It Takes a Network

Back in May 2005, we had an opportunity to do a ministry project with the market kids of Baguio City, Philippines, The market kids (also known as “batang palengke” or “plastic boys”) are children who work in the public open market in the center of Baguio City. They sell plastic bags for the shoppers, offer to carry goods for the shoppers, and sometimes beg. Some are street children, lacking a permanent resident. However, most do have families and homes. About 25% do not go to school, and about 25% are children of Muslim merchants who have moved to Baguio from Southern Philippines.

Our involvement started small. It began in Cultural Anthropology class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. Celia and I were part of a team set up to analyze of cultural group and do a project with them. Our other team members included a pastor from Nagaland, India, and a pastor from Cambodia. We decided to work with the market kids. We discovered that two students we knew, one from the Philippines and one from Papua, New Guinea, worked with them and a ministry set up by Korean missionaries. After spending some time in the public market, and working with the children at the Saturday ministry headed by the Korean missionaries, we decided that we would partner with them to do a medical mission for the children.

Ultimately, the project was fairly successful. Eventually, it faded away and different partners moved away. But many of the children were helped and grew up healthy and godly.  In fact, a number of them are serving in Christian ministry. Below are some of the groups that were part of this somewhat informal partnership. Some were partnered long-term, and some partnered on an event-basis. It does take a healthy network to do ministry. Below is a list of a number of the groups and their role(s) in the ministry partnership, with focus especially on the medical mission that was held.

Korean Missionaries                              Lead Weekly Children’s Program

American Missionaries                           Lead Medical Mission Event

Mission Center/Church                            Provide Location for mission

Filipino Missionary                                  Follow-up Muslim children who come

Several Other Filipino churches             Follow-up children/adults who come.

American Church                                    Fund Medical Mission

Korean Church                                        Fund Children’s program

Filipino Medical Professionals                Provide Medical Care

Numerous Filipino volunteers                 Evangelism, Crowd Control for medical mission

Seminary Students                                 Established initial plans and contacts

Dental School                                         Provide Dental Trainees

Missionary Training School                    Do Circumcisions

COVID Musings

The following is the Conclusions of the book I finished during COVID-19 quarantine here in the Philippines. The book is Missions in Samaria.

Conclusions

I am writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic.Samaria Front Cover On one side the disease drives us apart. It places us in our own homes, physically distanced and masked. We may live in voluntary quarantine, or in enhanced quarantine, or in lock-down. And yet it can also tear down barriers. When faced with a common curse, if you would prefer such language, we begin to identify the commonality that we have as human beings. Before, we may focus on our differences, but the common enemy can lead us to recognizing our commonality. It can drive reconciliation.

Yet it doesn’t have to happen. The Roman threat did not really bring the Jews and Samaritans together. Today, we still find many people trying hard to make barriers higher— blaming political, national, or ethnic groups for the virus and the suffering we are undergoing during this disease event. Self-labeled Christians appear to be as prone to this as anyone else. Nations are being blamed for the problem, right or wrong. But clearly wrong is the temptation of some to blame people of certain ethnicities tied, no matter how loosely to those nations. If a common experience, a common enemy, cannot bring us to break down our prejudices, what will? And as Christians, if the example of Christ of building bridges (to Samaritans, Gentiles, publicans and sinners, to religious elite) cannot inspire us as Christians to do likewise, than what would inspire us?

Perhaps this is a good time— many of us have some time right now— to think about what are our Samarias? Who are the Samaritans in our lives? How can we be different in the future to reach out to them, tear down barriers, and create beautiful moments of reconciliation, regardless of the fear and anger that appears to dominate our society. There was a study that came out a few years ago that looked at various forms of written media, in the English language for approximately a century. The researchers identified different feeling words and their prevalence. The researchers discovered that most feeling words declined over the decades, except one. That one is FEAR. It grew throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Fear is a God-given emotion. We are called upon to have courage through fear, rather than called to not feel fear. One of the great fears is “Fear of the Other.” <Endnote 13>

However, when Jesus spoke to His disciples, now described as Apostles (“sent out ones,” ambassadors/missionaries of Christ) Jesus said that they will receive power from the Spirit of God. From there they would be able to serve in their apostolic role as missionaries, witnesses of the good news of Christ, starting at home (Jerusalem), and Judea (moving out into the broader neighborhood), and Samaria (those people you once wanted fire from heaven rained down upon) and even to the ends of the world (the most terrifying and alien places). In all of those places, God will already be there waiting for them, and providing power for them.

I don’t believe God has changed in this. Do you?

