Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

Father Jonadab

This is, with modest changes, the sermon I preached for our online quarantine church here for Father’s Day.

Good morning.

Happy Father’s Day. Please open your Bibles to Jeremiah 35. We don’t read Jeremiah very often and it is not used in sermons a lot. Yet it is actually the biggest book in the Bible. It has more words in it than even the Psalms. And God has a lot to say in it.

In Jeremiah chapter 35, Jeremiah is talking to a group of people known as the Rechabites. A lot of names are shared and they get confusing. But we can focus on one person and one group. The group is the Rechabites, an extended family or clan. The other is Jonadab. He was one of the ancestors of the Rechabites. The rest of the names are not that important. Let’s read it together:

Read Jeremiah 35:1-11

So here is the story, God tells the Prophet Jeremiah to bring the Rechabites to the temple and offer them wine. Arguably it is a nice thing to do. But in reality, it was a test. So Jeremiah takes some of the leaders of the Rechabites to the temple. When they get there, there is wine and cups all prepared and Jeremiah invites them to drink,.

But the text says they, as if all of them said the same thing, NO, we will not drink. He goes on to explain. Generations before, their ancestor, Jonadab had told his children. None of you are to plant vineyards or drink wine. Rather they are to live in tents. They say that because of this, the entire clan has followed this guidance and they cannot have wine even if Jeremiah the prophet invites them to. This is actually pretty impressive. It is not like Jonadab would hear about them drinking wine and yell at them later. Jonadab lived approximately 250 years before this. Generally, I don’t even know who my ancestors were 250 years ago, and certainly would not take their guidance seriously. How about you.

This seems like an odd story… but God had a purpose to it.

Read Jeremiah 35:12-17

God gives a prophetic message to Jeremiah. God says, see how things are. The Rechabites obey the command of their ancestor Jonadab. Yet, I have been telling the people of Israel generation after generation what they need to do. And they have not listened and have not obeyed. Now God is angry. The Rechabites faithfully honored and obeyed their ancestor… for 250 years… yet the people of Israel could not seem to honor and obey God from one generation to the next.

Jeremiah goes on to say, that God would bless the Rechabites for their faithfulness to Jonadab. But the people of Israel would be punished for their unfaithfulness to God.

What can we take from this story?

First Idea.  The obvious meaning is that we are supposed to be faithful to God. God said something… and He shouldn’t have to keep saying it over and over. As Christians, Jesus said “Love God. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Love your enemy.” God should not have to keep reminding us. Yet, Christians don’t have a great record in following this. We tend to find reasons to forget to be loving or rationalize why God’s commands don’t apply to us. God really shouldn’t have to threaten to punish us for being disobedient. He is God. God shouldn’t have to try so hard to be taken seriously by those who claim to follow Him. And that is a good message. If God says we should do something, we should do that. If God says not to do something, we should not do that.

But let’s consider two other possible messages in the story. One of these possible messages I believe is not correct. But the other, I think may be quite true.

I have heard some people say that this story tells us that we should always obey our fathers… or our grandfather… or our ancestors. That seems to make sense and it sounds good.

Children obey your parents. The problem is that much of the rest of the book of Jeremiah says the opposite. Much of the rest of the book says, Don’t obey your parents.

In fact in the chapter right before this, Jeremiah 34, we find the opposite. Jeremiah notes that the people of Jerusalem started rejecting the works of their ancestors and God was pleased… but then they changed their mind and started doing again what their ancestors had been doing and God was angry. The thing was that in this case, the ancestors were doing wrong and guiding their children and children’s children to do wrong as well. In several places Jeremiah said, “Your ancestors rejected God’s commands. Don’t be like them. Do not follow their guidance. Follow God instead.”

The Bible does say that we are to honor and obey our parents but that can never be used as an excuse to do what is evil. God is our heavenly Father and therefore is always the higher authority.

Years ago, my family were members of a church. The church seemed to be good, but the pastor started picking up some bad teachings. One Sunday morning he stood before the members of the church and said, “Always obey your pastor. Also do what your pastor says. Even if your pastor tells you to do something that is wrong, obey him, and God will bless you because you were obedient.” That was the day we realized that we had to leave the church. God is not impressed when you obey a pastor or a boss, or a mayor or a president, or a mother or a father who tells you to do what God says is wrong.

