What Do We Do With All Them Pagan Holidays

Image result for pumpkins halloween

Okay. I am here to help. Social media gets pretty confusing around Halloween time. People are, again, saying how evil it is for Christians to celebrate the day. In a few weeks more articles will come out talking about how Pagan Christmas is, and then three months later the same for Easter. No one complains about American Thanksgiving– a harvest festival much like those practiced by Pagan cultures around the world. If you don’t find that strange, consider that Halloween is lambasted annually for being related (a bit loosely) with Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival, after all. And no one seems to complain about the “Fourth of July” despite its use of fireworks— a pagan instrument used by cultures for centuries to scare away evil spirits. With all of these inconsistencies, I would like to offer a bit of help to know how best to deal with all of these different “pagan holidays.”

I would like to suggest a range of Christian responses or non-Christian responses to the issue of celebrations. <Note: for the last 15 years I have lived in the Philippines where Halloween is not celebrated much, being a distant second to Undas or All Souls Day. Therefore, I haven’t had involvement in Halloween in many many years. You can decide if that makes me a better or worse opinion.>

Possible Good Christian Responses.

#1.  Celebrate every day. All days are created by God so every day is holy and worthy of celebration.

#2.  Celebrate no days. Arguably this is just the same as the previous one. To celebrate each day means to treat each day as no more special than any other. So, in essence, one is celebrating or honoring no day as special. Since primitive Christianity gave us no days that MUST be honored above other days, celebrating no days is certainly a viable option.

#3.  Celebrate some days. This one probably needs to be sub-divided.

#3A.  Celebrate those days that have become considered to be “Christian Holidays.” As Christians we share a common heritage— a two thousand year heritage. When we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Lent, Pentecost, Epiphany, and many many other days in the liturgical calendar, we connect in some small way with our brothers and sisters in faith around the world and across time. That seems a good enough reason by itself to celebrate. I don’t feel like we have to triplecheck to make sure that no pagan, neo-pagan, or satanic group is trying to lay claim to the day. If Christians decided to view July 19 (to grab a day somewhat at random) as a new Christian holiday, I don’t think we have to be worried that some group has already messed it up.

#3B.  Celebrate those days that are culturally or civically significant that are not “anti-Christian.” We are part of a culture and a community that goes beyond the church. We are not only citizens of heaven, but citizens of nations, and products of history. Therefore, days that honor civil institutions, or historical events certainly can be celebrated. In fact, if Christians do not celebrate these, it could be argued that this makes Christianity alien to the culture and foreign to the nation in which it exists. Christianity is suppose to fulfill culture, or perhaps subvert it, but certainly not destroy it or ignore it.

#3C.  Celebrate those days that are one’s neighbors celebrate even if they are “non-Christian.” We know meat offered to Zeus is not tainted by Greek gods. We know that each day is created pure and good by God. We can redeem any symbol we wish, and we can avoid any symbol that we are uncomfortable with. If Christians were able to “Christianize” an instrument of torture, murder, and shame (the “cross”) we can certainly Christianize or redeem any symbol. The roots of symbols have no power any more than Zeus has power.

Possible Bad Christian Responses

  1.  Picking one of the options above and then telling every other Christian that it is the only moral choice. You can exercise your freedom in Christ or not, but it is not your place to tell everyone else what they can and cannot exercise.
  2. Listening to one-sided religious salespersons and taking what they say as the “gospel truth.” Most concerning to me are those who are taking the words of alleged Satanists as the truth when it comes to Halloween. Think about that statement– Why would we? In fact, we are missing the point. Those humorous quotes of Satanists expressing shock that Christians celebrate some aspects of Halloween are not understood for what they really are. They are attempts by a fringe group to appropriate a Druidic (non-Satanic) holiday and then push Christians away from celebrating All Saints Day, and All Hallows Eve. Of course, some Christians go the other way and assure us “It is all harmless” because… well, they did it as kids so it must be okay. I feel we can do better than this.

It seems like the articles that show up on social media right now embrace a certain ignorance and a touch of cowardice. I think we need brave scholars in Christianity, rather than ignorant cowards.

 

 

Nostalgic Christianity and the Ambiguity of History

nostalgiaOver the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.

I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.

But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.   Ecclesiastes 7:10

One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.

A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.”  For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.

