July 7, 2014

John Piper is “farewelling” again.

No, this time it has nothing to do with Rob Bell– he’s actually farewelled Burger King. (Though he changed the Bell trademark to “Good-bye”).

Burger King recently announced a new LGBT pride wrapper for their sandwiches in some markets. The move had created a little stir around the internet, but with Piper’s “Goodbye Burger King” tweet, it’s sure to generate a lot more buzz over what should really be a non-issue. In a world where most people die because of a lack of access to clean drinking water, call me a heretic, but I think we have bigger things to worry about than what our chemical laden fast food sandwiches are wrapped in.

However, this isn’t a post about Piper– and it’s not a post about fast food or LGBT rights. This is a post about… why it’s so easy for Christians to get a divorce. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, and Piper’s public farewelling of a secular sandwich maker just reminded me about our culpability on this issue.

There are a lot of statistics out there on divorce. I’ve seen some that show Christians get divorced at higher rates than people of other faith or no faith, and I’ve seen some which show the opposite. That’s the frustrating thing about statistics– they don’t always express the full truth or give one a legitimate picture of a given scenario, and one can often find statistics on the same issue but that draw opposite conclusions.

In this case, the statistics aren’t really relevant to my point. Today I simply want to talk about why it’s so easy for Christians to get a divorce. And, in full disclosure, I write about the subject with my own broken history on the matter.

I think one of the root causes of Christians divorcing is something completely outside of any factor previously considered. I think it’s something outside of infidelity, something outside of irreconcilable differences, and something much closer to our “spiritual home”.

The reason why it becomes so easy for far too many Christians to get a divorce is actually Christian culture itself– and John Piper’s trend of farewelling people (now businesses) he disagrees with reminds me of this point. Let me explain:

Piper’s public behavior reveals something far deeper and more troubling about Christian culture; it reveals how quickly we are to sever relationships with one another. Just look at how Christianity is structured: denominationalism. While I appreciate the rich heritage and diverse thought we have due in part to denominations/Christian traditions, they’re all rooted historically in one thing: broken relationships. Even within those denominations we find further sub-sets of denomination, all rooted in broken relationship as well (this is precisely why we have about ten thousand different flavors of Baptist, my originating tradition). Have two people or two Christian groups who don’t see eye-to-eye on 100% of the issues, all of the time? Fine, we’ll just leave and go start our own group and call it something else.

Have a person or a few people within that new group who don’t agree on everything? Just publicly farewell them, socially ostracize them, or find a reason to place them under “Church discipline” and the problem is solved.

We have all sorts of creative and “godly” ways to break relationships with people who disagree, even people who just disagree part of the time. Personally, I think as Christians we’re actually addicted to breaking relationships to the point where it has become second nature to us.

“Wait a minute… you believe that the rapture comes during the tribulation and not before it? Wow, I guess we should just go our own separate ways.”

This is something I know a little too well. While Piper hasn’t tweeted me farewell, plenty of people in my real life have done it in more subtle ways. Since I accidentally became a public voice for disaffected evangelicals, the loss of real-life friends has been one of the more painful consequences I’ve been thrust into experiencing. Sure, the blogging and book deals are nice, but just know that I’ve paid a high price for all of it. I’ve even had a friend confess that they’ve been questioned by others as to why they’re still friends with me. And, just as I was writing this piece, some “pro-life” Christians on twitter said they were blocking me because my piece yesterday was clearly a desire to “justify my support of killing babies”.

I’m a Mennonite baby killer now… whatever.

And this is why it is so easy for Christians to get divorced: we do life in a culture that often thrives via a cycle of broken relationships instead of being built upon a dedication to peace making.

While the Burger King issue isn’t the real issue, and I think consumers are free to spend their money wherever they want, it does at least point to the real issue: we’re faster to say ‘farewell’ than we are to say ‘let’s share a meal and talk’.

And, I’ve got to be honest, I’m realllly tired of people farewelling other Christians. I’m tired of Piper doing it, and I’m tired of Progressives doing it. Every time we do this it simply continues the cycle of reinforcing that broken relationships, opposed to nonviolent peacemaking, is the correct path for a Jesus follower.

Well, it’s not.

It might be the path of least resistance, the path of least conflict, and the easier road to travel, but it’s not the path that Jesus has invited us to walk on. Certainly, it’s not where one will find him.

The question then becomes: how the hell do we expect two people to hold it together and not quit– two people in the most stressful and complex of all human relationships– when we as a Christian culture are so busy flipping each other the spiritual bird that has become saying “farewell”?

Until we reject a Christian culture that functionally places a high spiritual value on breaking relationships, even considering it spiritually mature to break relationships, we shouldn’t be all shocked and disgusted when married couples within such a culture, break that relationship too.

They’re just following our example. Who could blame them?

May we, the people of Jesus, reject this faux spiritual nonsense of saying “farewell” to one another, regardless of our preferred method of saying it. Instead, may we choose the path less traveled– the path of peacemaking– that we might become the people known by their refusal to break relationships.

July 3, 2014

1. It would be way too crowded for them.

One of the basic tenets of Christian fundamentalism is the belief that they’re basically going to be the only people who get there. I frequently watch some of their dialogues in online groups (painful opposition research), and what’s sad is that they’re not just out on the streets condemning everyone else to hell– they’re quick to condemn each other as well. By the standards I often see laid out by fundamentalists (such as the belief that a truly “saved” person never, ever sins again after they’re “saved”), no one, not even themselves, would ever get in.

While I’m not a universalist, everything I see in the God fully revealed in the person of Jesus shows me that heaven is going to be much more crowded than I ever imagined growing up. If they were to go there, they’d discover that so many of the people they thought were “out” were actually “in” and that so many they thought were “in” might actually be “out”. This would make heaven a bit of a fundamentalist hell because it’s going to reveal the generous heart of God.

