Church: Are We Doing it Wrong?

I’ve been having a bit of an ecclesiological (Spellcheck, don’t you tell me that’s not a word!) existential crisis.  What is the church?  How can we define it?  What is it supposed to look like?  All these questions are kind of driving me maybe just a little bit nuts, so I decided to look at the issue from another perspective.

Considering how church is practiced today, what can I glean of its priorities?  As I think through my churchy past, I’ve got to say I’m left amazed.  I’ve been to a lot of churches in my life.  Conservative ones, more conservative ones, crazy ones, charismatic ones, Lutheran ones, Episcopal ones, Catholic ones, small ones, mega ones, and on and on.  And the astonishing thing is, whatever the differences in theology or the racial/ethnic/age breakdown of their congregations, all churches essentially do things the same way.  You walk in, sing some songs–it doesn’t matter if they’re hymns or rock anthems–sit down, listen to some guy talk up front for an hour, maybe sing another song, and then, if you have no peoples to greet, you leave.  Every church I’ve been to is church in exactly this way.

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Yeah, I broke out the gifs for this one just so y’all would take me seriously

Now, it’s true that most churches have weekly Bible studies, the occasional service project, and perhaps a picnic or potluck every few months or so, but let’s be honest.  The bread and butter of a church is what happens with it on Sunday morning (or Saturday night if you’re a weirdo :))  And if I were an alien detective from a far away galaxy studying churchgoers and their churchy ways–first of all, how cool would that be?!–and second of all, what would I make of the Sunday morning ritual?

I think I would determine that being a church member is rather like being a student.  Christianity is an individual endeavor, and the priority for Christians is to know the sort of stuff the teachers teach.  (And to sing terrible songs badly and often.  Why?  Because that’s the way things are done, dang it!)  Perhaps this is why the church, in North America at least, sees salvation as an issue of intellectual assent.  Believe the right things, and you’re in!  Believe the wrong things, and you’ll burn!  This is beginning to make less and less sense to me, but that’s a post for another day.  The issue at hand is whether the way we are doing church supports the identity we want the church to have.

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In church vision/mission statements all over the internet, you’ll see phrases like, “We are a community of believers..” or “We are a fellowship who…” or, better yet, “We are a family that…”  Wait!  What?  You’re a community?  A fellowship?  A family?  Gee, I’m glad you told me, because were I an alien investigator extraordinaire, I probably would have missed that.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a church, even the church I’ve been attending for over a year now, sung side by side with strangers, sat in the dark with strangers and listened to the sermon, and then walked out at the end still a stranger to the rest of my “community,” and they were all still strangers to me.  I know I’m not alone in this.  Many Christians have these experiences.  Our church practices on Sunday morning are not practices that encourage fellowship or community, and putting the onus on individual members of the congregation to overcome an environment that encourages individualism and separatism in order to meet someone–anyone!–is perhaps a bit naive.

Here’s the truth of it: If I don’t make a connection with someone on Sunday morning, I am not apt to join a small group at the house of someone I don’t know so I can be the new girl.  It’s just not going to happen.  I’m an introvert and more than a little odd.  I have no faith in my ability to break into an established group and make friends.  I’m the sort of person who is going to need a friend going in.  And I can’t make friends at church when church consists of sitting and listening in silence to the pastor.  Do you get where I’m going with this?

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If church is first and foremost a community, then let’s…I don’t know…commune?  As a way of life, I mean.  Instead of sitting in rows in the dark, let’s sit around tables in the light.  Instead of listening passively to someone disseminating information for an hour, let’s have a 20-25 minute talk and a built-in time of discussion where we work out the sermon points in small groups.  Let’s make meeting new people and inviting them out for lunch a part of church culture.  We don’t have to do this every week, but a lot of weeks maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.  Sure, there would be difficulties to work around in my church model–we’d need to train discussion leaders, head off clique formation, and try and make the shyer members comfortable–but community is a messy business.  The corporate conference-style church service might be a good method of teaching (although any good teacher would advocate for differentiated instruction.  Many, many people are not auditory learners) but it’s a crappy mode of getting church attendees to love and care for one another.

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Best corporate presentation ever!  Better Off Ted shows the church how it’s done.

