cunning engagement

On the issues where Christians agree with society, engagement is easy. But when there is a difference of opinion, Christians can, it seems, go to two extremes in their engagement.

At one extreme, they can stomp, scream and shout about how bad and wrong the world is, telling non-Christians just how un-Christian they are. The other extreme, perhaps, is to retreat into Christian huddles that have no involvement with – and thus no effect on – the outside world.

Jesus seemed to point the way to a middle path. He taught us to be ‘cunning as serpents and innocent as doves’. Wisdom and restraint, free of complicity or compromise. Jesus didn’t march to Rome and attempt a take-over, but he was uncompromising in his Abrahamic monotheism. He believed in holiness, but taught that this was not to be given unwisely to ‘dogs’ who would only be incited to ‘turn and tear you to pieces’. He valued the pearl of faith, but taught that we should not cast pearls to ‘swine’ who would only trample them. How much of our engagement on issue of sexuality, politics and the like amounts to giving what is holy to dogs?

Two scenes from Acts, both involving Paul, show us this middle way in action. One has been long recognised: Paul at Athens in Acts 17. He is incredibly charitable in his engagement with the pagan thinkers and worshippers, although within himself he was ‘greatly distressed’. Here we see Paul having a public opportunity to speak. He begins with common ground and complimenting the principles he had in common with them, even quoting a pagan Hymn to Zeus.

But he went on to offer a critique of gods that live in man-made buildings and needing humans to serve them. It seems like he was reading the crowd and going as far as he thought wise. The result was mixed and he left it there. He didn’t clamour for more microphone time. He was as kind (cunning as serpents) and as honest (innocent as doves) as possible and trusted God with the result.

The next scene is Paul in Acts 24 before the Roman governor Felix. It’s less well known. One observation is that Jews knew how to talk respectfully to Romans. Observe the comments of Tertullus (serving as a kind of prosecuting attorney):

We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

Acts 24:2-4

Paul echoes this tactful speech in his defense:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.

Acts 24:10

Paul goes on to defend himself against the accusation of stirring up riots, and manages along the way to share some details of his faith:

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Acts 24:14-16

Paul was again saying as much as he thought would be helpful. And no more. Note that he is not criticizing the beliefs of Romans in general or Felix in particular, but sharing his own allegiance, belief, hope and lifestyle. Felix, who had a Jewish wife (Drusilla), knew enough about the Christians to be intrigued, and to meet privately with him. We are told that Paul, in this more intimate setting seems to go further than he did in public. He talked “about faith in Christ Jesus”, even going so far as to discuss “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.

Felix’s immediate response may make us think that Paul pushed it too far. Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” However, he continued to regularly talk with him.

I want to imitate this way of engaging with those who have a different faith from me. I want to be as non-confrontational and generous as I can be, even celebrating their beliefs when that is authentic to do so. And I want to be able to be as honest as I can without doing harm to them or the relationship.

better or worse

As experience and age increases, you can look back on your life and see change. Sometimes, there can be significant difference between the kind of person we are now and the person we used to be.

On the one hand, it may be that we are better, that we have learned from mistakes, that we have made progress. On the other hand, of course, it may be that we are worse, that we have forgotten important principles, that we have regressed.

What we think about our progress or regress may be different from the reality. For example, it is far more comfortable to think of ourselves as having made progress; to look back in triumphal dis-association, saying, “I am glad I’m not that person anymore.” By contrast, it is deeply disturbing to say to oneself, “What kind of person have I become? How did I get here?”

It seems to me that in order for myself to make a more accurate assessment of my progress or regress, I need the input of others. Indeed, if I have other people whom I can increasingly ask for and accept their perception of my well-being, it is a sign of progress. If, however, I increasingly fear or despise the views of more and more people, assuming my own perception to be more true than theirs, I would take that to be a sign of regress.

The following questions emerge from this reflection:

Am I growing closer or further away from people who can help me become a better person?

Am I sensing an increase or decrease in partnership, community and relationship with others in general?

Am I growing in my ability to accept people I disagree with, or is my frustration with them burning hotter and hotter?

What habits can I build into my life to help me grow towards others, rather than away from them?

sort yourself first

Some expressions of Christian faith need a corrective from a narrow individualistic focus on ‘me and my salvation’ towards a broader vision in which individual salvation is in the context of God’s cosmic work of redemption and new creation.

Having said that…

The opposite of an individualistic focus also needs correcting.

Without a healthy personal and local spirituality at work, ‘saving the world’ is a thin, hollow facade. As they say on jet flight safety announcements, “put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”

thy will be done

“Thy Will Be Done”

The statement “Thy will be done” is the overarching and simple representative statement of submission. With this statement, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not, and that God’s way and God’s will are better than mine.

For those who accept, submit to, worship and follow an Ultimate Being or God, it’s a simple enough statement, even if it’s not always easy. For most of us, it would be as simple as pulling out of a match with a Professional Boxer – “OK, you win – I’m out! No need to prove whose stronger here!”