The Cheshire Church

The following is a quote from the book by James F. Engle and William A. Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Who can fault legendary evangelist Dwight L. Footnotes: The Cheshire CatMoody, who captured the mood of evangelicals at the end of the nineteenth century in his declaration, “I look upon the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” In other words, all hopes of transforming society with the gospel were dashed, in his eyes, until Christ’s return in glory, leaving only one option, the lifeboat— a single-minded focus on evangelism as the mission of the church.

While few would echo the words of Moody and his contemporaries today, we still hear a distinct but largely unrecognized carryover. Ever since the late 1800s, dominant evangelical voices have called for accelerated church planting to evangelize the maximum number of unreached in the shortest possible period of time. The return of Christ became the dominant motivation for missions— only this return would bring about the transformation that the gospel required. The only human effort required was an announcement of the message. ….

There never has been a dispute that evangelism is indispensable as the first step in making disciples in all nations, but now voices were heard calling for the first time for completion of world evangelization in this generation. It would almost seem as if the future world and the ultimate victory of Christ had become dependent on human initiative. Little wonder that evangelicals were quick to embrace the wonders of a technological age and to mobilize Christian resources in an unprecedented way. In the process, it became tempting to disregard the essence  of the Great Commission …. where it is abundantly obvious that human efforts are futile, or at least inadequate,without the convicting, regenerating and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, among those who referred to themselves as evangelicals, there was almost total silence in response to God’s call for social justice to alleviate the burdens of ignorance, poverty and hunger, racism, the loss of cultural identity, and other forms of oppression (Amos 5:21-24, Luke 3:10-14; 4:18-21). Oss Guinness prophetically observed that the outcome of this silence is a church that has lost its impact by becoming “privately engaging, socially irrelevant.”

Guinness uses the analogy of the Cheshire Cat in the famous story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In this fable, the cat gradually loses its identity until all that remains is its famous lingering grin. So it is with the church, which by and large now has only the ‘lingering grin, ‘ a surface indicator of a privatized faith without moral and social impact. In so doing, the church has dug its own grave, while the smile lingers on.

(Pages 64-65.  Os Guinness quote is from “The Gravedigger File”)

… Not Inspire Them with a Passion for Political Change.

There has been an enduring belief that Christian missionaries, during the colonial era, often served as de facto operatives of the colonial powers. It is understandable why this belief would exist and persist. British missionaries, for example, would commonly serve in lands that were under the British flag. Commonly, but not always, being a British citizen in British colonial lands would be easier than being a British missionary serving in Spanish colonies, or regions that were not colonized. As such, missionaries may be rather pleased if their nation expands its colonial holdings since it provides potential new places to work.

But that is not the whole story. Often missionaries were seen as being a bit treasonous. That is, they were seen as undermining their home country. Again, this view is understandable. Missionaries were doing things for the benefit of the local people that, to the eyes of colonial powers could undermine their control over the people. Colonial nations and companies wanted the colonized to be compliant. That meant they sought to avoid education, or sociological stressors that could lead to angering traditionalists, or development revolutionaries.

Max Warren, in his book “Social History and Christian Mission” (SCM Press, 1967) speaks of some of this. He uses the example of the Serampore Trio (Careys, Wards, and Marshmans) in the Bengal region of India. For those familiar with the story. William Carey, a British citizen, was harassed by the East India Company during the early years of his stay. His desire to convert the natives to Christianity was seen as bad for business, and therefore bad for England. For a time he ministered in the Danish colony of Serampore to avoid arrest and deportation by his own country.  Years later there was a change of heart and he was seen as an asset to British colonial leadership. Generally, however, this was a change in colonial leadership rather than change in Carey.

It wasn’t, however, just the colonial leaders who were concerned. Warren uses the case of Sydney Smith, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Smith who wrote considerably to the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal, in the early 19th century. The following is quotes from Warren’s book (Chapter 3, excerpts  from pages 60-63), who in turn quotes several times Smith’s writings:

After a number of caustic references, he (Smith) dismissed as folly the idea of sending missions to India because of

‘the danger of insurrection from the prosection of the scheme, the utter unfitness of the persons employed in it, and the complete hopelessness of the attempt while pursued under such circumstances as now exist.’

It is interesting to note his concern with the ‘danger of insurrection.’ This concern, widely shared as we shall see throughout the century, needs for its full  understanding an awareness of the almost romantic attachment of the nineteenth century Englishman to the idea of ‘our Indian Empire.’     ….   The passionate anger engendered by the Indian Mutiny showed our jealous fear of losing that empire. The ethical idealism of the Indian Civil Service showed our responsibility at its best. At all times India was felt to be vital to British interests.   ….  Sydney Smith, in this respect at any rate, gave expression to a suspicion which led countless political officers in Asia and Africa to view the missionary with a slightly jaundiced eye, and when (as most frequently happened) the missionary had got there first, to view him as a potential security risk. …

At least we may be very certain that down until 1947 and the subsequent celebrations of Independence, virtually every such political officer would fervently have endorsed Sydney Smith’s statement that

If we wish to teach the natives a better religion, we must take care to do it in a manner which will not inspire them with a passion for political change.