2. They’d have to mix with people they really don’t like.

At the end of the Bible, we see God’s story end with a “healing of the nations” where every tribe, nation and tongue come together to worship and live in harmony with God– just as was the plan in the beginning. Fundamentalists would hate this, because they’d have to have to mix with a lot of people they really didn’t like here on earth. One of the hallmarks of modern fundamentalist in a separatist and exclusive mindset– the closest they’ll often get to anyone who is different than them is when they’re behind the barrier of the free speech zone yelling at people on the street.

Imagine the torture it would be for them to worship God along side Catholics, Mexicans, and (gasp) gay people who all chose to be reconciled to God through Christ? It would be misery.

3. That “last shall be first” thing would feel really unfair.

Modern fundamentalists have the same problem some of Jesus’ disciples had: they’re convinced that they are somehow greater than everyone else. Jesus confronted his disciples when they lapsed into this mindset, telling them that in God’s realm the people we think are “last” will actually be “first” and that the greatest in all the Kingdom will be the little servants. Notice he didn’t say the “street preachers” who won’t step across the barriers and enter into the messy world of relationships will be greatest, but rather the greatest are the unknown people who were just busy serving.

When we get there, I think we’ll find that the greatest in all the Kingdom were the Jesus hippies who lived and died completely in the background of life because they were too busy washing people’s feet to amass wealth, fame, or followings. Oh, and WOMEN will probably at the top of the list over and above us men, so really– if you’re a fundamentalist you might not want to spend eternity there.

4. They wouldn’t have the joy of watching the people they hate smoulder in hell beneath them.

I think one of things fundamentalists most look forward to is watching the people who rejected their crappy street preaching methods burn in hell for all of eternity, almost as if that will be what we do for entertainment once we get there. Unfortunately, as we discussed in the hell series (which I may still do a few more of), I don’t believe scripture teaches that the unjust will be consciously tortured in a fundamentalist hell. The two alternatives (annihilation, universal redemption) which seem more likely based on what we see in scripture, will be utterly infuriating.

I think Jesus pointed to this truth when he told a parable of some day laborers. In the parable some of them show up early, work all day and receive a fair wage for their work. Other workers join in at the very end of the shift, but still get paid the full day’s wage which enrages those who worked longer for the same amount. Jesus uses the parable to show that this is how things are going to play out with God: there’s going to be a lot of people getting in, who fundamentalists don’t think should get in, and it’s going to make them really, really angry. When you take away eternal conscious torment, and add in people who showed up to the party late but get treated equally anyway, it would really take the fun out of heaven for them.

5. They’re not going to find Jesus because they wouldn’t recognize him.

Sadly, if fundamentalists arrived in heaven in their current state, I think they’d spend eternity wandering around and searching for a Jesus that they’d never find– frequently missing him when they do. Instead of the God we see fully revealed in the person of Jesus throughout the Gospel accounts, they’re still stuck on portraits of God that look nothing like Jesus. While they’re searching for a fire breathing dragon, they’re going to miss their opportunity to sit at the feet of the humble, nonviolent lover of enemies who made his inner circle among the despised and rejected of society– the same people fundamentalists can’t stand to be around other than in a street preaching context.

Rarely do I ever see or hear a fundamentalist describe God the way we see Jesus in Matthew 5, in fact, they usually laugh and mock you when you do. Blessed are the meek? How silly.

This only tells me one thing: they probably won’t recognize Jesus, and when they eventually figure it out, they’re going to be really disappointed.

///

Fundamentalists in heaven? Sure, I believe in the God we see in Jesus– slow to anger, rich in mercy and abounding in grace. However, I don’t think they’d enjoy it too much, so it would probably just be less painful to skip it altogether.

July 2, 2014

My church family– the people I love and serve week in and week out– are not like me. We don’t share the same primary language (church is a mix of French, English, Portuguese, and Lingala), we’re not the same shade of skin, we are not citizens of the same country, and only one of us (me) grew up a person of privilege.

With all our differences, they’re still “my people”. They love me, they have accepted me, they have grafted me into the African community, and they are my family.

I guess you could say it’s not so much they’re mine, but that I’m theirs.

I love being with them, worshiping with them, and helping them adapt to the new world they’ve found themselves in, though working in a new cultural context took some getting used to for both my wife and I. I still remember the day we realized it was a term of respect to call any elder “Mama” and “Papa”, a new cultural norm which has completely negated my tendency to be horrible with names. However, for these egalitarians it definitely took a period of assimilation to get used to the fact that my wife is not simply “Mama”, but “Mama Benjamin” or “Mama Pastor” as an additional sign of affection and respect.

With each passing week, we grow to love “our people” more and more as we assimilate ourselves into life as part of a sizable community of refugees and asylum seekers. In the months that we have been a part of this community, we’ve learned so much about them, but also learned so much about other ways of experiencing church.

“Worship” isn’t 3 songs before the sermon and one song after the sermon, but is a period of at least an hour to an hour and a half before anyone gets up to preach. “Sermons” aren’t 22 minute homilies, but rather an hour long energy-infused experience. Giving tithes and offerings is a time when even the old men dance with joy down the isle to put their spare change in the plate, and the things they give thanks for during the “testimony” time are so very different than what you’d hear outside the community.

You see, my church family comes from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Burundi and Rwanda. They not here to “milk the system” but to seek asylum because they would face political or religious persecution– even death– if they were to ever return home.

They aren’t here because they don’t want to go home; they’re here because they’ll die if they do.

Some, didn’t even make it this far. It is not uncommon for family units to be missing a parent/spouse who simply “isn’t here” (a term that I respectfully leave alone instead of probing).

While many of them are professionals (in my church we have medical doctors and judges), the cards are legally stacked against them while seeking asylum as they are forbidden from working for a period of about six months. Unlike those who have full refugee status, opening the door to many benefits to help start life over, those seeking asylum do not have access to many of these programs. Thankfully, in my state of Maine, we have state and local benefits which provide a small amount of food stamps and occasional government housing while individuals have their cases adjudicated to receive full refugee status.

