their misbehavior. Polite culture means we avoided causing a scene, that we look the other way when the impolite people fight and basically do whatever it takes to avoid conflict. Conflict over the slightest perceived insult was the realm of bullies and other insecure people. We did not wish to be browbeat and berated ourselves. Our own grievances with this mistreatment would be mocked and belittled anyways, so we kept our heads low and did whatever it took to accommodate those less polite.
A few years, during the Obama presidency, many took issue with the massive expansion of government called by the misnomer Affordable Care Act. Of course, as a consistent fiscal conservative and one keenly aware of the costs, along with unintended consequences, of expanded government power, I was opposed. Many Americans did peacefully protest and yet, almost immediately, they were branded as racist by the media. I was appalled. But at least a black friend, a progressive, with a good education, would treat my own concerns as valid, right? It ended up being one of the most disappointing conversation of my life. A man, who already intimidated me for his advantages, dismissed my points with personal insults.
It was in that conversation and several others, after Obama’s call for dialogue about race, that I found out my own voice and experience didn’t matter in this ‘conversation’ about race. If I did not accept everything on their terms then I wasn’t understanding or lacked in empathy, which is absurd and definitely not terms that I would ever agree with in any other discussion. Nevertheless, it was what was, my skin color automatically disqualified my opinion, my attempts at consistently applied principles didn’t apply to their grievance, and I’ve always left feeling unheard. That’s the experience for many who don’t go 100% along with the protest narrative. Our voice didn’t matter.
A Time When Silence Is No Longer An Option
Over the past few years I’ve become a professional (yet hopefully harmless) agitator. After years of being a polite person or at least trying, wanting to go along with the Mennonite program, and finally it had just become too much. I had been told I was respected, affirmed in many ways, followed the rules, mostly, or to the best of my abilities and felt the other side of this social contract wasn’t holding up their own end of the commitment. My grievance had become too much to bear any longer and thus began my blogging here. It eventually boiled over and led me to leave my Mennonite tribal identity behind or at least to the extent that is possible.
But this emancipation was not complete. There was one topic, given past experience and potential loss of friends, that I avoided as much as possible. The politics of race, meaning the discussion of things related to measuring out justice and governance, is a third rail for those who wish to think outside of the established and acceptable narrative. As oppressed as some claim to be, the oppressed sure do dominate conversation, they have governors breaking their own shutdown orders to march, celebrities speaking out in solidarity and big corporations affirming their message without any word about the accompanying violence. If only I could be so oppressed.
It was with cities burning, small owners being beaten for defending their livelihoods, with my polite friends seeing “animals” and a growing number people dying in the violence, that I decided to take off my own filter and say enough is enough!
Everyone up to President Trump himself had acknowledged the injustice of George Floyd’s death. We had an opportunity for solidarity against police brutality, the officer was charged, and yet, after what seemed like a full validation of the concern, the protests only picked up steam. I might be a polite person, who avoids conflict when possible, but I don’t want to be beaten to death on account of my skin color more than anyone else and certainly was not going to wait untill the violence had reach my own doorstep to speak out. No, nobody asked me to mediate or broker a conversation. I knew that those on the ‘other side’ would likely tune me out, maybe even unfriend or unfollow me, and started my own form of protest.
The racially divisive narrative was a lie. Police brutality is a problem. The death of George Floyd is, by all appearances, an injustice. I have no problem with those who, on their own time and dime, without violating the rights of others, wish to protest. I know well the reality of racism, both historically and in the current year. And yet to frame everything of what happened in Minnesota in terms of race simply ignores reality and this sort of assumption about what happened will lead to anything but justice. If we were allowed to have an intelligent discussion on matters of race, if I had a partner in that discussion willing to see another perspective, I could explain.
Anyhow, it was in the midst of speaking out that someone with connection to me since childhood decided to speak back. That being my cousin Isaac. And it went predictably, online, as one would expect, I was “missing the point” and this first round came to a stalemate, with us moral posturing and might have ended there had Isaac not reached out with a phone call. It didn’t feel, at the end of an hour or so, that we agreed on too much. We had our times of animation, talking over each other, and emotion. But the reality is that we accomplished far more in our willingness to engage and so I did want to summarize a little of what I saw as significant, what I heard, where we agreed and where as diverged.