If real fellowship is to be a priority, then the way we do church needs to reflect that.  For my part, I’m ready to break with the cult of pastoral charisma in order to make room for building genuine Christian relationships among the common folk.  Don’t get me wrong–pastors are great!  I love pastors (at least, I love the non-creepy ones).  But a pastor does not make the church.  How can we call ourselves a community if we don’t make it a habit to pray with one another, to break bread together, or to listen to each other?  It’s about time we sat down and decided what it means to be the body of Christ and what sorts of interactions being a Christian community requires.  And then, maybe we could…do them?  Just a thought.

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Parenting

So, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been in Mom mode.  Am I not always?  Well, yes and no.  My days do pretty much consist of tending to Juliet, which is either a tragedy or triumph depending on her mood (except for Greek day–the day wherein I try to stuff a week’s worth of Greek homework and studying into a few hours before class while B takes over parenting duties.  It’s the break that is not a break.  I hate Greek day.)  However, while my occupation is motherhood, I am by nature an investigator.  I’m never really happy unless I have a problem to research or a question to answer, and of late that question has been, “How now shall I parent?”  (I’m not sure why my questions are so heavily influenced by early modern English.  They just are.)

I don’t know why this issue has captured my attention right now.  Juliet is only 14 months old, and neither she nor I is ready for actual discipline to be instituted.  Don’t get me wrong.  Juju is super mischievous, but she treats it all like a game.  If she knows I don’t want her touching the outlets, she’ll race to touch them, looking back at me and laughing the whole way.  She just can’t conceive of anyone being truly upset with her, and there’s something terribly endearing about that.  Maybe it’s a mistake, but I don’t want to break it just yet.

Nevertheless, I’d like to have some idea of what my parenting philosophy will be.  You know, for the time when I will actually need a parenting philosophy.  After doing some research, I’m amazed at the breadth of ideas there are when it comes to parenting styles and discipline.  I’ve considered everything from the traditional “spare the rod” approach to people who actually do believe in sparing the rod.  As in no discipline ever.  I’m not really sure how I’d make that work, but I’ve loved reading all of the different points of view, and it’s gotten me thinking.

The way our culture normally approaches parenting is nearly opposite how we in the church try to convince people that God approaches us.  Okay, that was mighty convoluted, but my kid is running a fever, and my worry is making me less than articulate.  The point is that most of the churches I’ve been to go out of their way to heal what they see as damaged views of God (He’s a deity who is looking to punish, who keeps a tally of wrongs, who is always on the lookout to teach you a lesson, etc.)  They seek to replace the Angry God imagery with the Loving Father motif.  God cares for you, He forgives easily, He is rooting for you.  The unconditional nature of God’s love is trumpeted and the judging, flaw-seeking aspects of Angry God are downplayed.

Why is the evangelical message so careful to highlight God’s love and mercy rather than Her justice and holiness?  Churches (at least many of the ones I’ve attended) must have realized that there is something in human nature that recoils from seeing God as a heavenly disciplinarian.  It just doesn’t sell or sit well.  And yet, strong discipline seems to be the core theme of most parenting philosophies.  I’m not sure why that disconnect exists, at least within the church.  Why would we want to foster the qualities in ourselves that we are loathe to ascribe to our God?

Look, I’ve been a parent for only a little over a year.  Answers, I have none.  Yet, as someone who embraces a holistic vision of Christianity, I feel compelled to ask these questions.  Discipline is important, but I’m not sure anymore if it’s the most important thing.  The crunchy, un-school advocating, non-punishing parents whom I’d like to laugh off do have a bit of a point that beyond demanding good behavior from my daughter I need to model Christ-likeness to her.  Living well, not just punishing effectively, needs to be my goal.

I’m not certain what this will look like as Juliet gets older.  Will there be time-outs or just discussions?  Will there be bedtimes or food restrictions?  I honestly don’t know.  I have time to figure all that out.  What I have for now is a paradigm.  When Juliet’s gone crazy (which is often, because she’s kind of nuts) and I don’t know what to do, I err on the side of love.  Instead of yelling, I give her cuddles.  When I’m tempted to ignore her tantrums…okay, I do ignore them for a little while, but then I give her a big hug.  Am I doing it all wrong?  Possibly.  But B, who is sometimes wise, assures me that parents can get away with doing a lot of the wrong things as long as the love is there.  My goodness, I hope he’s right.  And when I see my sometimes, screamy, sometimes giggly, always adorable little girl cradling and kissing her own toys just like her Mama cuddles her, it makes me think that maybe he is.