In Jeremiah 35, God blessed the Rechabites because they were faithful to a man of Faith. A godly man.

And we happen to know that because Jonadab is mentioned earlier in the Bible— in II Kings chapter 10. Jonadab lived in the time of King Ahab, and his children. King Ahab was an evil ruler and was opposed by the Prophet Elijah. One day, Elijah became very depressed and told God that he wanted to end his life because he was such a failure. He told God that he had been faithfully serving God but no one else has listened and he is the only one left. God lets him know that this is not true. In fact, Elijah is not alone. There are 7000 men who have not bowed down their knee and worshipped false gods. Well, Jonadab was one of those 7000 men who were faithful to God. When the king said Worship Baal, Jonadab said I will worship the God of Israel.

What makes that even more amazing was that Jonadab was not even an Israelite. He was not from one of the tribes of Israel. He was a Gentile. Yet he committed to serve the God of Israel even when it was dangerous to do so.

Sometimes we read the New Testament and say, Ah… here is where God now opens up His message of hope to the Gentiles. We may read the Old Testament and say, Ah… here is where God only cares about Israel. But spread throughout the Old Testament are stories of godly Gentiles who served God. Often, they were raised up as pillars of faithfulness when compared to many of the Israelites at that time.

We have the Gentile Jethro giving wisdom to Moses. We have Ruth of the Moabites being an example of godly faith, becoming the ancestor of King David, and of Jesus. We have Naaman the Syrian who shows greater obedience to God than the Prophet Elisha’s own servant. We have Uriah the Hittite, who shows more godly character than his boss, King David. We have Phoenician sailors and the people of Ninevah who are more repentant of their actions and attitudes than the Prophet Jonah. And here was Jonadab, a Gentile who worshiped and obeyed God alone when most Israelites fell away.

That’s comforting to me. I am a Gentile, you are Gentiles. It is nice to know that God did not start being interested in Gentiles starting in the New Testament. He was concerned for Gentiles both in the Old Testament and New.

So I don’t think the message in Jeremiah 35 was that we should always obey our ancestors. Sometimes they are wrong. None of us are perfect. I fail at times. I think we all fail at times. I don’t want my children to do what is wrong because I did wrong, or said what is wrong.

Second Idea.  So the second idea that I want to suggest is this:

There is great power in a godly father. Jonadab was a godly man and a godly father. His faithfulness to God, and faithful to his family, during a time of great sin and persecution, set an example that over 250 years later, his descendants were still following.

And we know that his example even continued on longer.

Read Jeremiah 35:18-19

God blesses the Rechabites for their faithfulness to a faithful and godly man, and God says that their family will endure forever, and there will always be at least one among them who will be a faithful servant of God among them. Jonadab’s example was still felt on his descendants 2 and a half centuries later and serves as an inspiration for us 2 and a half millennia later.

So those are the two messages.

For all of us. We are to be faithful to God… always. We are to obey God and God alone.

But to Fathers, I believe there is a second message… and a message that is appropriate for us today as well, on this Father’s Day. There is great power in being a faithful and godly man. We have great impact on our children… and even on our grandchildren and beyond.

Fathers do not fall into the traps of this world that lead us into what is wrong. Be like Jonadab who was faithful to God and a great example for his family even when temptations were great and there were great dangers. As fathers we all have great power to influence future generations… for good or for evil.

The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication

Yesterday, I removed the Facebook App from my cellphone. Life feels good. But it got me to wonder how it got to that place. I have a bit of a theory. I am sure there is a better name for it, but I will call it “The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication.”

The name comes from the following idea.

garbage on body of water
Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

Suppose the Garden of Eden still existed. Perhaps it was discovered fully intact. I think most of us would know what would happen within 10 or 15 years of it being discovered. It would be flooded with tourists who would trample the vegetation, and litter it with plastic wrappers. The Tree of Life would be covered in spraypaint and the initials of people who wanted to “leave their mark.” Hotels, roads, shopping centers, and parking lots would replace much of the greenery. If paradise is not fully destroyed it would only be because a few people with power and money took it over, walled it off, and limited access to the few privileged (who would ruin it in their own ways).

Our tendency to destroy what we love, applies to communication as well. I won’t deal with all forms of mass communication, but here are a few obvious ones.