For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.

  1.  A feeling of lack of control or power.  When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious.  This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
  2. Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
  3. Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.

The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners  cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?

I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.

Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms:  restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.

Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).

Unfriendly Media as God’s Instrument

For years it was happening to THEM. THEY were in the spotlight, not US. But things change… and it is about time.

For years the Catholic Church has taken a lot Image result for political cover-upof hits for cases of priests taking sexual advantage of parishioners… especially (but not exclusively) young ones.  I must be honest that I have heard some from the Evangelical tradition revel in these stories. Multiple times I have given the warning about this sort of “schadenfreude”:

“Be careful about embracing this attitude. We know that we have problems as well. Right now the cameras and microphones are all pointed at the Catholic Church, but one day they will swing around and point at us. We should be found doing a better job than they.”

But we haven’t done a better job. We still tend follow the age-old practice:

  • We don’t hold leaders accountable.  “Aren’t they Men of God?”
  • When leaders sin, we cover it up. “We aren’t supposed to bring our hand against ‘God’s annointed,’ right?”
  • When cover up is impossible, go to witchhunt mode to identify and punish a scapegoat. In so doing, the system and overall leadership are shielded from responsibility and need for change.

And then the situation repeats. It reminds me of a cartoon (I really wish I could remember the context) where a bad and expected thing happens to someone being careless, followed by a panel showing that same person expressing relief, “I’m sure glad that will never happen again!” while making no changes to his behavior.

I actually think it is this pattern that makes the church look schizophrenic at times. They treat sinners as saints at times and then treat them as demons at other times. It is hard to effectively create wise and rehabilitative Christian discipline when we keep yielding to the desire to either cover-up or witchhunt.

Eventually, the media comes in and starts digging around. In the US, some digging into the sexual abuse in the Southern Baptists (my denomination) and in a number of missions organizations have come to light.

There has been positive signs of response in recent years as some leaders have owned up. Still, there seems to be a couple of responses that are still quite troubling:

  • Church members still often yield to the temptation to sympathize with those in power over the powerless. (Since this happens in politics as well, I have to assume this is a sociological malady, rather than one merely linked to churches. In High School, there appears to be a “natural” temptation to blame the one who “rats out” the bully, rather than blame the bully in the first place.)
  • Church members (and political folk) tend to blame the media for unfavorable portrayals of their church or political party.

On this latter point, media is blamed as portraying “fake news” even though commonly it is not fake— they simply don’t like the spin. Sadly, these Christians have no issue with “spin.” In fact, many love spin as long as the news spins their own way. When it doesn’t spin their way, they blame the media as opposing God’s work— demonizing the institution or at least the specific broadcaster.

But here is a different thought.    <Clearing my throat for a minute.>

What if news media who criticize abuse and other sinful behavior in the church are actually serving God?

This should hardly shock anyone. After all, many Christians, and many Christian leaders will say that “God is my judge,” meaning that they do not feel that they are answerable to anyone else. But if God is judge, what methods might God use to execute judgment? If the church does not embrace its role to critique and hold people accountable, then God must look outside of the church to do that.

This brings up a second, perhaps more troubling, thought.

What if “friendly” news media, including so-called “Christian News” is then on the side of ‘darkness’?

After all, if God is looking to hold the church accountable, then institutions that cover up the failings of the church, pandering to the messages that the church members want to hear while failing to carry out its God-given role to hold the church accountable, are simply not on God’s side.

If this is the case, and it seems pretty evident to me at least that this is exactly what is happening, are we willing to say, “Thank God for news media who shine a light on our failings and hold us accountable!”?

A recent article by Craig Thompson points out the situation with Evangelical missions. Click on the title if you wish to read it:

Their Abuse Happened over 25 Years Ago, So Why Were Those MKs Still Talking about It on the Today Show?

Salvation as a Human Right? (pt 1 of 3)

I have been reading the essay, “Women Confronting State-Instigated Violence” by Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana. This is not normally the type of writing I would be reading, but it was part of a book that was gifted to me by Father Terry from Aglipay Central Theological Seminary. The book is a collection of essays and poems of female theologians in the Philippines. So far it is an interesting read. The writer of this particular essay noted three fairly rapid transitions that have occurred in looking at an addressing Violence Against Women (VAW).