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For anyone who is yet completely derisive of my parenting skills, I’m there with you.  But before you jump to judgment I’d like to submit a video in my defense.  Juliet has learned a new trick.  And while, yes, there is chance that she will crack her head open, I am also clearly preparing her for a lucrative and rewarding career in the circus.  I’m a good mom.

Before you ask, I don’t know why Juju stuffs her toys in the car before standing on them, but she insists upon it most vehemently.  I’m too frightened of her wrath to make it an issue 🙂

Things I Wish We’d Talk About More In Church (Plus Juliet’s Trip to the Zoo)

If the church is to have a ministry to society in general, the first step of this duty is toward its own identity.  ‘Let the church be the church,’ was the slogan.

John Howard Yoder

 

1.  Non-violence

I’ve attended church all my life, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a pastor preach about what it means to be a peacemaker or how Christians should think about violence.  In fact, I’m sure I’d have fingers left over.  Considering how central this idea was to the way Jesus conducted His ministry and also how defining it was for the identity of the early church, it’s a pity it’s so overlooked now.  The more politically active Christians become (which is another issue altogether) and the more Christians we have joining the military, the more we ought to be talking about it.  This is not to say that everyone needs to be a pacifist, but that as violent and interconnected as the world is becoming, the church needs to have something to say about it.  At the least, the topic should be on our radar.

2.  Hermeneutics

The Bible is a strange and difficult book.  Or rather, library of books.  But we don’t talk about that difficulty very often in church.  We ignore puzzling passages in favor of the more transparent ones, and church members are rarely given any insight as to how to approach these texts written thousands of years ago.  Context is shared in fits and spurts and genre is almost never mentioned.  What questions should we be asking when confronted with biblical weirdness?  Where can we turn to correct our blind spots?  How can we begin to engage these texts critically?  For Christians for whom the Bible is the central and ultimate authority on their faith, fostering good reading skills should probably be a major component of church life and teaching.

3.  The Kingdom of God

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God.  He talked about it a lot.  But it occurred to me a few years back that although I could parrot many of the Bible verses which referenced the kingdom, I had no idea what it actually was.  Is it something that happens when Jesus returns?  Is it something that is taking place now?  Jesus compares the kingdom to a hidden pearl, to wheat growing among tares.  It’s here but not yet.  But what does it entail?  If we’re called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, what does that mean for how we engage with one another and with people outside?  What does it mean for how we vote and how we treat the environment, what we buy and what we give away?  In other words, if the church is a herald of the kingdom of God breaking through to earth, shouldn’t we know exactly what it is we are heralding?  More and more I’ve come to think that the idea of the kingdom is central to Christian faith, more so than the praying of the sinner’s prayer.  Being a Christian isn’t about saying magic words, but about living a life committed to the way of Christ.  It’s a long-term and all-encompassing intention to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  It’s supposed to be our new identity, but we don’t talk about it nearly enough.  As we bewail the lack of impact the church is having on the world, I think it’s about time that we turned our attention to our own congregations and administered a healthy dose of self-definition.

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In other news, B and I took Juliet to the zoo, and we had a blast. 

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Juju ran, tripped and landed on her face slo-mo style.  It was traumatic and sad.  And also kind of funny.

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No worries, though.  She recovered.

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Here’s a video because I’m a proud parent.  Be warned: screaming is Juliet’s super power.

Laura

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My sister passed away nine years ago today.  Every year it’s a sad anniversary to mark, probably made worse by its proximity to Easter.  I don’t tend to talk about her very much because in some ways it still feels quite raw.  I always figured it was the sort of wound that would heal.  I mean, there are dogs who learn to get by on two legs.  Learning to live sibling-less struck me as rather the same kind of thing.  Part of me is gone, but somehow I’ll find the means to compensate until the emotional limping becomes second nature.  Until I just don’t notice it anymore.

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Almost a decade has passed, and I don’t think the grieving process has run its course the way I thought it would.  Instead of handicapped, I feel bifurcated, as though I’ve lived two lives.  In one of them I had a sister, and in this one I don’t, and trying to bring those two versions of me together is painful.  It feels as if the times I remember with Laura are someone else’s memories.  I’m anesthetized to the sadness because in a sense she feels like a fictional character I read about in a book a very long time ago.  But every once in a while, and certainly on this day, the numbness wears off, the memories become mine again,  and it just hurts.