Unfortunately, my church community faces oppression in their new home as well as their old. This past week, my Tea Party Governor Paul LePage (AKA: “America’s Craziest Governor“) who ran on the promise that he’d “tell Obama to go to hell“, jokes about rape, and who clearly ate too many paint chips as a child, has now determined that my church community is next on his list.

In a clear move to solidify his base going into re-election mode, LePage has declared that my church community of asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants”, and is attempting to shut down all state funding for them, and the towns who help them, saying that “Maine is no longer a sanctuary state“.

But here’s the problem: asylum seekers are not “illegal”. They come to the United States with passports and visas, legally. They file for asylum, legally. They remain here while they await being granted refugee status, legally.

My church is not “illegal”. Unfortunately, Tea Party xenophobes don’t care about tricky things like “facts”, such as the fact that it’s not illegal for someone to seek asylum in the United States when they are at risk of persecution and death if sent back to their homeland.

Thankfully, leaders across my state are vowing to disobey the governor’s new rule (which the AG is calling illegal and unconstitutional) from local mayors up to our attorney general. However, there is no telling how this will play out or what stunts the governor might pull in an effort to oppress our asylum and refugee population. The blood of immigrants is clearly something that would solidify his re-election bid with tea party conservatives, so I can’t imagine he’s going to accept the mayoral rebellion quietly.

Think your church has problems?

If my governor wins this battle, I have no idea how my church will eat, or where they will sleep. They’ll be forbidden from working, but will have the small safety net that exists ripped from them.

Please pray for them, pray for justice, and pray that God will not turn a blind eye.

 

June 20, 2014

You know what makes me absolutely lose my mind?

Bankers who call themselves “Christians”. I realize historically that there may have been small pockets of people who identified as being both a banker and a Christian, but these days, it’s almost widely accepted. I mean, just the other day I saw an advertisement for the Fellowship of “Christian” Bankers! Even worse, they weren’t meeting at the Episcopal church– they were meeting at the Presbyterian church!

I think the fact that we’re seeing more people identify as “Christian Bankers” as if there’s such a thing (there isn’t), is a sign of just how corrupt society has become. Scripture warns us that when the end times are upon us, we’ll be seeing more of this kind of thing– people will exchange truth for a lie, and that they’ll have no desire to live out true Christianity.

Those days are upon us, my children. Instead of truth, people in today’s culture just want their ears tickled with false teaching that caves to the pressure of culture instead of remaining true to the Bible. People just want a “feel good” Gospel (which isn’t really a Gospel) without ever challenging them to actually obey scripture (hat tip, Dr. James White). Such is the case with these so called “Christian bankers” and all the supposed “Christians” who invite them into the Kingdom of God.

Let me be clear: you have NO RIGHT to be inviting these people into the Kingdom! If you invite them in and refrain from judging them in lieu of letting God work on their hearts, it’s simply proof that you’re not a true Christian either. You emergent and progressive leaders (aka, wolves in sheep’s clothing) who keep going out into the streets and saying “God is throwing a banquet, and you’re are invited to come in!” are every bit as much the problem as the “Christian” bankers themselves.

Honestly, the term “Christian Banker” outright disgusts me. Why someone would want to pair the words together is sick, sick, sick.

Be not deceived: there’s no such thing as a Christian Banker, and scripture makes that clear.

In Ezekiel chapter 18 we see it in no uncertain terms:

“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12 He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13 He lends at interest and takes a profit.

Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.”

That’s right: charging interest on a loan is “detestable”, otherwise translated as an “abomination”. The penalty? Death. This abomination is exactly how bankers make a living, and it’s sick.

So no– don’t try to give me your liberal nonsense that it’s possible to be a banker and a Christian at the same time. It’s not. If you think that, it’s only because you reject scripture and therefore reject God.

And no, don’t try to tell me that this passage might have a specific historical context instead of being a blanket prohibition for all times, all places, and all situations. We all know that there’s no reason to study the historical context any deeper than the surface of the English text.

No, don’t try to tell me that there might be reasons, completely known only to God, as to why some people are bankers. I don’t care why– and I don’t care if I don’t know why, it’s still an abomination worthy of death. God will not take into account any additional factors when judging, and neither must we.

No, this is not an area where Christians can disagree and still maintain fellowship with one another, or still have Christian charity towards one another. There is no “third way” on this issue, and if you try to find one, it’s only because you’re ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus and would rather deny him before men than take a stand against banking.

And, don’t even get me started on what I think you should do if your college age child tells you that they seem to have a natural affinity for accounting, because you probably won’t like the cold, hard truth I’ll tell you.

Instead of inviting bankers to join everyone else in experiencing Jesus and to therefore see that he is altogether wonderful, and instead of trusting that Jesus will reveal to their hearts whether or not he wants them to abstain from banking, it is my job to pronounce loud and clear that:

BANKERS ARE OUT and they are NOT WELCOME at this banquet.

 It’s that simple– and if you disagree with me, it’s probably because you don’t really love Jesus (and you’ll have an eternity in hell to wish you had listened to me).

 

June 13, 2014

The other day the Leadership Journal at Christianity today published a piece entitled “My Easy Trip From Youth Minister to Felon” which has quickly shot up in the rankings on my list of “most offensive things I’ve ever read”. The piece is written by a former youth minister who is now in prison because of an extramarital relationship he had with one of the members of his youth group.

Well, the anonymous author of the piece called it an “extramarital relationship”, but let’s be real: people don’t end up writing anonymous letters from prison because they had an “extramarital relationship”. People write anonymous letters from prison because they’ve been found guilty of RAPE.

This piece, penned by this anonymous rapist and propped up by the folks at Christianity today, should have more accurately been entitled: “Musings From A Church Rapist On Why My Life Now Sucks”, because that’s all it was.

Excuses for rape, such as: “I wasn’t feeling appreciated at home”. “Since I felt I was not being rewarded at home, I deserved to be rewarded elsewhere”.