  1. Mail. Mail was and is such an amazing blessing. For a relatively small amount of money, I can send a piece of written piece of paper to someone almost anywhere in the world. In many places, it can be sent from one’s home and be delivered directly to one’s home. That is truly amazing. Of course, it got abused at times. Hate mail would get sent sometimes, as well as letter bombs, and chain mail, but they were not that common. However, what DID become common was junk mail. When I was young I was so excited to see the mailman stop at our mail box and I would hurry to the end of our driveway to pick up the daily mail. In more recent years junk mail became so common that getting the mail was a chore– something to go, collect, and quickly throw out 80% of it or more. It even got to the point that we moved a couple of times and I did not give the post office our forwarding address. I just told the few who needed to know where we moved to of the change.
  2. E-mail. E-mail was such a boon. Near instant communication, that was “free”— or at least no additional cost. A few years in, marketers started sending advertisements. At first there was a strong reaction against it. However, soon “SPAM” began dominating emails, to such an extent that special filters were built into the email apps to remove the most obvious junk emails. Since, sending out millions of emails is hardly more expenseive than sending out one email, SPAM became dominant… followed soon by SCAM. My Spam filter is flooded with “Dear Beloved” emails, Business Opportunity emails, and Lonely Heart emails. Most of these emails are so obviously fake that one is sickened by the fact that the scam is based on flooding the Internet in hopes of finding the most gullible and helpless. Things have gotten so bad that I have friends who really don’t use their email now much except for online user ID and verification.
  3. Messenger. This application, tied to Facebook, is like some other forms of instant messaging and groupchat, but this is the one I am most familiar with. At first glance, it seems like it has solved the problem with emails. Strangers can’t send you messages… or at least stranger messages automatically go to an electronic dustbin that one can glance in once in awhile. It seems as if SPAM would be solved since only friends can contact you through Messenger. But wouldn’t you know it… friends start sending SPAM. The least eggregious are the emojis and GIFs. Less tolerable are the chain letters, and junk articles and youtube videos that friends think should be shared with all their “friends.” Now, many of my friends immediately leave group chats after someone puts them in. Groupchats do appear to be the worst places for this. For mail and email I understand the motivation— money. People want money and so they screw up channels of communication in hopes of getting some of that sweet sweet cash. But messing up Messenger and other Instant Messaging services seems weird as most of that is not driven by money. Perhaps we simply like to mess up paradise.
  4. Twitter. I dropped out of Twitter some months ago as it seemed to be a place for a few people to talk almost incessantly, and the rest to get overfed with tweets from these garrulous folk and organizaitons. However, I never did figure out the appeal of Twitter in the first place so I won’t mention it here.
  5. Facebook. Facebook was such a blessing. It was like Myspace and many other of these personal blog sites, but where almost everyone I knew had an account. As such, it was such an easy way to maintain social connections. Living 12 timezones from home, it allowed me to maintain social interaction with so many from childhood, church, school, and more. People started sharing silly articles and videos with sensational clickbait-y titles. A lot were fake. I even knew some people who created these fake articles. Others would share quotes falsely attributed to famous people. Usually the quote was a generally positive one incorrectly connected to someone who has reached John Maxwell’s highest level of influence (adding false credibility to the statement). Later, false “bad” quotes were connected to respected people to try to tear those people down. False articles are shared that don’t stand up to even a quick fact check— usually to an echo chamber of people who love the article because of the sentiment, even if the information is untrue.

I have been distinctly disappointed at the number of Christians who have been doing this. One pastor shared a sensationalistic fear-article with a comment that said, “I don’t know if this is true, but it is too important to ignore.” Well, it took me about 15 seconds to verify that the article was not true. And since it is untrue, while pretending to be true, it is NOT too important to ignore. Another pastor would search out every anti-Muslim article he could find online and share them without balance and without fact-checking. Yet another pastor turned his FB page into a political campaign site for a political candidate over here in the Philippines.

It goes on. One pastor shared a picture of Pope Francis looking like he was angry with the caption to the effect of saying, “Reading the Bible is dangerous, Listen to me instead.” When that pastor was told that the source of that semi-quote pointed to Pope Francis actually saying the opposite– Read the Bible it is powerful and important– the pastor defended sharing this completely deceptive lie. This is similar to still another pastor.who shared COVID-19 statistics in late May to show that we are making a big deal about nothing. The problem was that the data was over 2 months out of date, and so gave a completely false impression of the scope of the problem. He also defended his use of the data, despite the fact that his argument was completely undermined by the use of highly deceptive data.

