WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

I am a news junkie.  I watch at least two news casts a day and read several news sites on the internet every day.  If I have an opportunity to hear a newscast on the  car radio while travelling, I am happy–the trip is better because of that.  As a result of all of this, I tend to have a very good idea of what is going on in the world, or at least the parts of the world that the various newscasts choose to tell me about.

And because I love doing analysis, all that news goes into the analytical part of my mind and rolls around and gets looked at and correlated and categorized and compared and produces conclusions and summaries and concerns.  And one of my major concerns these days is the marked increase in groups and individuals demanding that that their particular understanding of life become the norm for everyone.  Even more troubling is the almost total lack of ethical concern with such claims.

Outright lying, serious distortion of facts, selective quoting, de-contextualization are all parts of the process and the only time anyone says anything about these tactics is when the other side is doing them–mind you, it isn’t unusual for those calling out the ethical failures of the other side to use the same unethical tactics in their denunciation.  Violence has become a regular part of the process of getting what our side wants.  It is made to sound better by labelling is as “defence” but people are hurt and killed for the cause, whether they are directly involved or not.

It seems like we are developing a world where selfishness and self-centeredness are now the norm.  And because I am now the centre of the universe, anything I need to do to ensure my will is accomplish is right and proper.

The interesting thing is that this whole process started from some very good and positive seeds.  Humans have been oppressing and enslaving and harming other humans from the days of Cain and Abel and while many cultures and peoples didn’t see that as a problem, the last couple of centuries have seen significant advances in creating respect for human beings:  we have seen ending of slavery in the west, the increasing reality of gender equality, great strides in universal access to education.  All these and more came about because someone decided that what was happening wasn’t right and needed to be changed.

But somewhere along the way, a dangerous corner was turned and we began to believe that in the process of curing oppression and injustice, it is okay to oppress and be unjust.  Unfortunately, all that thinking does is change roles:  the oppressed now become the oppressors and the harassed now become the harassers. Rather than actually change anything, we simply re-label the problems, give different people different places and the whole process continues along its way.

There has to be a better way to deal with the injustice and inequality and just plain wrong in the world.  As a Christian, I am convinced that my faith provides a better way–but even the Christian faith has been hijacked and twisted and abused to make it into an tool to use in defending the things we want to defend.  Everyone claims Jesus sees things their way–and in the process, forgetting completely that Jesus’ whole purpose in coming to earth was to show us just how wrong we actually were and how we needed a complete reset–what he called a new birth.

His message is that we are and were wrong.  Many who list Jesus as their sponsor really haven’t come to grips with the reality of his teaching and the power of his example.  He was fair and just when facing unfairness and injustice.  He was peaceful in the face of violence.  He sought to help others at the expense of himself.  He continually showed the error and even evil of our ways, but always did is from the perspective of someone who loved everyone involved, both oppressor and oppressed; both slave and slave owner, both male and female–and had it been as cultural an issue in his day as in ours, both straight and LGBT.

Given that our current approach is simply making things worse, maybe we need to take another look at the real Jesus, not the Jesus who has been co-opted by so many different groups for their own purposes.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.

“GOOD” FRIDAY?

I like movies that deal with a relatively innocent individual who ends up being attacked unjustly by some other individual, group or shadowy organization.  Such stories are predictable:  a peaceful life is disrupted, the protagonist turns out to be a retired expert at martial arts, guerilla warfare, improvised weapons manufacturing who has access to unlimited funds, fast cars and airplanes (along with the occasional tank and ballistic missile) and who knows people who freely and quickly fill him (generally it is a “he” in these movies) in on all sorts of top secret details that he needs to know.

Armed with his skills, money, resources and intel,  he sets out to destroy the villains, rescue the lady and get his life back.  We expect that he will be beaten several times, trapped in an inescapable trap, shot and be involved in at least one car chase. At some point, he will appear to be defeated, maybe even killed. But at some point, he will make a comeback–and he will win.  The bad guys will be destroyed in appropriately violent ways and the hero and his new found (or returned) love will settle back down in their peaceful life, at least until the sequel.