Not just excuses, but horrible excuses at that.

Strike the “Musings From A Church Rapist On Why My Life Now Sucks” as an alternate title, perhaps it would better be called “Excuses of a Child Rapist”. No mention of a child who was raped by a male in power, or the full wake of destruction other than talking about why his life sucks. It was all about him. This is classic of someone who has yet to realize the gravity of their behavior– there’s a long list of excuses, and a hyper focus on self, instead of a quiet horror over what your behavior has done.

The anonymous author continued to demonstrate a horrific lack of understanding about the seriousness of preying on children by continually describing the crime that landed him in prison as a mutual “friendship” that simply crossed the line:

“The “friendship” continued to develop. Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, there was little-to-no willpower left.”

Clearly, however long he’s sat in prison hasn’t been long enough to realize the gravity of his behavior. Even Christianity today, clearly didn’t get it. Just look at how they’ve classified the piece:

Adultery? Mistakes?

No, this wasn’t adultery and this wasn’t a “mistake”.

People don’t go to prison for the mistake of adultery, they go to prison for the crime of rape.

I am appalled that Christianity Today first ran this piece, and secondly have yet to take it down after many in the Christian community have asked them to. Classy that a Christian magazine who first bullied World Vision into the front pages, costing thousands of kids their needed sponsorships, is now giving a rapist a platform to whine about how bad life sucks after going to prison for rape. There’s no excuse.

Now, had Christianity Today wanted to do a piece on finally taking abuse in the church seriously, I would have applauded the effort. However, as Elizabeth Esther astutely noted:

“…a predator loses the right to tell his side of the story right about the time he decides to PREY on a CHILD… TRUE confession and amends-making should be done PRIVATELY with the victims. TRUE repentance isn’t about page views via JUICY HEADLINES.”

On the issue of true repentance, Suzannah Paul mentioned what I had thought as well– repentance ought include a demonstration that one actually understands how seriously they have harmed others:

This is not leadership. This is rape culture, abuse apology, and re-victimization under the guise of education and grace. It’s not even a bad redemption narrative, as the youth pastor, publication, and many of its commenters fail to demonstrate a most basic understanding of the fact that what transpired was the rape of a minor, not an adulterous affair. Repentance requires actually accounting for–not glossing over–the actual harm one commits.

Libby Anne also brought up something that was quite concerning– a note at the bottom of the piece states that the author “helps lead the Christian community at the facility where he is serving his sentence”, which she correctly raises concerns about a rapist serving in Christian leadership.

And for those who get side-tracked on the “statutory” part of this rape, Tamara Rice does an eloquent job taking those to task who might try to lessen the seriousness of the issue:

Do you understand that even small children who are abused often believe it’s “mutual” and believe that they share the guilt and that they “wanted it”? They believe this, because their predator  skillfully convinced them that it was true. And surely you GET that it’s never the fault of a small child, right? (Please tell me you do.) So what you seem to be missing here, what’s important here is that you understand that a teenage girl, whether 13 or 17 may have the body of a woman, but she is NOT a woman, and she is NO match for a much older man, her spiritual leader, who has made her his prey… Do you understand that as this girl grows into adulthood she will very likely be more and more horrified by what an adult spiritual leader in her life led her into? Do you understand that it’s statutory rape for a reason? Do you get that he is in jail FOR A REASON? Do you even understand what a horror it is that you let her abuser go on and on and on for pages and pages talking like this was an adult consensual affair, when she was obviously young enough that it LANDED HIM IN JAIL? Do you have any inkling of what he’s done to her and her life and her self-esteem and her sexuality and her emotional health and her spiritual health and everything about her not just for right now but most likely for years to come?”

 Clearly, we’re still not getting it.

Sexual abuse in the church is a serious issue, and one that for far too long, has been swept under the rug and quickly dismissed. Abusers have too often been quickly restored only to prey again, victims have been marginalized, and criminal behavior has been justified.

Now, with the Leadership Journal, we’re seeing it again– and we should be appalled. As if the original publication of the story didn’t demonstrate this, the complete lack of repentance and refusal to remove the story from the journal ought be further evidence of how badly we still don’t get it.

Please join me in making some noise and demand that this story be removed. Samantha Field provided the best plan of action (and also makes an excellent point on how power dynamics remove the possibility of true consent):

“Please e-mail the editors of the Leadership Journal and ask them to remove the post ( LJEditor@christianitytoday.com). Ask them to replace it with an article from the victim of a youth pastor, and then another from someone like Boz Tchividjian that offers church leadership an actual education in child sexual assault, clergy abuse, statutory rape, and how it is impossible for a pastor gain consent from a parishioner because of the power he or she has… If you subscribe to the Leadership Journal, please cancel your subscription and tell them why. “

I am disgusted with the lack of repentance and understanding of not only the rapist himself, but also Christianity Today, and the Leadership Journal.

It’s time to #TakeDownThatPost. Please join me, and the others I’ve linked to above, in demanding that we no longer give attention and a platform to abusive leaders who prey on our children.

 

Update: Thanks to your efforts, Christianity Today as removed the post! Thank you to everyone. Here is their official statement:

“We should not have published this post, and we deeply regret the decision to do so.

The post, told from the perspective of a sex offender, withheld from readers until the very end a crucial piece of information: that the sexual misconduct being described involved a minor under the youth pastor’s care. Among other failings, this post used language that implied consent and mutuality when in fact there can be no quesiton that in situations of such disproportionate power there is no such thing as consent or mutuality.

The post, intended to dissuade future perpetrators, dwelt at length on the losses this criminal sin caused the author, while displaying little or no empathic engagement with the far greater losses caused to the victim of the crime and the wider community around the author. The post adopted a tone that was not appropriate given its failure to document complete repentance and restoration.