Laura and I were fairly close in age–2 1/2 years apart–but our personalities were extremely different.  She was energetic, athletic despite her asthma, and above all she loved people.  She was the lone extrovert on a small island of introverts, and I think that was probably very tough on her.  We spent most of our childhood together, just the two of us.  I remember encouraging her to accomplish gymnastic feats of greatness.  I taught her to do a back walk-over, despite the fact that I had never managed to do one myself.  We found creative ways of launching her through the air.  We played “Don’t Touch Hard Ground” and generally ran about like headless chickens.  She was always game for anything.

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Laura also loved to sing.  That was probably the one thing we had in common, except it came more naturally to her.  Mom discovered her talent for it one day after they had seen a church musical wherein a little girl sang “Happy Birthday, Jesus.”  “I can do that,” Laura proclaimed when the play was over, and when she launched into the song, dang if she couldn’t sing!  The same thing happened with dance when Laura was in middle school.  She was at a high school audition because they needed younger kids in the play, and when the dance try-outs began Mom was stunned to see that her younger daughter could dance (because heaven knows her older daughter couldn’t).  From that point on, singing and dancing were Laura’s passions, and performing was one of her favorite things.

When I remember my sister, I remember her in neon.  She never liked to blend in and would perform surgery on all of her clothes–cutting them up, puffy painting them, sewing two halves of different pants together (I never really understood her aesthetic).  She wore neck ties as belts and combination locks as…accoutrements?  She was creative in just about every aspect of her life.  Her makeup might have made her look like a chola, but it was impeccably done.  I recall her spending hours in front of the mirror to get her hair in some braided configuration done to her satisfaction.  Laura was amazing at crafts, and her wrapped presents were works of art.  She may not have been much of a writer, but her handwriting was amazing, and she never could draw very well, but the word-art she created on the back of her hand when she was bored was stunning.

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These are the things I think of when I think of my sister.  She cared about people–too much, I always thought.  Unlike me, she forgave easily, and she went out of her way to make her friends feel loved, making cards and desserts for them for no reason at all.  She was generous with her time and her stuff (except with me.  She never did like it when I “borrowed” without permission).  She didn’t much like to read, but she practically had the Harry Potter books memorized.  She liked punk rock and hated it when I listened to talk radio while driving her home.  She also liked punk-styled boys with the piercings and the tattoos and the shaggy, dyed hair and…yeah, I didn’t get that at all.  I’ve been an octogenarian for a long time now.

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Laura and I loved each other, but I think in many ways we were so different that we couldn’t be very close.  That’s probably my biggest regret.  There were sides of herself that she never showed me, probably because she thought I wouldn’t understand.  To be honest, she was most likely right about that.  I’ve never been known for being un-judgy.  Laura always sort of baffled me.  But I like to think that we had really come to appreciate each other after seventeen years of wearing one another down.  We were about as opposite at two people could be (I’d type her an ESFX for the Myer-Briggs peeps out there–that reminds me how much she loved those marshmallow Peeps, which…ugh!–to my INTP) but we made it work pretty well most of the time.

My last living memory of her was on Sunday morning.  I was set to sing at a friend’s church and had gotten up early.  Laura was to leave for her spring break service project that afternoon, and it struck me as I was getting into my car that I wouldn’t be able to see her off.  Mom was watching me leave, and since I was already late, she urged me to go, assuring me she’d let Laura know I said goodbye.  I don’t know what it was, but something made me get out of my car, enter the house, run up the stairs and wake Laura up (always a perilous proposition.)  “Hey, Laura, I just wanted to tell you goodbye before your trip.  Have a great time.  I love you.”  Laura looked up at me blearily and then a big smile broke over her face.  “You do love me!” she exulted before hugging me.  And then I went downstairs and drove off.  Two days later we got the call that Laura had unwittingly ingested peanut butter and died as a result of her allergy.

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To this day I’m so thankful that I got to say goodbye to her.  It was a more permanent goodbye then I had thought at the time, but I don’t know how it could have been more fitting even had I some sort of prescient idea of what was to come.  I’m thankful that she was a ham and that I have tapes upon tapes of her performances to watch if I ever get the courage to view them.  I’m thankful that I’m not alone in missing her, that there are people she poured her life into who remember and love her as well.  Some of her friends even had her name tattooed on them, and I know just how much she would be touched by that.