But he dropped to a rather lower level when he went on to say that missionaries

would deliberately, piously, and conscientiously expose our whole Eastern empire to destruction for the sake of converting half-a-dozen Brahmins, who after stuffing themselves with rum and rice, and borrowing money from the missionaries would run away and cover the Gospel and its professors with every species of impious ridicule and abuse.’

We see there a continuing preoccupation with the empire. …

There we may leave Sydney Smith simply observing that in two respects he did, albeit with some unnecessary malice, help to form an image of the missionary as being, somewhat paradoxically, a stupid and presumptuous person, and at the same time a threat to the security of the Empire. These elements in the stereotype endured. In passing it may be noticed how very closely they coincide with the portrait of Christians painted by Celsus and other antagonists in the early centuries.

Again, this is simply a case study of a broader view that missionaries undermined the colonial power’s hold on colonial lands.

… And in some ways they may have been correct. The Serampore Trio did, arguably, have a role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. They did take seriously the education of the Bengali, both men and women, and the case could be made that this work did breed new ideas that ultimately led to revolution.

So suppose Sydney Smith and others were correct and that Christian missionaries did promote attitudes and beliefs that would lead to insurrection, does that mean they were doing wrong? I believe not. Their call is to serve God, not empire. As British citizens, in the case of the Serampore Trio, it would be quite inappropriate, legally speaking, to lead a revolution against the British Empire. It would, however, be equally inappropriate to instill a passive acquiescence to the status quo (much like some of the Christian education of slaves in the US in the early 19th century that sought to ensure and justifyu the maintaining of the economic system of Black slavery. Christianity was expressed in terms of maintaining the status quo.

This is the challenge. A Christian is a citizen of heaven and of one’s nation. A Christian missionary has those citizenships, but also is a guest of a different government.

It is very tempting to confuse roles. And the confusion is often in the extremes. A missionary may try to avoid all politics and focus on the word of God. But doing so, can in fact be teaching people to disconnect from the world they are in. It is not surprising that many missionary receiving countries have Evangelical populations that have little involvement with social ills and provide no common voice against corruption. On the other hand, it is also not the calling of a missionary to be a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow. It is further not the role of missionary to push his or her own political agenda on the people he serves. (This last point I see a fair bit as the weird and curious politics of popular American Evangelicalism often gets brought with the missionary to the mission field where it doesn’t really belong. Of course, the answer is not necessarily to be politically neutral either.)

I would still say that if one has to be unfaithful, be unfaithful to one’s country. One’s country is one’s place of birth, but God’s work is one’s calling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man of the Sun

Man of the Sun. That was his name— ironic that he

File:Lovis Corinth - Der geblendete Simson - Google Art Project.jpg
Lovis Corinth – Der geblendete Simson

had not seen the sun in many months, and would never see it again. A cruel joke of a name. But there were many cruel jokes.

People would listen to his every word with deep reverence. Now he was a laughingstock.

His fabled strength was only matched by his many weaknesses.

He was favored by God— gifted beyond his peers. Born to lead a nation, but now he had to be led by a child.

He embraced freedom that few of his time could dream of, but now was in chains.

He was so clever– none dare disagree. But now the cleverness is gone. He was established to be “the man of the sun,” but he could not bring light or life… only death.

And so all he could do, a final offering to the One who made him, was destruction— a sad yet fitting end.

 

 

The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own… https://rightingamerica.net/rape-sexual-harassment-and-more-the-cedarville-stories-are-multiplying/?fbclid=IwAR3w4PvmDPtu5fcnddvHU_EtiR1P534Vdd3PsOu0NVUvx5ZfJlSsFNt5CUQ

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.

…..

So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Can You Do Good Pastoral Counseling With Bad Pastoral Theology?

I decided to move some articles from an old blog of mine on Pastoral Theology. That is why some of my posts here are more about pastoral counseling and theology rather than “classic” missions. But since I am in missions and am an administrator at a pastoral counseling center, it is not NOT missions. 

I think this is a good question. I believe the answer to this question is YES!! I have certainly seen people who do a good job with pastoral counseling whose pastoral theology seems… inadequate. Pastoral Theology is Cyclic, Reflective, and founded on a good Theological base and on Experience.