There is no way to remove the piece altogether from the Internet, and we do not want to make it seem that we are trying to make it disappear. That is not journalistically honest. The fact that we published it; its deficiencies; and the way its deficiencies illuminate our own lack of insight and foresight, is a matter of record at The Internet Archive (https://web.archive.org/web/20140613190102/http://christianitytoday.com/le/2014/june-online-only/my-easy-trip-from-youth-minister-to-felon.html).

Any advertising revenues derived from hits to this post will be donated to Christian organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse. We will be working to regain our readers’ trust and to give greater voice to victims of abuse.

We apologize unreservedly for the hurt we clearly have caused.

/signed/

Marshall Shelley, editor, Leadership Journal

Harold B. Smith, president and CEO, Christianity Today International”

June 3, 2014

God’s plan is wonderful, isn’t it?

Well, not so much if you’re still listening to the Dobson’s over at Focus on the Family/ Family Talk.

If that’s where you’re getting your info… well, God’s plan it would seem, is positively, absolutely… horrible.

Ryan Dobson, son of James Dobson, took to the “family talk” blog to tell us about how awesomely bleak our future is, saying:

“Why are so many Christians getting killed? Has His strategy for His church gone haywire? Are things out of control?

No, everything’s right on schedule.”

Now, I don’t want to make light of the legitimate Christian persecution in the world– that’s partly why I speak against the American persecution complex, as it detracts from real persecution such as the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to hang for being a Christian. (But who is now set to be freed thanks in part to folks like Amnesty International). When we set aside our self-centered persecution complex, we can actually have eyes to see that Christian persecution actually is an issue in the world today, just not here in the West. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell, the number of Christians killed for their faith each year is actually a staggering 159,960. We shouldn’t gloss over that fact.

But to say that this just means “everything is right on schedule”? What the heck does that mean, anyway?

Well, Dobson tells us:

“What about God’s plan for us—especially as it relates to dying for our faith? Do the Scriptures offer a clue?

More than a clue. All over the Bible you’ll find plenty of reminders that Christians are called to suffer for Christ— to share in His sufferings…

God’s plan for this world calls for a certain number of Christians to be put to death for the sake of Jesus. That number is not small. It’s huge. Enormous. God knows exactly who’s on that list, and how many names there are. Until that number’s reached—until all the names are checked off—the killing will continue.”

So there you have it– God’s plan is for an “enormous” amount of you to die. And until everyone on God’s list is dead, there is no hope.

Yikes… doesn’t exactly sound like “Good News” to me. But not so fast– it is good news to Dobson:

“That’s God’s purpose. That’s His amazing, mysterious plan. And it’s all part of the good and perfect story He’s written for us, a story that will make Him more famous than ever when we finally see how it all plays out.”

An “enormous” amount of people still left to die? Well, that’s just God’s “amazing” “good and perfect story”.

Ugh. Sounds like an utterly horrible story to me. If it were true, surely God would not be the author of it.

A better story, methinks, would be this one: humanity has a disturbing propensity to enact violence against one another, especially people that was see as being “different” than ourselves. God himself came in the flesh to expose this system for what it was and is– even allowing himself to become the victim of our violent tendencies. As a result, we now have the opportunity to radically change the world by living out his moral example of love– especially enemy love, and teaching others to live this way too. The good news Jesus promised Peter, was that if an organized body (aka “the Church”) would do this, not even the gates of hell would be able to stop it.

That’s the amazing, good and perfect story: that God himself became a victim of our violent system to expose our violent system and teach us a new way of living. Now, the story continues as he invites us to help reproduce this new Jesus-way of living so that it spreads to every “tribe and tongue”.

But the idea that God’s plan is to slaughter an enormously long list of people? That’s not a good story at all– sounds more like a Quentin Tarantino movie.

 

June 3, 2014

A lot of us may identify with the term “formerly fundie”, but let’s be real: it doesn’t get more “formerly fundie” than leaving Westboro Baptist Church.

However, that’s exactly what Zach Phelps-Roper did on February 20th of this year. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his experience growing up as a member of the church, and his reasons for recently leaving.

What led to Zach leaving was a potent mix of realizing the human need for empathy from others, and the radical power of enemy love– something in the end, that offers lessons for all of us. As a member of a church famous for a seeming lack of empathy for others, Zach found himself on the other side of that lonely coin. He told me that things had been brewing inside for several years:

“Over the last five years or so, I guess I got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t being listened to and wasn’t being empathized enough with– with my family, and especially my parents… I got angry several times with my parents and when I did, I kinda exploded so to speak, but then, every time except for this very last time I would feel horrible afterwards and would try to repair things with my family. That process just kept going over and over again where I’d get really upset with them, but then my heart would ache because I really love my family, so I would say whatever I had to in order to stay with them.”

The last time, however, resulted in Zach leaving the church entirely. The final straw that led to his departure was his battle with chronic pain and the feeling that his very real pain wasn’t being taken seriously by the others. Zach describes how the pain seemed to heighten emotions, and became the issue that ultimately sparked his departure:

“I was having lower back pain… it got to the point where I wasn’t able to do construction work that my family does a lot of. That was kind of a frustration for my parents because we were pushed to remodel someone’s house recently and a bunch of other projects of late. That, and the fact that I got injured on my very first day as a nurse resulted in developing around twenty trigger points around my rotator cuff. I made several attempts to resolve my pain, but my dad was very upset because he felt like I was obsessing about trying to find a cure instead of seeking the Lord. The pain was so intense that I was asking my brothers three and four times a day to put ice on my shoulders and on my back… it was just horrible. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t take care of anything else in life. There were all these things going on, and then the night that left I approached my dad and said ‘I’m having so much shoulder pain I think I need to go to the emergency room’. He thought that I was perhaps exaggerating at this point because I was asking three or four times a day about doing something more aggressive because the pain was getting worse… I was experiencing emotions very intensely at the time.”