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I have regrets too, of course.  I wish in many ways that I had been a better sister to her.  I wish I had taken the time to understand her instead of teasing her so often.  I wish I saw something of her when I look in the mirror and that I was more like her.  I may have been older, but she was more protective, more practical, more loving, and overall just a more inspired human being.  Poor grieving or not, I know my life will always feel like there’s a huge, gaping hole where she ought to be.  At least, for the nonce, Juju reminds me much more of her aunt than she does of me.  Every time I see Juliet ham it up for the camera, or try her hand at drumming,  or voyage courageously into parts unknown, or even when she just really enjoys a french fry (Laura’s favorite food), I know I’ll be thinking of Laura.  And come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what my sister would have wanted.

Easter Etc.

Juliet’s second Easter was spent pretty quietly at home–partly because we seek to emulate the holy hermits of old and partly because B was in North Carolina doing whatever it is husbands do when they are wife and daughter-free and hanging with good pals.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure he spent all his time sobbing into pillows and making Youtube montages about our epic love set to girly maudlin music.  Right?  Right!  Anyway, it was the longest separation of our marriage–1 whole week!–and I’m not sure how two people as ridiculously attached as we are ever survived.  It’s an Eastertide miracle!  Plus, I had to try my hand at being a single parent, and you know what?  Hats and bonnets off to the single moms and dads out there.  That ain’t easy.  I’m not sure how my mom did it.  She’s just super, I guess.

So here are the pics documenting Juju’s cuteness and my inability to style my slow-growing pixie (the experiment is over, and I want my hair back!)  Let the picspamming commence:

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B and Juliet in the airport garage taking an extended leave from one another for the first time.  I may or may not have been blubbering behind the camera.

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Juliet’s new favorite expression is her ugly smile, so called because anyone else would look really ugly wearing it.  I know; I’ve tried.

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Here she is on Easter morning video conferencing with her dad over the Ipad.  Turns out she’s a real chatterbox over video and phone, which she definitely did not get from me.

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Juju has a real yen for rhythm so the Easter Bunny brought her some instruments so she could develop her burgeoning talent.

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When she uses the maraca like a club she reminds me of her dad (handsome, culture-challenged caveman <3)

ImageThis is what happens to my daughter when her most favorite television show of all, Sofia the First, comes on.

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Love it!

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Juju in her new baby bonnet that doesn’t match her dress, but her Mama don’t care.

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She and I both love my Kindle.

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CHEESE!

 

Kung Fu Warriors for Jesus

I sort of mentioned in my last post that I’ve been wrestling with Jesus’ call toward non-violence.  Let me state from the get-go that my issues with it are thinky issues and not practical ones.  As a rule, I don’t attack people, although my right arm has had moments of demon possession wherein it flings itself suicidally at B, usually when he makes one of his hilariously sexist “jokes.”  My arm seems to hate those even more than the rest of me does.  Not sure why.  But other than that, and my penchant for hurling very large objects at very tiny spiders with murderous intent, I’m a fairly peaceful person.  I mean, sometimes I like to imagine myself as some kind of karate queen, kicking butt and taking names, but seeing as how I can’t be bothered to reach for the remote most days (that’s how I end up watching so many infomercials) it’s just not gonna happen.  B is a man of action; I am a woman of napping.

Yet, when I consider the ramifications of adopting a fully pacifist position, my inner Buffy comes out to play.  I know pacifists argue that to eschew violence is not to do nothing.  You can try to block the perpetrator or use your body as a human shield or hug him (yes, hug him!).  Inner Buffy does not like any of those options because when you try and imagine yourself hugging a would-be rapist or standing in front of a gunman with arms spread trying to shield the world, you look really stupid.  Not only is it frightfully unsexy (and this from someone who looks up to Liz Lemon as a paragon of sensuality), but it just doesn’t seem like it would be all that effective.

