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.

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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.”

 

 

Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.

 

 

Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.

 

The Patriotically Incorrect Missionary

When I was in college (30+ years ago) many of us were struck at the excesses of a movement that showed itself in the term “Political Correctness” or PC for short. It sought to avoid language that appeared to demean or sound judgmental. At its best, it reminded us to be careful with our language… reminding us words matter, and that they can both hurt or heal. I remember my time in the Navy where horrible, horrible language was often used for THEM… whoever “them” may be– at the time often women, homesexuals, or Iraqis. I remember suffering through a class at Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) where the instructor started the class with jokes– almost all of them starting with the “There is nobody who is ___________ here, is there?” One time, when the joke section went “open mike,” the guy who sat next to me raised his hand saying that he had a joke. When he got to the front of the classroom, he went into a five minute sermon on the destructiveness of jokes… and seemingly suggesting that all jokes are hurtful. He was “Booed” back to his seat. I can’t remember if I joined in the catcalls or not. But, I did find the joke time annoying, so I am not sure.

But at its worst, political correctness can force a sterile groupthink where free exchange of ideas is squashed in the name of tolerance. And as the term “political” implies in the name, there was often a political agenda where certain groups were protected while others were fair game. Sometimes it appears to actually do the opposite of its aim. I recall in college hearing of a college women’s volleyball team where they would describe some members as being “vertically challenged” rather than say “short.” To me, that is counterproductive since “short” may or may not be disparaging, but “vertically challenged” can only be viewed as derogatory. The SWOS story showed both sides of things where the politically correct appeared to reject any sort of group cohesion through irreverence, while the politically incorrect could be quite hurtful, and be annoyed that others get hurt, “not getting it.”

Right now in my home country (or perhaps ONE of my home countries) there is a balkanization, or new tribalism, that could be described in terms of being “patriotically correct.” When I was in the Navy, a friend of mine, also an officer, told me, “A weird thing happened to me yesterday. I was driving around and stopped for lunch, and this old guy began talking to me. When he learned that I was in the Navy, he said, ‘Thanks for your service to our country.’ I wanted to tell him, ‘I’m not seeking to serve my country out of some deep well of patriotic fervor. I am just doing my job.’ Of course I didn’t say that.” I found that story funny myself. Who would thank a person for just doing their job, and tie it to some sort of nationalism?

At least I found that funny until about 20 years later, more than a decade after leaving the Navy, when I started having people come up to me and say, “Thanks for your service to our country.” It seemed so strange. I did figure-eights in the Red Sea during the Gulf War while doing embargo operations. I can assure you that I have done much more to serve my country well (and other countries) as a missionary in the Philippines than I ever did in the Navy. But I can hardly say that. That seems to be Patriotically Incorrect. I am not anti-military. My son is considering joining the military and I am fine with that. I would be a proud parent. But I would be a proud parent if he went into something entirely different— neither greater nor lesser. That seems to be a politically incorrect view as well.

Recently, they have started putting NFL (American) football on TV here in the Philippines, and so after many years of not seeing it, I watch it on occasion. It is interesting that some of my friends in the US are boycotting NFL games. Boycotting in this case apparently means turning to a different channel. I have no problem with that. CFL can be fun to watch, and Rugby and Australian Rules Football are wonderful, arguably preferable, alternatives to American football. Apparently, this so-called boycotting is done because some athletes go down on one knee rather than stand at attention during the National Anthem. I can see the concern to some extent. Here in the Philippines, I always stand during the singing of “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine National Anthem, and join in the singing. It just seems like the respectful thing to do for a country that has welcomed me as a guest for over 14 years. But the irony with regards to the reaction to the NFL still strikes me… the use of an empty symbolic gesture to express anger about an empty symbolic gesture (making in fact that second gesture much less empty).

There seems to be a new tribalism, or at least an increase in it. It is understood by the old adage, referenced and castigated in the Bible, “Love your friends, and hate your enemies.” Clearly that is not what we are called to do… but it is hard especially when “tribal” battlelines are drawn. It is hard for us to do and hard for others to respond.

“God’s love, when it comes to us, obliges us to ‘love the neighbor.’ How is the person before us responding to this obligation? Responses can run the gamut from amoral anarchy to rigid perfectionism, when people are experiencing a broken relationship with God. On the other hand, in persons who have a sound relationship with God, there must be at least hints of a healthy sense of filial and agapic responsibility.” -Howard Stone “The Word of God and Pastoral Care,” page 47

Consider how that attitude of partiality might show it self in the table below in terms of our response to a person from the “One of Us” tribe doing something good, or somethin bad, versus our response to a member of the “One of Them” tribe.

Does something good or says something good

Does something bad or says something bad

“One of Us”

We congratulate and recognize the actions as tied to virtue

We attack or question motives of the accuser, and/or give benefit of the doubt to ‘our guy’

“One of Them”

We minimize or question motives

We judge and attack; and feel awfully good about it, and ourselves.

The problem is that this is really hugely immoral. Right and Wrong is no respecter of persons. Giving “benefit of the doubt” sounds godly, but it is not. Benefit of the doubt is only moral if it is given to all parties. That is, if a member of the “One of Them” tribe is charged with misbehavior, we should equally be open to giving benefit of the doubt. Additionally, if giving benefit of the doubt to the accused means disbelieving the accuser, that is dishonest. An honest response would be to take the matter seriously but bracket one’s person opinions as one seeks to determine the truth. Benefit of the doubt is a last resort, at best.

Drawing back to Missions, I believe missionaries should be to some extent Patriotically Incorrect. Missionaries should be first of all servants of God’s Kingdom, not some earthly kingdom— regardless of whether such a kingdom is nation-state, denomination, or organization. Missionaries shouldn’t be quick to bring along their political agendas into the mission field with them. I have heard TV preachers from the US that, for some reason, get broadcast in the Philippines. They end up sharing their wacky politics. But it is forgivable. I don’t suppose it is their fault that some group in the Philippines has the bad taste to rebroadcast. But some missionaries come over here and bring there politics with them. I have heard both American and Korean missionaries give their, “Why can’t you Filipinos be more like us” speech. Don’t understand that. No matter how passionate a missionary is for or against the 2nd Amendment, or “Obamacare” those issues are irrelevant in the Philippines. The Philippines is not under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution nor of the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, it does not matter to the Philippines whether the US is a “Christian Nation” or “The First Secular Nation.” Arguments could be made for both perspectives, but neither are relevant ourside of its borders.

Of course, how political a missionary should be with regards to their ministry country is harder to determine. I have heard some odd stories of missionary behavior. I heard of a missionary here in the Philippines who poured some (holy? blessed?) oil on a government leader’s chair as some sort of Christian magic to keep anyone that is religiously divergent from sitting in that seat as leader. That seems like an odd role for a missionary certainly, yet a missionary should stand up for the plight of the dispossessed and oppressed… and oppose abuses, both legal and illegal. Where a good line is, I don’t know. My own denomination is fairly apolitical most of the time in the Philippines, but I also work with a couple of denominations that are intensely political. I feel the ideal is between those extremes.

The Lord’s Prayer says that we are to pray that God’s Kingdom would come– His will be done, on earth as it (presently) is in heaven. The focus is on God’s will and the Kingdom of heaven, not on someone else’s ideology and political will. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that living out the Lord’s Prayer is Patriotically Incorrect.