The physical pain, lack of empathy, and stressful lifestyle had reached a breaking point for this Westboro member. Zach finally came to accept that the religion of Westboro, was no religion for him:

“They all live very stressful lives at that church. It is a very stressful way of living because they have so many things to do and so many deadlines and it’s just chaotic. But a lot of them are passionate about it so it is not a problem for them. For me, I was in so much pain that I just couldn’t deal with it. So, in the heat of the moment I told my father that I was leaving. A couple of minutes later he approached me and said ‘Zach, are you just upset because of this matter here?’ I said ‘let me just make this easy for you. The thing is, I don’t love this religion anymore.’ This was more than a family matter that could be resolved, it was the belief system.”

As we talked further, Zach discussed more of his internal process that led up to him realizing he “didn’t love the religion anymore” and how certain aspects of their theology began to make him uneasy. It seems for Zach, one of the key sticking points became a common outcome of some extreme forms of Calvinism– a view of God that makes him seem evil and unjust to have predestined most of humanity for hell with no chance at redemption. Zach said this view of God was actually something that enraged him:

“The thing was, I viewed God as being a sadistic bully and someone who hated his creatures. I was very bitter against the notion that God would send people to hell for doing things that they had absolutely no control over. I believed in eternal predestination. So basically, God says ‘you will do these things’ and ‘I will punish you for doing these things’. In other words, you have no control over the outcome, and yet you’re going to be punished for it– and that just made me furious.”

Zach went onto explain that it wasn’t simply shifting theology that made him decide to leave but was the juxtaposition of how he felt inside the church versus outside the church. While inside the church he was feeling like he was not being heard, in his experiences outside the church– especially through his job as a nurse– he was beginning to experience an unconditional love and respect that really began to change him. As he described it to me, things just weren’t “sitting right” with him the more he experienced this unconditional love:

“I realized people outside of the church showed me unconditional love, like when I worked at the hospital. When I started working there they told me that they expected me to show respect for every other person, and that they would respect me in return… and the thing was, it was actually easy. The people at the hospital were very empathetic… they showed respect for each other and treated each other as equals, and I didn’t feel that way when I was at the church. Experiencing love on the outside definitely warmed me over.”

Since Zach has only been gone from Westboro for a few months, the dust is still settling with him. He’s still living in the Topeka area, and spoke of the radical love and generosity he’s experienced from other family members who had previously left the church and who are helping him start a new life, outside the walls of the WBC. He’s been able to reestablish relationships with his two sisters, both who had previously fled the church, as well as cousins and other ex-church members. All of whom are excited that he’s left and have been both supportive and encouraging in Zach’s new beginning.

Surprisingly, Zach speaks very warmly about his entire family, and seems to have no lingering bitterness at all. In talking with Zach, it’s easy to see how peaceful and happy he is, even in spite of having experienced a significant loss. Such a peaceful spirit, I believe, is a testimony to the fact he’s embraced the principle of forgiveness and has refused to let bitterness rule his life:

“I’ve learned to forgive them, because I believe that they’re in a mind trap. That mind trap is their belief that the Bible is infallible and that their interpretation of it is infallible… I have absolutely no hard feelings toward them anymore. I don’t think I need to hold them to some form of public ridicule because of that– it’s just their belief that they will go to hell if they don’t say the things they say, and if they don’t show that seeming lack of empathy and tell them they’re going to hell, because they think this is what loving your neighbor looks like… They don’t mean to hurt people, so to speak, they think that they’re obeying the commands of God and they’re scared that if they don’t do the things that they are doing, that they’ll go to hell.”

As I look back on our discussion, the two words that were spoken more than any other were “empathy” and “unconditional love”. As we wrapped things up, I asked Zach for an insider’s view on how we might respond to those still inside Westboro– how we might encourage others to have the same transformation he had. His response was exactly what I secretly hoped the answer would be: enemy love.

“The only way I see us being able to get them to stop doing the protesting and stuff is if we show them absolute and unconditional love… if we show them unconditional love it will call into question what they’re doing. Maybe they’d start having a little empathy for other people… if you went out there and just smiled at them and held signs that said ‘we love you’ and “we want you to be happy” and if we just smother them with love, and absolutely don’t show them any violence or anything of that sort, then I think that would reach their hearts and minds quicker than anything else because that love would be such a shock to their system.”

I hope that Zach’s experience will remind us of the power of love and empathy towards our perceived enemies. It seems that all the counter protesting (responding to an enemy in-kind) made little impact on him– but  the feeling of being respected, empathized with, and loved unconditionally? That was an experience that completely flipped his paradigm, and sent the cards tumbling.

Want to change an enemy?

Love them.

Because for some people, love will be a “shock to their system”.

Zach now tells me he hopes to soon start traveling the country to “spread unconditional love”, and he certainly has my support. In the meantime, you can find Zach on Facebook and Twitter.

May 26, 2014

In another installment of parenting according to Kirk Cameron, we find a tragic view of violence and destruction– something that certainly seems appropriate to discuss on this Memorial Day, as we remember those who have died in the service of their country. While Kirk’s post was from last month, it’s a glaring example of the kind of old, broken thinking that as Jesus followers, I hope we will run from:

Click to Enlarge

Yes, you read that right. It says:

“This is a weapon of destruction. Young men need to learn its power and how to use it properly to promote peace.”

Before I point out how dangerous that last sentence is, I feel the need to give a shout out to some vets out there (and to some who are no longer with us) who were slighted by the gender discrimination in his post.

Young men need to learn its power?

So, I get it– I’m a guy who writes about nonviolence. A lot. But, I’m also a military retiree– one who was proud to have served alongside some of the most competent Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines one can find: females. I’ve even done my fair share of deployments, as well as time in hostile fire zones, and I will always look back on my female comrades with every bit as much admiration and respect as my male counterparts. So, just that small gender reference in his statement shows he doesn’t actually know much about using these “weapons of destruction”, because women make up some of the finest ranks of our nation’s armed forces.

That said, back to why stuff like this temps me to smash my face into the screen some days:

Are weapons of destruction tools that achieve peace as Kirk claims?