 

As I noted last time, I also have issues figuring out how society could function absent some sort of enforcement mechanism to lock up criminals and deter crime.  I haven’t been able to figure out how pacifists get around this or even if they do.  As a pacifist, if I saw someone beating up a skinny, defenseless IT guy (that’s for you, B) my religion would disallow me from calling the police.  It makes no sense to call for someone else to come and utilize the violence that I believe is wrong.  I guess I could go hug the attacker, but realistically that would only buy the IT guy a few seconds because I’m a bad hugger, and I can’t take a punch.  At this point I’m left to wonder if this is the best way to show love to those who are at the greatest risk of being victimized and oppressed–women, children, furry animals, and muscle-challenged men.  I wonder what Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan would have looked like if the three travelers had come across the Samaritan while he was in the process of being beat down rather than in the aftermath.  Let’s say one of the passersby tries to convince the evildoers to desist using persuasive language, another throws his body into the fray and gets beat up along with the Samaritan, and the third pulls out an AK-47 and goes to town on the criminal element.  Which one is showing Christlike love?  Is violence ever justified?

Today I came across a video of Pastor Greg Boyd answering this very question.  I’m fairly certain that Boyd is a hardcore pacifist, and while I’m still not, I found his take on the issue to be refreshing.  He argues that, for the world, violence is often the first resort and that for Christians this shouldn’t be the case.  It’s tempting to dehumanize our attackers because this makes it easier to blow their brains out sans remorse.  They’re not people, they’re personifications of evil.  But this is not an avenue left open to a community called to love their enemies.

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This really resonated with me.  I tend to think things out in broad strokes.  I grab hold of one big, simple idea and ride it all the way home.  That’s just how my brain works and also why philosophical inconsistencies give me hives.  One of the fun little projects I like to undertake when I have a spare moment is to try and deduce the reasons why sins are sins.  Why is premarital sex sinful?  Why is it wrong to gossip?  Why is viewing porn immoral?  The conclusion I’ve come to is that part of what makes sin anathema to God is that it’s dehumanizing at its core.  When we sin it’s often the case that we’re using people or stripping them in some way of their essential personhood.  One of my favorite writers, Terry Pratchett–himself no lover of religion–wrote in one of his books that sin is treating people as things.  While I don’t think that’s comprehensive, it’s certainly sufficient.  This is why politics can be such a minefield for Christians.  When the end is what matters, whether that end is equality or a moral society or whatever, then people become means.  They’re tools or obstacles and not moral agents in their own right.

I’ve been really working on trying to overcome this tendency in myself.  This is why my libertarianism has been an important but painful work in progress.  As I consider the possibility of a society where the free will of all persons is respected, sometimes I still seize up: “But what if people decide to snort the cocaine?  Or become clothing optional?  Or they don’t give to charity and the streets are littered with the bodies of poor people?  And, for the love of all that’s holy, who will build the roads?!”  It’s hard to respect all people all the time because a lot of people are really dumb.  That’s why democracy mostly sucks.  But as I read the Bible, I see a God who by and large allows people to make the stupid, harmful decisions they inevitably make.  And as this is the God that I’ve freely assented to make my king, I suppose I can do no less.

So does any of this mean that I’m morally disallowed from using violence to confront violent people?  I’m not sure.  Boyd would probably say yes, but I’m post-modern enough to be leery of such an absolute statement.  We do agree, however, that at the least violence shouldn’t be the default setting for Christians.  Boyd points out in the video that if your beloved son were the gunman and was threatening your family, you probably wouldn’t be so quick to discharge a weapon at him.  You would search for alternatives–any way to end the threat peacefully.  This should be how we treat all offenders, as though he is our son because we are called to that kind of love.

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I don’t know if that takes violence as a last resort fully off the table.  Maybe it does.  I only have one kid, and when I think of Juliet threatening a double of herself, it paints an odd picture because she’s just a baby and also because it totally seems like something she would do.  Often her inner Buffy is also an outer Buffy.  Not sure who she gets that from.  All that is to say, I don’t know if I could pull the trigger on my own child, even to save another son or daughter.  It’s a tough call, and I think that’s kind of the point.  There are a lot of things I’d do before going for the kill shot, and as someone who desires to follow Jesus, this struggle should probably be the norm rather than the exception.

Ethical Puzzle of the Day: Torture

Zoe:  You sanguine about the kinda reception we’re apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Captain?

Mal: Absolutely.  What’s sanguine mean?

Zoe:  Sanguine.  Hopeful.  Plus–point of interest–it also means bloody.