1) Not About George Floyd
The one thing that Issac and I seemed to agree on is that that this was not about only the death of George Floyd. In his view, this is about racial unjustice and draws upon his own experience of finding out what it means to be black as a teenager. He spoke of the fear that black (presumably men in particular) have in their encounters with police, the profiling he suspects when entering into white communities and some of the racist language he has encountered.
The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, that being his violent criminal record, his being on drugs and passing forged currency were inconsequential in his opinion. And I agree that this doesn’t make any difference as far as the guilt or innocent of Derek Chauven and the other officers. But where I diverge from Isaac is where he claims this death makes him equally vulnerable, as a black man, whereas I believe that criminal behavior and repeat negative encounters with law enforcement are going to dramatically increase the chances of dying at the hands of police.
So we agreed that it is not about George Floyd. But I see the only reason that we are talking about this case, as a nation, is because of Floyd is black and not because of the injustice.
2) Black Lives Is Not About Black Lives, But All Lives?
Isaac took issue with me saying that this was all about black tribal identity and racial solidarity, but was actually about police brutality and justice for all people. But, while saying this, he also defended the “Black Lives Matter” description and claimed it was a movement to respect all lives.
However, if this were truly the case, I postulated, why do we only have protests, riots and looting when it is a black man involved?
Why didn’t millions of Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets and demand instantaneous prosecution of the black officer, Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed 40-year-old white woman in July of 2017?
Timpa cried out thirty times, as officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck down, and joked over his body as he slipped away in 2017? Why no outrage over the officers only being charged with misdemeanors and then having those charges dropped?
His killer was acquitted, even briefly reinstated as a police officer just so he could receive a pension and nothing burned. Nobody said much of anything.
I know what my own answers to that series of questions is. My answer is that these deaths did not fit a racially divisive narrative. If this were truly about making all lives matter and police brutality, then these three cases would be an excellent opportunity to bring many people into the fold. No, that doesn’t mean that Isaac is insincere, not at all, but I do think the “Black Lives Matter” moniker is alienating and, frankly, insulting to those of us who have spent our lives treating everyone of all colors and creeds as if their lives mattered.
So, my point is if this truly is about police reforms, not racial tribalism or divisive political posturing, why not find descriptive language that matches that intention? Why not “All Male Lives Matter,” since most who are killed by police happen to be men, mostly white men, not women? Or maybe “Police Brutality Must Stop,” a title that would describe the actual mission if it is about change and reform of police violence? The point is that words also matter and I would much sooner jump on board a movement that didn’t falsely present the issue.
Isaac would likely disagree with everything I just said, that’s his right.
3) Isaac Wants Change, I Do Too
The real crux of the matter comes down to a difference of perspective. Isaac (who has friends who are in law enforcement) sees a “broken criminal justice system” and wants a change. I agree that there needs to be improvement, but also that there’s an elephant in the room not often talked about and that being that we aren’t actually being honest in our discussion about race or getting to those things that lead to more violent encounters with police. And that’s not blame-shifting, we can both hold police officers accountable and also get to some of those root issues shaping black outcomes as well, but there first needs to be some acknowledgement of that difference.
As things currently stand, polite people are forbidden to talk about things like black on black crime, we are not supposed to notice when public officials, journalists and activists downplay the ongoing murder and mayhem in the name of justice. We are not supposed to believe our own eyes when we see people, many of them black, with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Sure this may be a small minority, but let’s not pretend that this is only a few “white supremacist” infiltrators. It is time to stop this racism of lower expectations and have zero tolerance for using one injustice to excuse another. Again, that would restore some credibility and help accomplish the stated goals of the protests.
And we need to talk about this double standard. The polite people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens and silenced based on their skin color. They are tired of being villainized or ridiculed for their peaceful protests of other forms of government oppression, equated to terrorists, when actual terrorism is being ignored and criminals lionized. We need to talk about this because even polite people won’t respect those who do respect them. If the goal is to eventually achieve equality (which is my own hope) then the pandering and patronizing must end. To achieve the change we need to be the change and to be the change we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.