No. Of course not. But, let me tell you of what weapons of destruction can do for you:

They can make your enemies so dead they can’t fight back anymore. Get enough of these dead enemies, and you might even achieve what appears to be an “absence of conflict” because they’re too dead to retaliate.

But, that’s not peace.

Even worse, this technique doesn’t always achieve such a faux peace– sometimes, it actually creates more enemies. Case in point, our current drone program. With every wedding party we blow up, it’s almost guaranteed that we just created a handful of newly minted “terrorists”. I can’t say that I blame them; if a remote controlled drone blew up my daughter as she played outside our house (something we call a “bug splat” when we kill children like her in the Middle East) I’d be pretty pissed. Probably pissed enough to devote the rest of my life to killing whoever was behind the robotic bomb who killed her.

The best case scenario is always the faux peace that comes when you kill enough enemies– say, like that time we killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; and the worst case scenario is that you enter into a never ending cycle of mutual retaliation until there’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys– just bad guys who keep justifying their violence as a quest to “promote peace”, as Cameron calls it.

This, my friends, is not peace. Certainly, it’s not peace if stuff like God, Jesus, the Bible– you know, Christian stuff– is the measuring stick we’re using.

The most used term for “peace” we see used in scripture is the Hebrew term, shalom. In Hebrew, shalom is a pretty complex term that covers a lot of territory, showing us how complex real peace can be– something far more than the faux peace achieved by simply having a lot of dead enemies. As P.B Yoder points out in Shalom : the Bible’s word for salvation, justice, and peace (1987) the Bible itself includes in the definition of “peace”: “people or things being as they should be” (Gen 37:14), entire situations being “right” (2 Kings 5:21,22), and “positive and good relations with others” (1 Kings 5:12).

Do weapons of destruction cause people to be as they should be?

I can’t imagine it caused the thousands upon thousands who died of radiation sickness in Japan to be “as they should be”.

Do weapons of destruction cause entire situations to be right?

No, which is why I can’t bear to turn on the evening news and see a country where another mass shooting doesn’t even phase us because it’s so common.

Do weapons of destruction create positive and good relations with others?

Let’s ask the people of Afghanistan on this one– but spoiler alert– the answer is: hell no.

The power of weapons of destruction don’t achieve any of this. Which means, if we’re using the actual biblical definition of “peace” (shalom), we can safely say that teaching our young men to use weapons of destruction will not achieve it. The best it can achieve is a lot of dead or angry enemies, and that’s not a holistic view of peace. It’s certainly not a biblical view of peace.

In fact, it isn’t peace at all.

On this Memorial Day, I’d invite you to set aside the fake, plastic version of peace that culture offers us, and embrace a more holistic view of peace as found in scripture– one that cannot be achieved using weapons of destruction.

In fact, it can only be achieved without them.

But, I do agree with Kirk on one point– weapons of destruction gripped in the wrong hands would be tragic. I’d hate to see a scenario where a violent empire consistently killed innocent civilians half a world away using remote controlled planes from Nevada.

 

April 29, 2014

Last week Dan Haseltine, a prominent Christian from Jars of Clay, reconsidered his political stance on the legality of civil, same sex marriage (as I discussed yesterday), and the conservative Christian internet got one of those eyelid twitches that happens during unexpectedly infuriating moments.

Last week Sarah Palin, an even more prominent Christian, bragged that if she were in political power, she would happily waterboard (torture) the state’s enemy prisoners as a way to “baptize them”… and much of the same conservative Christian internet that took on Dan Haseltine, didn’t care.

Two high-profile Christians made public statements– one that was simply questioning a civil issue in an honest attempt to learn and process, and one that actually advocated using one of the Holy Sacraments of the Church as a way to torture people.

As a true-blue “born again” Christian who has committed to giving my entire life to the way of Jesus, only one of those statements offends me. Only one makes me want to spit battery acid.

One of them was legitimate questioning…. and the other?

Well, the other was as much of an anti-Christ statement as I have ever heard.

As in, straight from the pit of hell kind of statement.

Yet, there are plenty of Christians outraged that Haseltine would question civil gay marriage, but don’t so much bat an eye at the practice of water-boarding prisoners.

My friends, this is a classic case of misplaced Christian outrage. You see, I actually do believe there is a time for outrage. There’s a time for anger. There is a time for righteous indignation. There is a time for all of it. But as American Christians, this type of wonderful, righteous and holy outrage has been horribly misplaced.

All this makes me think back to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In it, he chides them for their misplaced priorities by asking, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

It is as if Paul is saying, “Are you out of your ever-loving-minds? Did someone cast a spell on you? Have you completely lost it??

I can think of no more applicable scripture to this week’s events, than to recall Paul’s befuddlement with the Galatians.

American Christians: have you lost your minds?? Who is it that told you that you should freak out over someone’s political stance on civil gay marriage instead of Christian leaders who are advocating that we torture other bearers of the divine image of God? Did someone cast a spell on you? How is it that your righteous outrage got so misplaced?

You see, Jesus actually encouraged people to ask questions and wrestle with things. Remember? Jesus is the one who said that we have to come as little children.

Children ask questions… all. day. long. They’re infinitely curious, always asking questions, they’re willing to learn, and even willing to re-learn when necessary.

In this we see that not only is Jesus a big enough boy to handle our questions, he encourages us to ask them. Asking questions is a hallmark of being a Jesus follower, according to Jesus himself.

But torturing people and using violence against other human beings? Well, Jesus in fact did mention that too– many times, actually. He rebuked disciples willing to use violence (Mt. 26:52), commanded them to refrain from all violence (Mt. 5:39), and even went as far as saying that those wish to be counted as true children of God must nonviolently love their enemies (mt. 5:45).

So here’s the score between Dan Haseltine and Sarah Palin, according to the Jesus we find in the New Testament:

Questions = totally welcomed.

Willingness to use violence = not acting a true child of God. (Which by my math leaves only one other option)

That’s how the Bible compares the behavior of Haseltine and Palin.