I like the movies and the stories because they are predictable, they have car chases, they have improbable feats of “skill”, and because the good guy wins no matter what the odds are.  No matter how evil the antagonist; no matter how powerful the opposition group; no matter how high in the government the shadowy organization reaches, the hero wins.  And it may be that this appreciation of that particular media genre comes from my faith.

I don’t think it comes because I see myself as the faith equivalent of the movie hero–far from it.  If I were in the movie, I would likely be the innocent, uninvolved driver whose car is the first one run off the road in the car chase–and I wouldn’t even be the one that gets to take flight and land in a tree or someone’s dining room.  No, I think the reason my faith gets tied up in this sort of movies is that my faith is based on the biggest version of this story.

Jesus’ story has it all, except for the car chase.  A quiet hero minding his own business who attracts the attention of a powerful organization who sets out to destroy him; some serious injustice and conspiracy; a betrayal; a beating–and in the end, an execution.  But where this story parts company with the movies is that this is a real execution, not something thrown together with special effects, top secret medications and covert assistants in the conspiracy.  Jesus dies and the bad guys sit around congratulating themselves on their power and ability to deal with issues.

All this in less than a week–by Friday, the conspirators are ready for a break and settle down to enjoy the holiday.  Jesus is dead; the story is over–roll the credits.  This is not a good movie–or a good day.

Of course, we know the end of the story.  Jesus is the ultimate hero who defeats even death.  The whole story gets turned around because everything that the bad guys did was part of the plan from the beginning.  Jesus dies–but for the story to end the way it is supposed to end, he has to die.  The conspiracy really only does what Jesus knows they are going to do–he uses their free choices to bring about his end.

And that is why a day filled with hatred, injustice, evil conspiracies, betrayals, denials, torture and anything else that our all too human bent towards evil can come up with becomes “Good Friday”.  It isn’t good because of what happens that day–it becomes good because of the way God transforms the evil of the day into the ultimate good.  Good Friday is only good because of Easter Sunday, the day when the ultimate hero stages the ultimate comeback for the ultimate good.

Good Friday shows us how God takes on the absolute worst that we human beings have to offer and overcome it with the absolute best that he can offer–the power of his unlimited love and grace.  Even though there isn’t a car chase, it is still without question the best hero story of all time.

May the peace of God be with you.

WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM

I like crime–while, actually, I like crime in books and on TV and in movies.  I prefer to see the good guys win and the bad guys go to jail, although some of the current anti-hero approaches are well done.  Anyway, a recurring idea in many crime pieces is the reluctant witness, the individual who knows something important to solving the case who will only testify if assured of protection.  The witness generally becomes part of a witness protection program and depending on the writer’s needs, lives happily ever after or is pursued by some evil contract killed who is using information supplied by some corrupt official in the program.

Being a witness can be difficult and dangerous–and can even be fatal, if we can believe what we see on TV and in the movies.  Of course, we know that TV and movies don’t have a lot of connection to real life, not even when the claim is made that it is “based on real events”.  And we most certainly can’t make a connection between the trials of media witnesses and the issues that Christian witnesses need to deal with.

But there are some realities about Christian witnessing that do resemble some of the media scenarios.  We are witnesses to God and his love in a world where God and his love are not always welcome.  Being a witness to the love of God doesn’t always involve people happily and excitedly hearing and accepting what we say.  While that can be a reaction to our witness, there are many other possible reactions.

There can be indifference.  Sometimes, we will see anger.  Some will respond with scorn or laughter.  Our witness can lead to our being rejected.  We can lose our social position.  While not a major issue in North America, Christian witnessing can be met with physical violence in parts of the world–and is in a few parts of the world, Christian witnessing is illegal and can result in jail time.  Now, the reality is that for most of us, any negative consequences of being a witness to God’s love are going to be on the less physical and more emotional side, with anger and indifference being the most the majority of us will face.

But even that can be painful.  We are giving witness to something important to us and it hurts when what we are saying or showing is rejected.  It feels like people are not only rejecting our witness but us as well and most of us don’t like rejection, even if we expect it.

God does provide us with a witness protection program, but not in the way we might think.  Rather than protect us from the negative reactions, God provides us with help as we face the negative reactions.  That help is the presence of the Holy Spirit–God himself is with is and helping is and strengthening us.  When we are witnessing, God provides us with guidance in the process (Matthew 10.19-20).  When things go bad, the Spirit helps and strengthens us.