One phase goes back a few decades, particularly the 1970s, where VAW was seen in terms of CRIMINAL JUSTICE. To address concerns regarding violence against women, laws had to be changed, and the way existing laws are interpreted or applied also had to change. In the early 1990s there was a transition towards seeing things as a PUBLIC HEALTH issue. Violence is a symptom of an overall sociological sickness that needs to be addressed much like many other illnesses. One can’t simply punish or quarantine those who act violently, one must root what causes violence and creates the environment where such violence flourishes. In other words, one must discover and cause of the contagion, and eradicate the supporting environment and carriers.

By the mid-1990s, things had changed further and there was a growth of seeing violence in terms of HUMAN RIGHTS. The way women are to be treated is not simply a matter of legal violation, culturo-social malady, but is a supracultural violation of what should be expected based on, well, being human.

I have known some Christians who balk at this term “human rights,” noting that such rights are generally agreed upon by mutual consent, rather than based on anything indubitable. In a sense this is obvious, but such a statement is not particularly useful. Of course— we are born without warning labels, warrantees, or operating manuals. As such, we have three choices. One choice is to say that since we come with no contractual obligations, we can act however we want. People can be bought and sold as chattel, tortured or blessed at the whim of those who who have the power to have their wills acted out. If that choice is undesirable (and I certainly think it is) another option would be as a people to agree that there are certain inalienable rights. Perhaps these can be seen as derived from natural law, or perhaps they can be seen as drawn from cultural values. Either way, it is a human-based agreement. A third option is to see human rights coming from God. With this view, human rights exist because God seesthem existing supraculturally, and has then made them known to us through divine or special revelation.

For Christians, such revelation would be seen, primarily, as the Bible. The Bible says that certain behaviors are right and certain are wrong. They can be seen in terms of Law— matter of keeping the law or breaking it. Another way would be to look at them as sociologically healthy (“It is not just the law, it is a good idea,” societally.) But it can also be seen a a statement of basic rights. We have a basic right to not be murdered, to not be stolen from, to be trained up in a nurturing family and community. Anything less than this is a violation of the rights that we have as revealed by God.

These three perspectives do not change reality. Rather they change perception. VAW exists and that existence is unaffected by how it is viewed. However, a different view can lead to a different response.

So I was thinking about these three views as it relates to Salvation— a strange thing to think about, I grant you. I wondered how salvation may be seen in terms of Criminal Jusitice, Public Health, and Human Rights.

Continued in the next post

Learning a New Term: “Symbolic Interactionism”

I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)

  1.  People act towards objects  (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).

  2. These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.

  3. Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.

I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them.  I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.

Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,”  why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.

For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols. Image result for the devil

For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger.  When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.

Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why?  Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)

But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.

Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.

While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.

  • We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
  • We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
  • We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.

And the last is perhaps the most important.

  • We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.

In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.

Religiopolitical Power

Sometimes things are funny in hindsight. Just about two years ago now, the campaign for the US presidential election was in full swing. Some people lobbied me to vote for one candidate or another. I have no problem with that. While I have never tried to convince someone to vote the way I do in secular politics (although I can’t say the same in church and academic politics), if a person has a passion in that area, why not?

What was more interesting were friends who did not say they were supporting a specific candidate but said that I “just had to vote.” I had told them my intention to not vote. They said that this wasn’t acceptable— that one has an obligation to vote. I noted, quite correctly I believe, that abstaining is still a vote. I further noted that one of the freedoms provided by the US Constitution is the right to not vote (some countries don’t have this, sadly). A couple of them kept trying to convince me to vote anyway.

I guess it wasn’t until later I began wondering why they tried so hard to get me to vote. One theory would be that these people were concerned about the break-down of democracy due to apathy of the populace. But I felt like I made it pretty clear that my not voting was actually quite a passionate “vote” against all 1st, 2nd, and 3rd party candidates. There were political action movements out there like “Rock the Vote” that were trying to get young people to embrace voter participation. Somehow  I could not imagine these individuals joining “Rock the Vote.”