You know, the book that I actually do affirm is inspired by God and authoritative for how we live our lives. Yeah, that Bible.

One individual acting as a child of God by asking questions and being willing to learn.

One individual acting like the Prince of Darkness (not Ozzy, the other one) by gleefully rebelling against the teachings of Christ and advocating that we use violence to torture people. AND, she actually compared that torture to one of the Holy Sacraments of the Church– the one where we believe that Jesus himself is divinely present!

Being outraged at Haseltine instead of Sarah Palin, is misplaced Christian outrage and leaves me with one simple question (hat tip to Paul):

You foolish, foolish American Christians! Who has bewitched you??

 

March 26, 2014

One of my favorite songs as a kid was American Pie (The Day The Music Died) about the death of Buddy Holly.

It’s one of those tunes you just never get out of your head.

In the opening lines he talks about hearing the news that Buddy Holly had died and says:

“I can’t remember if I cried,

When I read about his widowed bride,

But something touched me deep inside,

The day the music died.”

We often are not able to see or identify pivotal moments in history until long after they have passed. There are times however, when we’re able to realize just how significant a certain moment is.

Especially when someone– or something– dies.

Yesterday was one of those moments in American Evangelicalism.

When World Vision announced that they were now allowing married, gay Christians to work in their US offices, the internet blew up on all sides. It seems that all the gay wedding cakes that have been discussed were like tinder being collected dried out, and left far too close to a heater. World Vision’s attempt at unity within the body of Christ most obviously backfired, and became the final spark to ignite an evangelical explosion.

Last night I reflected on the situation in deep sadness. I’ve always considered myself an evangelical, and for the most part I still do depending who’s defining the term. However, I sensed in my spirit that yesterday was a profound day in our history, and it came with sadness for me.

The question I posed on twitter became: “did we just witness the death of evangelicalism?”

In some ways, the answer to that is yes. Yesterday, I believe, was a major turning point in the Evangelical Reformation that has been underway and that we at least experienced the death of Evangelical Christianity in America as it once was.

Although it may not have always felt this way, Evangelical Christianity was a relatively large bubble that had room for a range of perspectives. Fundamentalist Evangelicals, Mainstream Evangelicals, and Progressive/Emergent Evangelicals were able to all be in the same space- though there was usually friction in areas of overlap, for a time it was big enough for everyone.

Basically, American Evangelicalism looked something like this:

 

Yesterday however, we saw a merger between mainstream evangelicals and fundamentalist evangelicals. Together, they were able to merger to the point that it fractured the circle, sending the rest of us outside of what used to be a diverse evangelical tribe.

Now, it’s important to understand that “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” can refer to different things. One is simply a reference to culture and tribe while the other is a theological viewpoint. For example, the most basic requirements of being an “evangelical” using the requirements of the Evangelical Theology Society is simply an affirmation of the trinity, and an affirmation of the inspiration of scripture and that the original autographs were inerrant (whatever that ends up meaning).

I’ll always be a theological “evangelical”, that’s not going anywhere. What we saw the death of yesterday obviously wasn’t the theological category of “evangelical” but the culture of “evangelicalism”– it was a death of the tribe as we knew it. The fundamentalist and the formerly “main stream” evangelicals drew hard lines in the sand, merged together, and made it clear that they are not interested in big tents or leaving room for the “other”.

Basically, if evangelicalism had a Court of the Gentiles, the other two groups just set up a bunch of tables and told us to go wait outside.

I’m actually shocked at the hard lines that were drawn. There has always been room for disagreement on the issue of same sex marriage, but the lines that were drawn yesterday went further than I had imagined. Perhaps I was naive.

Yesterday shows that the former main stream evangelicals are now going to double down on this issue or anything that even hints of it. Be clear: this actually wasn’t a debate on same sex marriage. This was a debate on whether or not a Christian organization can hire gay Christians from denominations who have a different theological perspective on the issue.

World Vision and those of us who lean my way said “yes– we want everyone working to help the poor and needy and we want to acknowledge diversity in the body.” The others responded with a “Hell no. We’ll pull the support of the children we sponsor before we ever tolerate gay people working here.”

I was actually taken back by the amount of bile being spewed over this issue around the internet. It was far more than I had anticipated, and caused me to re-think my defense of World Vision throughout the day.

In the end, not only am I unapologetic for defending World Vision; I’m as defiant about it as Tony Jones standing up to the Friendly Atheist. Defending them and speaking up for these children was and is the right thing to do.

However, the day left me sad. Where I sensed a death was when I realized how the lines that had been drawn were so unnecessary. We always knew that the sides against same sex marriage and the sides for same sex marriage would never see eye-to-eye (fine, there’s room for both of us), but what we saw yesterday went one step further: it was declared that Evangelicals are not allowed to take a neutral position on the issue.

That’s the key. No more neutrality allowed. It was declared that hiring a married homosexual shall now be considered as equally egregious to officiating the wedding yourself.

That line didn’t need to be drawn and puts those seeking to be peacemakers on the outside of the margin– no longer evangelicals in good standing.

As a result, Evangelicalism as we knew it, died. Instead of affirming the trinity and the inspiration of scripture in order to be called an evangelical and leaving all other theological debates open for charitable disagreement, the New Evangelicals have now added neutrality on same sex marriage something that must be disavowed before signing on. When leaders wished World Vision “farewell” and declared this “apostasy“, they made the lines dark and clear: you can’t be an evangelical if you don’t agree with them.

It was a requirement that didn’t need to be added and has at best, created a “New Evangelicalism” with very little room for diversity, let alone outsiders.

It’s clear they’ll now go in their own direction– without us. Not by our choice, but by theirs. Not because we left, but because they left.

As Rachel Held Evans tweeted:

And, she’s right. With these lines, there’s simply no more battle to fight but instead, something new we must get busy building.

Something that is now clearly outside of what used to be called Evangelicalism.

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