But what about relationships between other humans?

“thy will be done?”

It’s easy to submit to someone you know is going to win. But with human relationships, the question of submission gets very tricky. If my will for a situation seems – to me at least! – to be better, then it’s very tempting to assume that “thy will be done” is a mistake, and instead try to find a way for “my will” to be done. This attitude, insisting on finding a way to ‘win’, is responsible for a great deal – or maybe all – of the chaos on the world.

What about situations where ‘better’ is not, or maybe can’t ever be, known? Do we just take turns getting our way? Do we always ‘meet half way’ so that nobody ever purely has “their will” done? Do I seek to let others have “their will” done more often than mine? Who wants to be a door-mat?

Some of this will inevitably be a matter of conflict resolution, patience, getting to know and trust one another, or doing your best and sorting out any arising problems as best you can. But I think that Christ gives us a compelling model to follow…

“Not my will, but Thine be done.”

In the Garden of Gethsemane, preparing himself for his sacrificial death, even though he carried the knowledge that he would rise again, Jesus asked his Father in prayer for another way. At some real level, Jesus was not looking forward to drinking the cross-shaped cup of suffering that he was destined for.

Crucially, he didn’t just push his will down into his subconscious and skip effortlessly into “Thy will be done.” He had the courage to voice it out. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), each in their own way, depict Jesus as being in an extreme emotional state: “exceedingly sorrowful unto death”, sweating blood-like drops in “agony”. Here Jesus meets humanity at our most desperate. He is with us when we are at the end of ourselves, when things are not going our way, when it is painfully and brutally clear that “our will” is not going to be done.

Jesus is neither a rebel nor a doormat. Like Mary at the annunciation, who has a few questions before she will “let it be”, Jesus adopts a posture that is both assertive and submissive. It is the posture of a Servant.

I don’t know about you, but I know my own passive-aggressive tendencies enough to see how much I need to embody the posture of Jesus.

Lord, help me be assertive and honest about what I want, but give me strength to surrender it in order to do what You want, even when I don’t want to do.

i need resurrection

Easter brings the usual flood of social media posts where people publicly express their celebrations, beliefs or doubts regarding God in general and the resurrection. Some of my Facebook friends shared an article seeking to cite historical reasons why Jesus lived and died, and another shared an article attempting to show why this historical evidence is thin.

That’s all to be expected, in my view. A season like Easter will raise all those questions to be explored and re-explored each year.

I’ll not pretend to be objective. I come down on the side of those who believe Jesus lived, died and rose again. I believe that this belief cannot be proven by historical inquiry, but that it doesn’t go against anything we know about history. The one exception, of course, is that the Resurrection of Jesus, for obvious reasons, is supposed to go against our thoroughly historically-supported knowledge that dead people stay dead.

Today, I want to express another perspective. I don’t want to believe in the resurrection simply because I don’t feel like an idiot if I do.

I want to say today that I’m aware of my need for the Resurrection.

I want to express my need in the most basic and stark language. The language of ‘crutch’ is not enough. I need resurrection far more than I might need a crutch. I need resurrection like plants need water, like electronic devices need power, like lungs need oxygen, like humans need love.

The meaning behind these metaphors is that whatever amount or kind of goodness I have, that goodness is fragile, vulnerable to decay and deterioration, incomplete and ultimately dependent on an outside source. I’m not good on my own, and I cannot increase or maintain my goodness on my own.

I need others, and ultimately an Other. I need a Life beyond my life to enliven mine.

I need resurrection.

a consistent ethic of non-violence

My father-in-law, Greg, has volunteered one of the most poignant statements I’ve ever heard about non-violence. After encountering a young would-be robber outside their property, Greg was asked if he’d ever considered keeping a gun. His response was as sharp as it was brief: “No. I’d rather be robbed than kill someone.”

Non-violence is hardest in situations where violence feels justified. The Christchurch mosque shooter (who we should continue not to name) brutally murdered and injured many victims. Many people, fueled by a sense of righteous justice, would have shot him if they’d had the chance. The dutiful New Zealand police, however, apprehended him without taking his life. Or consider Mohamed Jauber’s forgiveness offered to the shooter, who killed a family friend.

I take it as an evidence-based observation that violence will naturally lead to more violence. We have to restrain ourselves from the tendency to escalate or avenge. Justice is one thing – mercy and grace are another.

There are many levels of violence. Let us not think that we can be violent at one level without encouraging violence at another.

In what follows, I want to focus on non-violence at the level of political discourse. We have – rightly – been reminded many times to challenge harmful ideas whenever we encounter them. I want to suggest strongly that we must do this challenging with a spirit of non-violence.

I am concerned that political discourse could become even more violent. For example (far too soon after the tragic events, long before the bodies of the victims were in the ground), I’ve seen people weaponising the Christchurch tragedy. It is used as confirmation that they were right all along, and that those they disagree with were always contributing to the problem.