The strength the Spirit provides is important and valuable and powerful–but it isn’t what we might like or think it should be.  God doesn’t promise to shield us from the pain and suffering that may be a result of our witness on his behalf. He does promise to be with us in the process (Matthew 28.20b) and he promises to bring something good out of whatever we suffer (Romans 8.28).

And as well, he promises that we will be blessed, although this blessing is a mixed blessing.  We read in Matthew 6.11-12, we read, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (NIV)

Part of the blessing we receive is that we are in good company–giving witness to the God of love and grace isn’t easy and pain free.  Whatever we suffer because of it isn’t new or even unusual, nor it is pointless.  God in the power of the Spirit will work through and with our witness and the reaction to it and he will use it for good–and we will be blessed, even if the blessing isn’t the removal of our hurt and pain.

We are witnesses and we have access to the fullness of the power of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit who helps us know what to do and how to deal with the response.

May the peace of God be with you.

PERSECUTED DURING CHRISTMAS

One time when we were working in Kenya, the leaders of the church located on our school compound began sharing the information that our church was going to have a very special visitor in a couple of weeks. Now, this information reached me in Kiswahili and I have to confess that when the special visitor was described as a “nail”, I got confused. With a couple of questions, the confusion cleared up and I got interested in the visitor as well. In Kiswahili, the word for “nail” and the word for a member of the Somali tribe are very close and since I dealt with a lot more nails in the village than Somalis, I can allow myself this confusion.

The Somali who was going to visit had recently become a believer–which was at that time a death sentence among many Somalis, who are Muslim. According to the story, when the man became a follower of Christ, his family held his funeral and several relatives vowed to kill him. To protect him, various church groups and leaders were moving him around the country and providing protection as he developed his new faith.

I begin with that story for a reason. It has become relatively common for Christians in North America to talk about the persecution that we believers are facing in our culture today. I find there is an increase in this kind of talk at this time of the year. We have seen our culture downplay and remove overtly Christian aspects of the Christmas season and replace them with more generic elements: “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; schools calling Christmas concerts something different; manger scenes being removed or banned from public places; “White Christmas” being played in malls rather than “Away in a manger”.

All these things plus all the things that I haven’t mentioned are signs of organized, sanctioned and ruthless persecution of Christians, at least according to some vocal believers, who often go on to tell us how much worse it will get, how it is all a sign of the end times and how we need to resist and push back against it.

I tend to get very irritated with this line of reasoning. We are not being persecuted for our faith in North America, especially when we consider the case of the Somali Christian who I talked about at the beginning of this post.

What we are seeing happen is not a persecution of Christian believers but the removal of privileges and perks that we have enjoyed as part of the Western culture that are being seen as unfair in a culture that has become more and more multi-cultural and less and less influenced by any one cultural line.

In a way, what is happening is a direct result of the influence the Christian faith has had on our culture. As a faith, we have taught things like equality of all before God; love and respect for all; individual freedom; concern for the oppressed and so on–our faith message seeks to remove oppression in all forms beginning with the internal life of the individual and moving on to the cultural life of a nation. While the church has a history of some very bad choices, we also have a history of influencing our culture in a positive way when it comes to the respect of others.

Losing privileges and perks is painful–but it is not persecution. When we are a part of a culture that celebrates Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas and other cultural and religious events all around the same time, why should one have any more privilege than another? Certainly, we as Christians can claim historical precedent–but that is a very shaky claim since many of the perks we enjoy are not that old historically.

The situation we face as believers in North America is not persecution–it is the leveling of the playing field so that everyone has the same rights and privileges, which is a very Christian perspective on life. To call the natural working out of Christian love and respect for others within our culture persecution is to make two mistakes. First, it tries to go back to a mythical time in the past when unfairness was called Christian.

But more than that, it cheapens and demeans the real persecution of believers who live and believe in places where jail, beatings and death are the direct result of a decision to follow Christ. We should pray for God’s help for those who face real persecution and as well, give thanks to God that our faith has helped our culture become a more accepting place for diverse people to live.

May the peace of God be with you.