Mal:  Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?

–Firefly aka thebestshoweverI’mstillinmourningtheragestillburns

First thing’s first–I have survived my second quarter of seminary!  Huzzahs all around.  For a while there I thought I’d be DOA, but nay!  Nay, my friends!  All the papers have been turned in, and all the tests have been taken, and now I have a week before I start all over again.  Apparently I am Sisyphus by choice–a glutton for punishment.

Speaking of punishment, for today I figured I’d think through the ethical problem of torture.  Is torture ever justified?  Now I want to warn you from the start that I don’t yet have a satisfying answer.  I’ve been trying to work this out since the first week of my ethics class when we debated this question in our small groups.  These sorts of quandaries distress me quite a bit because I prefer my philosophies to stay neat and tidy.  So I figured as long as I’m bothered and bewildered, I might as well share my befuddlement with my nearest and dearest.

Here goes!  Is torture ever justified?  My immediate response is no.  First of all, I can’t imagine Jesus ever torturing anybody, and since I believe His humanity is normative, that means torture is off the table for me too.  (Not that I ever would, because gross!  But for the sake of the thought experiment…)  However–and here’s where it gets tricky–I do believe it’s permissible to use force to defend others, and I can imagine at least one circumstance where torture could fit my criteria for resorting to violence.

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of pacifist literature, and while I appreciate their philosophies of non-violence, I haven’t yet been persuaded toward pacifism myself.  For one thing, it seems to me that pacifism would rule out prisons and a police force as they are just implements of outsourced violence.  This would leave everyone at the mercy of criminals, and while I tend to eschew consequentialist reasoning, I just can’t imagine a world like that being functional.

So for now I adhere to the non-aggression principle (i.e., do not initiate or threaten violence toward anyone who has not been violent himself) with the caveat that it is very possible that for Christians even self-defense is not allowable.  The life of Christ seems to bear this out, as does what I understand of the the early and very persecuted church.  For most things, this ideology serves very well.  War?  A big no due to the inevitable civilian casualties.  Drone strikes?  No for the same reason.  Taxation?  Vice laws?  Immigration bans?  No, no, and no.  It’s blissfully simple, really.

But…what if an arch-villain has kidnapped a child and buried her underground in an unspecified location where she is sure to run out of oxygen before too long?  Then is torture permissible?  (To meet the requirement of the non-aggression principle it’s important that the one being tortured is the actual villain and not just someone who might know something about the child’s whereabouts.  Knowing things isn’t aggression.)  Part of me would like to say no because torture is yucky.  It’s really hard to envision Jesus putting bamboo shoots under someone’s fingernails or shooting kneecaps or even waterboarding.  Yet, if a man were holding a gun on a child I would say that it’s perfectly fine to shoot him in order to preserve the child’s life and end the threat.  All things considered, is the torture case really that different?  The criminal isn’t holding a gun, but he has put the child’s life in jeopardy, and his death won’t save the kid, but maybe cutting off his finger will.

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I guess I’m in search of a brightline on this.  Would Jesus torture, even in this instance?  I don’t think so, but does that mean He wouldn’t shoot a rampaging gunman either, given the chance?  If I believe that then would that make me a (gulp!) hippy pacifist?  Or is there something especially vile about torture which crosses a line that merely killing someone does not?  After weeks of going round and round about this, I don’t feel I’m any closer to an answer.  (I do want to note that B’s version of Jesus is part Jack Bauer and has no problem putting the hurt on bad guys.  If only I could be sanguine…)

These are the sorts of things that keep me up at night.  You know, in case the president ever calls me up and asks my opinion on torturing some poor sot.  For now, given this scenario, I’d have to say, “I have no idea, Mr. President, but if you’d like I can explicate some Chaucer for you.  You know, just because it’s a national emergency and all.”  Thankfully, that’s unlikely to happen because my explication skills are muy rusty, but for my own peace of mind I’d like to know where I stand.

The good news is that so far this is the only contingency I’ve yet dreamed up where my go-to philosophy regarding violence is confuzzled when it comes to torture.  The bad news is that it’s at the margins where purist ideologies like mine break down.  I don’t want to break down.  I want to emerge triumphant!  There has to be something I’m missing.  I just haven’t found it yet.  If you find it before I do, be a lamb and make a present of it to me, ‘kay?  Okay.