I can deal with that. I can also deal with people who are a bit more clever. They will share articles from sketchy sources, adding a comment like, “Interesting read.” This seems to be a form of plausible deniability because one can find opinions and made-up news reports “interesting.” However, over time one discovers that that person only finds articles that support a specific agenda as being interesting. I suppose that if one found dubious reports from both sides interesting plausible deniability would be justified. But if one only chooses one side, that is no longer the case. I can handle these wastes of time as well.

My children basically stopped using FB, except for Messenger years ago. Most of their friends have as well. I refused to leave FB because I am a missionary and the value it has in connecting me to supporters and people back home in the US seemed to be too big to let go of. But over time, I have changed my mind. Fewer and fewer of my supporters use FB much. Most of them I can reach in other ways. Some don’t use it at all. And there has been a big increase in fearmongery and hatemongery on FB. The strongest comments I ever got against myself was when I suggested that diverse perpectives are good. I would love to say that it is not my FB friends who are doing this. And MOSTLY I can say that. Most of the really horrible, hateful, false, demeaning, un-Christian stuff are from Friends of Friends. FB in the US in particular has become the home of trolls and flamers. Even those that seem to be a voice of reason tend to be electronically surrounded by hoardes of nasty people ready to hit and hurt as they have opportunity. It is not just on one side. Politically for example, I tend to be a Moderate-Conservative-Libertarian type. Most of my friends in the US tend towards being more Conservative-Authoritarian. A lot of hate speech there. But I have some friends on the Liberal/Progressive side as well– some of whom get pretty vicious at times as well.

And that is fine I suppose. But it concerns me that so many of these people describe themselves as Christians. Much of their conversations are so far outside of the example of Jesus, that it would be nice if they simply did not say or suggest that they are Christian or that their words come from any corner of Christianity.

Anyway, I decided to leave FB. I will still keep my account open. I may have to go on once a week to post for our local church. I won’t leave email— my spam filters are generally keeping up with the torrent of SPAM and SCAM. But I don’t expect you to care about any of this. I don’t expect you to care if I have left Twitter and FB, and I am certainly not asking you to leave them or any other online communication service.

I would, however, like to ask you why we tend to poison paradise. I believe saying that we are sinners is inadequate. I suppose one could take the point further and say that Sin is ultimately a breaking of harmony and relationships. Therefore when we are given a tool that helps us connect to more people more easily, we revolt against that by pushing back with fear (and its secondary emotion, anger).

Additionally, I suppose it could be argued that if 90% of us can be civil with each other, then 10% cannot. And if these 10% have access to the same communication streams with the 90%, they are likely to mess things up pretty bad. Maybe as a species we feel that we must destroy what we love.

As Christians, not only do I think we have the ability to do better, we are called by God to do better. We can express love and hope to our friends, relatives, strangers, and enemies.

Looking For Opportunities to Change My Mind

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Vignette #1.  Today, I was looking at Facebook again. There were a lot of notes talking about how the WHO (World Health Organization) has changed their view yet again about some aspect of COVID-19 response. Tied to this is the implication that WHO is untrustworthy, and because it is untrustworthy… well, it should be defunded perhaps, or treated like an enemy, or some such thing. Hold that thought for a minute.

#2.  Each election cycle a person will run for political office. Many will, and often one such person will express a view on a hot topic. Soon after people will point out that years ago the person held very different views. From this people suggest that the politician is a liar— telling people what he or she thinks the people want to hear just to get elected.  Hold that thought as well.

#3.  I am listening to a podcast (Tripp Fuller with Jeffrey Pugh) on Bonnhoeffer. Pugh noted that Bonhoeffer’s theological and political views changed over the years as a theologian. It was noted, that many try to see a consistent viewpoint or will try to see Bonnhoeffer’s views through the colored glasses of a specific religious or political perspective. The fluidity of his views are frozen in a sort of single-perspective Bonnhoeffer orthodoxy.

#4.  More generally, I was raised up with the culturally supported perspective that women “always keep changing their minds.” I could be wrong, but I felt that the subtext of this cultural perspective is that changing minds speaks poorly to the character of women, especially as it comes to leadership.

If one just takes these four above situations, one sees four different responses to changing of one’s mind.