Ironically, I believe some of the reason why many white people tune out is because they don’t feel heard themselves. Many, like me, feel unappreciated in a system that expects them to be polite people and then celebrates when their minority counterparts act out. It’s almost as if the minstrel shows have etched in this expectation that the black folk are supposed to sing, dance and keep us entertained, riot occasionally, that black people are unable to control themselves or their emotions and thus can be exempted if they are more aggressive, etc. But this is utter nonsense, there are many sober and serious black people, many emotional and expressive white people.
I do agree with Isaac, we should not hold police to a different standard than anyone else, they must be held accountable for their actions like anybody else, and I support the push for reforms. Where we seem to diverge the most is our perception of what’s important to consider. He would prefer a more narrow focus, on the problem of police brutality, where I am more interested in doing more to address the cultural issues that lead to negative outcomes and would improve the image of black men in particular.
4) I Want Appreciation, And As An Individual
It is not fair that Isaac, as intelligent and well-rounded as an individual that he is, gets lumped in with the crimes of any other black man or is even the defined in any way by his skin color. Likewise, I don’t want to be judged or held personally accountable for sins I’ve never committed as some are trying to do. It is absolutely absurd to me that some white people are out literally kissing the boots of black men. Please stop this insanity! Let’s just all learn to appreciate each others as equally individuals, okay? Fight prejudice in all forms.
I would also rather we start from a position of appreciation for the criminal justice system that we do have. It is far from perfect and yet I know first hand what happens where it doesn’t exist. The killers of uncle Roland, in the Philippines, despite many leads, have not been brought to justice and that’s simply because there’s not the law enforcement resources to bring to bear. It is extremely easy to criticize any system and yet we should also study what is working and why as well. The key to fixing or improving any system is having an intimate knowledge of how it works or why it was designed in a particular way.
I think that’s where Isaac and I differ the most, and also why we must talk, he wants change while I’m geared for caution and constraint. He protests for justice, now, immediately and on his own terms, while I ruminate about foundational principles and think about past incidents of mob rule. Neither of us are right or wrong in our approach. I understand his orientation towards action. He probably gets more done while I brood and ponder philosophies. We make perfect sparing partners. He knows enough about me to keep me honest and I know enough about him to do the same.
I appreciate that Isaac, while passionate, did not attempt to pigeonhole and treated me with respect, like an equal. As Scripture says, “iron sharpens iron” and I felt quite evenly matched. It was definitely a conflict, yet I never felt threatened, as I have in other similar attempts at honest dialogue and efforts to bring the racial divide. We ended up expressing our love for each other, something that I don’t think we’ve even done before given there is a whole multitude of cousins on my dad’s side, and the whole experience was cathartic for someone like me who cares deeply and often feels helpless to change anything given the complexity of everything.
It also inspired me to write this and help get our combined perspectives (albeit obviously biased towards my own perspective) out there for your consideration. But the more important take away is that we not ignore uncomfortable topics, that we not shout each other down rather than hear, that we engage in there types of true conversations, with two sides given, and find our common ground. I feel strongly that God brought Isaac and I together for a reason and the reason is to be that bridge between people. But Isaac deserves most of the credit, he didn’t fire shots and run, he was willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.
It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.
Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor
This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.
However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.
It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:
“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)
For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?
Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies
The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.
Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…
But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.
In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.
Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails
I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*
That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.
Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.
However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.
In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.
That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.
*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.
Entering Into A Strange New World
In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.
We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.
Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.
So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.
One day at a time.
None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.
There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!
Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.
Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.
Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.
So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?
Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.
What Is A Good Relationship?
Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.
Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?
No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real? No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.
A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15-18 NIV)
Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.
How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?
Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.
Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.
I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.
But what does that even mean?
What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?
I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.
Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35 NIV)
To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?
True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love
I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?
In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.
My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)
It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.
Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20-21 NIV)
Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?
True Relationship Means Real Communion
The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.
To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)
Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?
This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
And goes on to explain:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15 NIV)
A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.
A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.
The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.