So what are a couple of risks to pastoral counseling when one has poor pastoral theology?

  1. One’s pastoral counseling role is limited. This is if the reflection side is limited by poor or limited theology. Consider the case of Naaman the leper in the Bible. In the story, the servant girl of Naaman was able to give some wise guidance to him through his wife that there was a man in Israel who could help him. It seems as if she did not know much more than this. She did not know his name, or location. Possibly she did not know that much about the Mosaic Law or of ethics… but she knew what she she needed to tell in that specific occasion. Later in the story, other servants of Naaman also give some wise counsel. They were not even people of the Jewish faith, presumably, but they drew from good sagely wisdom that was well established in the Near East at that time. If Naaman was willing to do great tasks on the uncertain hope to be healed, why not do something easy if asked (that may take just a wee bit of humility)? These people were able to give good (pastoral) counseling but most likely their range of effectiveness would be limited.
  2. If one was doing something wrong in pastoral counseling, it is likely that one would perpetuate the mistake over and over again. The inability to learn and grow in this case would be due to poor reflection. One does not learn and grow. The story that comes to mind was a church I used to attend where at the prayer meeting, different ill people would be brought up to be prayed over. Many of them were considered to be “terminal cases.” However, in the prayer the request was that they be fully healed (not healed through death, but healed from death). The prayers were actually not so much a request but a demand. “God you said that you would do whatever we ask you to do, so we declare _________ as healed by the power of your name.” Ironically, several of these prayers were followed in a matter of days by that person’s death. I kept waiting for the members of the group to dwell on the fact that their seemed to be a powerful disconnect between their theology of God (the idea that God has obligated Himself to subvert His will to our will whenever we choose) and what God actually did.

So, Yes, good pastoral counseling can be done by those with poor pastoral theology. However, I believe that good pastoral theology increases the range of one’s pastoral counseling skills, and decreases the amount of repeating the same errors.

Empathy and Altruism

What is Empathy?

 

“Empathy” was first used as a technical term in psychology by E. B. Titchener in the 1920s. It was developed from the Greek word “empatheia” meaning “feeling into.” In practice it is commonly used to express a person’s ability to “perceive the subjective experience of another.” <Goleman, 98> A more technical (and rather philosophical) definition for empathy is “using one’s imagination as a tool so as to adopt a different perspective in order to grasp how things appear (or feel)” to someone else. <Matravers, 15>

 

It has been common to break up empathy into three major categories. The three are interrelated but one can see where it is of value to see them as separate. The first is Cognitive Empathy. This is understanding the perspective of the other. The second is Emotional Empathy. This is feeling the pain of another. The third is Compassionate Empathy. This is a connection to the other in such a way as to be motivated to respond. <Heartmanity>

 

Rather than saying they are three types of empathy, it may be more correct to say that they are three aspects of it— Head, Heart, and Hands. Ethical response comes from action linked to compassionate empathy.

 

Generally, we see something as commendable in a person if it is both ethical (morality correct— a tough thing to define in some cases), and based on proper motivation. The Anti-hero may do what is right, but do so for the wrong reasons. An employee may do what is right but because of fear or need of money. We would generally say that someone’s behavior is commendable if both the action and the motivation are commendable. A commendable action motivated by compassion would generally be seen commendable or speaking well of the person.

 

It is noteworthy that the primary emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. Commonly, it is expressed that Jesus acts to help people driven to such actions by compassion (or compassionate empathy).

 

Empathy and its Relationship to Altruism

 

But what happens if compassion is sullied? What if motivation for acts of kindness is, ultimately, selfish. Ayn Rand, the developer of the philosophical perspective known as Objectivism, has argued that actions that appear altruistic (motivated by unselfish compassion) are in fact driven by self-interest. As such, to say that a person is better because he acts from a motivation of compassion rather than from self-interest is flawed. In fact, one could even argue that the opposite is true. The one who acts openly from self-interest is superior to one who PRETENDS to do so unselfishly due to compassionate empathy. To admit to self-interest is to be honest, without deception.

 

I have been rather surprised at how many Christians (American Evangelical Christians at least) are quite comfortable with Objectivism. On the face of it, at least, it appears to be wholly unchristian. I suppose one could make the argument that since we are Fallen Creatures, we cannot act unselfishly— only God can. However, Objectivism seems to revel in that fallenness. The Bible certainly commends sacrificial love, mercy, and compassion, as well as seeking as best one can to embrace godly heart, mind, and actions. It is hard to see enlightened self-interest coming anywhere near to embracing such goals.