I eventually came up with a second theory that I feel has better traction. These people and myself share a somewhat conservative Evangelical stance religiously. In theory that should mean nothing— just a bit of uninteresting trivia. However, there was (and I guess still is) an odd belief in the US that people of this religious grouping should vote a certain way. If there was a political party whose platform supported, non-coercively, an honest attempt to apply the teachings of Christ in a pluralistic civil society, then perhaps all Evangelicals SHOULD vote that way. But alas, no such party exists— no party comes close. I now wonder if they would have stopped trying to convince me if I said something to the effect, “I am not voting the way you assume I will. In this year of crappy choices, so my vote will certainly negate or weaken your vote in one way or another. ”

I like this 2nd theory. But why would these people think that my religious stance would then impel me to vote for a specific political party (or party candidate) when none comes close to supporting my understanding of the words of Christ? The answer that I always get back to is:

POWER

Evangelical Christians want to be seen as having political power, and so providing a voting bloc does this. Even a small percentage of people who can be counted on election after election to vote in a certain predetermined way gives that people group power status. ‘

Here in the Philippines, the largest religious group is the Roman Catholics. The next three groups are of somewhat similar, although relatively small percentages — Evangelical/Protestant Christians, Muslims, and Iglesia ni Christo (INC). This third group, INC, is a Filipino group whose roots are of Christian origin, although its teachings far diverge from historical Christian creeds. Although small in comparison to the Catholic church, it holds a considerable amount of political clout. This is because members of INC vote about 85% in line with what their leaders tell them to do. This is quite out of line with the other groups, in which there is a considerable lack of cohesion in voting.  Additionally, INC leaders are generally pretty good not only with getting out their voting bloc, but also knowing which ways the political winds are blowing to make sure that in most elections they are on the winning side. This adds credibility to their political power.

Evangelical Christians have tried the same thing here as well. Each election, a list comes out of all of the Evangelicals running for public office. These are given out to other Evangelicals to “guide their vote.” However, to this point, Evangelicals just don’t vote that cohesively in the Philippines. Understandable– one prominent political figure, who is a religious leader, kept running for high political office, and I almost wish that I could vote here just so I could vote against him.  Maybe that is just me, however. I always find far more people I want to vote against than vote for.

Political power is an unworthy thing for Christian groups to seek. The history of the church and secular power has been mixed at best— at worst, it has been a disaster. Non-intuitively, political power of Christians is commonly DISEMPOWERING. We are seeing this in the US where latching onto one party has led to people sacrificing a lot of standards to hold onto the presidency, congress, or get another justice in SOCUS. When a political party knows that they can count on a group’s vote, that party soon understands that their actions are unchecked– no accountability of the party to a religious group means that the religious group has been disempowered without knowing it.

As a Baptist missionary, I have roots in the Religious Dissenters. I hope we will return again to our Dissenter roots, and join with our Anabaptist cousins in having a deep distrust of political power.  Our call is to see God’s Kingdom (not ours) come, His will be done on earth, just as it is presently done in Heaven.

 

 

 

Christians and 21st Century Tribalism

“Tribalism” is a great word that has become bandied about in recent days. There are different definitions:

a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do      (Cambridge Dictionary)

loyalties that people feel towards particular social groups and to the way these loyalties affect their behaviour and their attitudes towards others.  (Collins Dictionary)

loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group  (Merriam-Webster website)

Drawing these things together one may say that:

Tribalism involves loyalty to one group that demonstrates itself in strongly positive feelings for that group, negative feelings or animosity for groups seen to be in competition, and behavior that serves as an outlet for those feelings.

Thus, tribalism is based on emotions and these emotions trigger behavior that may not make sense except in terms of such emotions. Consider the following situation. Suppose John is a member of the “Blue Team.” And as such sees himself as opposed to the “Green Team” and all members of that group.  (If you know your Byzantine history, you may recognize these groups.) Consider the following situations and the tribalistic responses.

  • Blues have power and good things happen?  John credits the Blues.
  • Blues have power and bad things happen?  John excuses Blues (bad things happen despite their best efforts) and/or blames the Greens for undermining the work of the Blues.
  • Greens have power and good things happen? John credits Blues in their minority role, and/or disconnects the good from the activities of the Greens.
  • Greens have power and bad things happen? John blames the Greens.
  • Blues do things that are good? John sees the actions as evidence of Blues’ inherent virtue.
  • Blues do things that are bad? John sees them as “necessary,” to overcome the evils of the Greens.
  • Greens do things that are good? John recognizes that they were done of evil or self-serving motives by the Greens.
  • Greens do bad things? John sees that as evidence of the Greens’ inherent lack of virtue.