In the name of “challenging white supremacy”, we must not engage in social violence (online or in person) that shames, labels, mocks, ridicules, ostracizes, or otherwise pushes into isolation those we see as holding wrong views.

Let us assume, for the moment, that your view is right and helpful, and that the other person’s view is wrong and harmful. I believe that if we push the person to the dark margins of society, the view is free to grow and spread. Evil grows in the dark. But light dispels darkness.

So you have an acquaintance who is racist? Do you want them to be able to enjoy their racist views without any challenge? Be as nice to them as you can. Socialise with them. Include them. If and when you have (or have built) a relationship with them, and when it is appropriate to respectfully challenge their views, do so without mockery, labels, blame or arrogance. If your view is strong enough, you won’t need to get mean or loud to make your point. Publicly shaming or rejecting them may feel good for you, but it won’t make a hint of difference to them – in fact it could only strengthen their views.

Try to understand why they might have come to have the view they have before asserting your view. Spend the necessary time looking for even the smallest superficial points of common ground. (For example, a left-leaning person could agree with a right-leaning person that benefit fraud is wrong. Or a right-leaning person could agree with a left-leaning person that not every person on the benefit is just lazy and could be working.)

The opposite is ugly, violent politics. Where frustrated people feel not listened to – and aren’t listened to. Where their belief that dialogue and talking are pointless – because all they’ve ever experienced is being labeled and ignored. Where they feel more and more isolated from society. Where this isolation breeds resentment, rage and an intensification of their beliefs. Where their mental health suffers. Where they eventually do horrible things.

In the way I engage with those I disagree with, I have to model the kind of ethics I am trying to promote. It won’t do to talk acceptance of people in a way that rejects people. It won’t do to talk of understanding people when I won’t give their view a hearing. It won’t do to talk of embracing difference if I unfriend those I disagree with. It won’t do to promote kindness when I act like a jerk.

If I want to see less violence in the world, I have to live non-violence at every level.

cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

narcissism and image

All Humans Are Narcissists

I want to suggest that all humans, like Narcissus, look at their reflection and make too much of it. This is obvious in some behaviour and more discreet in others.

In my own experience, my narcissism is easily spotted when I think, feel, talk and act as though my own thoughts, feelings, words, opinions (blog posts!?), needs and achievements are – even a little bit – more important than others. In a less obvious way, my narcissism can hide behind all the ways in which I down-play myself. Narcissism is being increasingly recognized as lying behind many – of course not all, or even most – forms of depression.

In sum, I’m suggesting here that when humans play themselves up or push themselves down, some form or degree of narcissism – passive or active – is probably at work.

The Middle Way of the Imago Dei

Narcissism constitutes a form of idolatry. The self is made into an idol in an obvious way when we put ourselves on a pedestal. However, arguably, the self is just as much an idol when the self is abased. When we tell ourselves grand stories of how ‘low’ we are, we can still be making a big deal out of ourselves; we can see ourselves as being just as great as our suffering.

Charting the “Middle Way” between the narcissistic extremes of idolatrous self-aggrandising and idolatrous self-abasing, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the provocative notion of the Imago Dei. As scholars of the book of Genesis have contended, the opening chapter of Scripture depicts the Creator God building a temple, three days of forming the tohu (formless) and three days of filling the vohu (empty/void); and rather than finishing it off with a idol, the Creator God made humans (male and female) in God’s image.

The up-shot of this is that when we look at another human being, or more to the point, when we look, like Narcissus did, at our reflection, we should not merely see and fall in love with ourselves as he did, but rather should also see – and also love – the Creator God.

crutches are useful

If you think you are well, then you won’t find much use in a crutch.

But if you have learned to understand your brokenness, then you will appreciate how immensely helpful – even indispensable! – they can be for your healing.

two paths

It is becoming apparent that there are two distinct paths, two very different ways of being in the world.

Sometimes, I can focus on what I do not have or something I feel should change.  I strive for and grasp at what I want or what I want to change.  I perhaps (or often) feel that I deserve the thing or conditions that I want.  I am entitled to them.

If I allow myself to, I can let my emotions devolve.  It can start with boredom, which is based on an assumption that I ought to be experiencing excitement.  It can then morph quickly into frustration, stress, resentment and anger.  The end of this progression is murderous rage, where I am cut off from myself, others and God.  The whole spectrum is that of being continually and increasingly pissed off.

Thank God, other times I focus on what I do have, and surrender the impulse to change that thing, circumstance or person.  This is the path of gratitude.  I see the things that I have as gifts, rather than possessions I’m entitled to.  I don’t expect to have much, and am grateful for having enough.  This is also the path of acceptance.  I don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but I do need to accept things outside myself.

The emotions associated with this path are very different.  Peace, calmness, serenity, attentiveness, joy, contentment, freedom.  The end of this road is a growing relationship with God, others and self.  I am free to greet life as it is, accept difference, and free to help where I can.