 

But is it true? When we say that we act from empathy/compassion, is that a fraud? Is altruism a flawed viewpoint? Philosophically, Objectivism has been challenged, and especially in the area of altruism. I wish I still had the article that was in a book that I lent to someone who never returned it (perhaps the person kept it in an acted of self-interest). The article brought up numerous points challenging the objectivist view of altruism. It had many good points, most of which I had, sadly, forgotten. However, one major point was pretty basic. The objectivist view of altruism is essentially unprovable and unassailable, because it does not lend itself to testing. It has some of the same qualities as some Freudian presuppositions regarding motivation and development. It is nigh impossible to determine true causation for actions.

 

Suppose Al (short for Altruist) was walking along a road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He sees a man who was attacked and injured by robbers. He feels compassion and takes the man to an inn and cares for him, and pays the innkeeper to continue to provide care. Was he altruistic? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Maybe he did it in hopes of getting praise from other people. Maybe he did it due to fear of shame if some found that he did not provide care. Maybe he hoped to be rewarded financially from the victim at a later date. Maybe he was addicted to the dopamine rush he gets from doing something for someone else. Maybe in a bit of enlightened self-interest he responds based on the belief that caring for the injured would ultimately be a key component for making the world a better and safer place and this would ultimately benefit himself. So is Al an altruist or a self-centered? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing and in fact if Al says “the real reason” he does something, another person can come along and (ala’ Freud) say that that is not the REAL reason or motivation at all. Rand’s opinion is not much more than opinion since it has no firm base except its own statement that it is true.

 

There is no way to tell if we act compassionately and with self-disinterest or not. Or so we could say in the past. But there have been psychological experiments, described by both Goleman and Matravers, that point to the fact that we often act in ways that seemingly cannot be explained by objectivist beliefs. This is not to say that the evidence is so overwhelming that it is impossible to interpret the results in line with a rejection of altruism, but rather that the experiments provide quite compelling evidence that people can and do act from altruistic, compassionate motivations (at times at least). You are welcome to read the experiments themselves themselves. Malavers especially lists several of these experiments, and one can evaluate them if one wishes.

 

Again, why would some Christians have problems with this? Not sure, but some Christians focus on a Creation view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as created in God’s image (Imago Dei). As such, it should be anticipated that humans love, demonstrate empathy, and demonstrate mercy that reflects in some genuine way God our Creator. Some others, however, focus on a Fall view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as fallen beings in which the image of God is now missing, or so distorted that everything we do is flawed, at least in motivation. But it seems dubious to say that accepting one view means wholly rejecting the other. The truth seems to exist in the tension of these extremes. Likewise, looking at humans as self-serving and as self-sacrificial altruists is not contradictory… but does point out the complexity of people. Any model to narrowly explains human thought, feelings, and motivation should be complex, not reductionistic.

 

Can Empathy be Misapplied?

 

But can empathy be misapplied? I think so. I have noticed a lot of lack of sympathy by Christians for people of other groups. Often these groups would fit into a category that Christians would see as sinners (meaning sinning in specific ways that in some manner goes beyond the “normal sinfulness” of the larger culture). In some cases it is a lack of sympathy for people of different beliefs or values. Some Christians even seem to pride themselves in their lack of empathy (cognitive, emotional, or compassion) for such groups. Why would that be? One theory to consider is misplaced or misapplied empathy. First, it is possible that some Christians think that they should empathize with God rather than with people they consider to be sinners. For such people, a statement like “But for the grace of God go I,” a statement supposed to suggest empathy (or at least pity) morphs into “Better them than I.” Or a statement like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” results in a lot of hate and a little love.

 

Second, however, it is possible to believe that one is displaying empathy but be dead wrong. It is possible to wrongly perceive what is going on in someone else’s life. When we demonize, stereotype, or caricaturize a group, we are likely to empathize with our own image of the other rather than the actual person. We are especially prone to do this with God since our relationship with God is mediated through secondary sources rather than direct interaction (for the most part). Some see God as one who is looking for a blood price to turn away His wrath. While this metaphor may point to valued truth, it is one-sided. But so is the other side as God who is only to be understood in terms of forgiveness and love. God is more complex than these one-sided images. If we are complex, how much more complex should we expect God to be?

 

Empathy is always incomplete because our ability to perceive another as she truly is and as she responds to the world will always be limited.

 

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

 

Matravers, Derek. Empathy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017.

 

“The Three Kinds of Empathy.” https://blog.heartmanity.com/the-three-kinds-of-empathy-emotional-cognitive-compassionate

Jonah– a parable

photo of driftwood on seashore
Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

The Woodcarver saw it on the beach.  It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.

 

The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.

It will be worth it… you just wait and see.