This sort of behavior has been around, perhaps, back to Babel. It is human nature. I would like to think that people find this sort of behavior to be a bit humorous. I would like to think that people who see others showing such knee-jerk responses on FB or other forms of social and public media to be rather… “funny.” But I am not so sure. Some seem to take this stuff seriously. Many of my friends seem to not see the inconsistencies — “not get the joke.”

Frankly, I don’t care all that much whether people take it seriously or not. Fanatical tribalism has been with us for a long, long time. There will always be some people who will react like John described above, because their focus is on power. They fear what it would be like not to have power… or to remain without power.

But what about us as Christians. Is that how we are supposed to act?

Well, in the Bible, there seems to be a general rejection of this form of tribalism. In the Hebrew Bible, this may not be as evident. The prophets could be quite brutal in their castigation of the surrounding nations. However, the prophets of Israel were at least as hard on their own people. Arguably they were more harsh with their words for their own people. They would complain about the immorality, corruption, idolatry of the “chosen people.” Why not focus more consistently on how much worse were the surrounding peoples? I believe itImage result for us versus them was because their focus was not on “tribalism,” promoting the IMAGE that Israel is better than everyone else. Rather, they were seeking to encourage Israel to be better, more holy, in FACT.

In the New Testament, this form of encouragement is far more clear. Very little time is spent in the New Testament to talk about how bad the Greeks and the Romans were. Yet if the NT writers were so inclined it would pretty easy to point out the many many moral flaws. of the peoples that Christians interacted with. And this would be even easier since Christians were a persecuted bunch— a people without power. Rather the writers appear to spend much more time attempting to follow the guidance of Jesus.

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.    (Matthew 7:1-5.  HCSB)

There is a whole industry of Bible scholars and ethicists who argue as to how to apply this passage. But, it seems to reject the foundational principles of toxic tribalism at least on an individual level. It seems, additionally, that the Apostles took the principles of Christ to a level of community as well. They focused on the call to righteous behavior of the body of Christ, rather than try to lift up the community by emphasizing the flaws of outsiders.

There does seem to be one exception. Jesus really went after the Scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel writers recorded so many strong words against the Pharisees that in the church, the term became a byword. There were occasional examples of Jesus having a more positive relationship with this group (such as Nicodemus), but the general tone was adversarial. In recent decades study of the writings of the rabbinical community of the 1st century has created considerable controversy. It was found that the Pharisees often were quite in agreement with Jesus on many issues. This has led some to believe that the Gospel writers were disconnected from the events of the life of Christ. After all, if they were eyewitnesses or had direct access to such witnesses, surely they would have seen the Pharisees in a much more positive light. Others also have questioned regarding Paul. His writings seem to provide an image that is harsher than reality. Perhaps Paul was never actually a Pharisee.

To me, the above issues are resolved if one rejects tribalism as a presumptive behavior. If one rejects it, then the Pharisees were seen more as partners. They share a common devotion to God and to His revelation. So Jesus was quite strong in His words of challenge to them. He was much less harsh with the Sadducees, with whom He had less in common, and even less harsh with other groups with whom He had less commonality.

Of course, in church history, things began to change. The change started with the Apologists in the 2nd century.  Aristides, for example, compared Christians to other groups such as Greeks, Pagans, and Jews. He showed Christians in a very positive light to the other groups. However, the purpose was neither primarily to “feel good about ourselves,” nor to tear down other groups. Rather, it was to show that Christians are good citizens of the Roman Empire and do not need to be persecuted. However, over the centuries, power politics began to dominate, and has continued to today.

So as Christians today, what should we do… when it comes to our relationships in the arenas of government and religion.

If our call is to behave in line with power politics, than tribalistic behavior is appropriate. We whitewash our own failures, and the failures of those we judge to be friends, and attack consistently the failures of others, and question their motives. This is the behavior of many cults— and many Christians as well.

If our call is to follow Christ, we focus on righteousness and on our own failures. We spend less focus on specks in the eyes of others. In fact, we may even applaud the virtues of others. This is a tougher path since we are not focusing on power in a human sense, but on being conformed to Christ. It means not putting our understanding of what is right through the filter of “are they for us or against us.”