  • #1 Changing mind is a sign of incompetence.
  • #2.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Rather “pretending” to change mind is a sign of lack of integrity— an evidence of moral failure.
  • #3.  Changing mind doesn’t really happen. Understanding, at least to some extent, the views of someone at one point in time reveals someone and guides how the person can be understood at all points in time.
  • #4.  Changing mind does happen and is a sign of lack of character.

We see these show up in odd ways. Leaders are often judged poorly for being indecisive and praised for being decisive, regardless of whether the decisive move is correct and whether or not there was adequate information to make an informed decision in the first place. This is a bit of a mix of #1 and #4.  Today, a friend of mine showed (pulling in some American politics for a moment… sorry) that the first 23 blacks (African-Americans) to enter US Congress were Republicans. This was meant to show that Republicans are the more “black-friendly” or at least  the less “black-unfriendly.” Of course that is a case of #3.  If one party was good at one time, it must still be good. If one party is good today, it must have always been good.  It is the belief that continuity of structure suggests continuity of vision and purpose.

However, not only is such logic flawed, but it also hides the truth.  For example, the WHO (and the CDC) really SHOULD be changing their minds regularly. They are facing a problem that is new. As such, there is little rock solid information they can use for guidance. As such, they are somewhat groping in the dark. Despite being in the dark, governments and news media keep coming to them to get definitive answers. So they try to give good answers, but must keep changing as data flows in. This is normal and healthy.

Politicians should change their minds. People grow and times change. Admittedly, it would be good if a politician can explain what led him to changing his mind. This is not because it is wrong to change one’s mind. Rather, changing mind can evidence being a political hack who sways whichever way the breeze blows— or it can evidence a thoughtful person who analyzes, learns and grows. It would be helpful to know which is the case.

Bonnheffer kept changing in his politics and theology. That is good and healthy. A good theologian is a changing theologian. Millard Erickson in his book on Systematic theology descrbes several characteristics of good theology. Three of them (putting them in my own words) are that good theology is (a) Contemporary, addressing the questions and concerns of the present context, (b) Practical, provides wisdom as to how to think and act in ministry, the church, and broader society, and (c) Addresses knowledge from outside of theology. Since knowledge changes, context changes, and circumstances change, theology can and should change, and so theologians should change.

According to one study I saw (sadly, cannot remember the source, so you can research it yourself to be sure I am not wrong, or confused) found that men change their minds as much, or more, than women. It is just that they tend not to vocalize the vacillations of thinking as much. One could then argue that women should not be blamed for changing their minds, but rather men should be blamed for poor communication. OR… why blame at all. Affirm communicating uncertainty AND affirm quiet reflection. But most of all, affirm that we are all learning and growing.

So… Keep learning, keep reflecting, keep questioning. Embrace new ideas as a potential friend rather than a dread enemy.

That Nagging Racism Problem

A friend of mine (who is not American, but who has lived in the US before) asked the following question on FB:

Aside from prayer, what is your specific solution or concrete and actual suggestions to end the racial problem in the US?

It is hard to give specific, concrete and actual “anything” on FB because of the limitations in that format. I guess I would like to give three modest suggestions.  All of them are targeting Christians in the United States. If Christians in the US were able to get past racism (and knowing that a nice majority of Americans at least describe themselves as Christians), the US would be on the right path.

Teach good Theological Anthropology in church. That is, “What is Mankind in terms of relationship to God, ourselves, and Creation?”  Some churches may teach the Falleness of Man, but to do this they must also emphasize the “Falleness from What?” Some churches speak of the Goodness (or potential goodness) of Man, but must also emphasize what fulfilled goodness would look like in society.

This is not to say that this will come easily.  The early chapters of Genesis undermine the foundations of racism, yet much of the Hebrew Bible points to the challenges the Israelites had with racism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. That disconnect between Israelite view of other peoples and God’s view is the theme of the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reemphasize God’s love for all peoples regardless of ethnicity, nationality, language, and tribe, and call on the church to break down these barriers. Revelation shows Paradise where all peoples dwell harmoniously, and in harmony with God and Creation. Yet racism has endured.

Still, I remember when I was young and would hear about how the “three races of man” came from the three sons of Noah, and that one of the three (Ham) became the father of “cursed races.” This and other “cursed race” beliefs may belong in Mormon theology, but certainly not Christian theology. Some of these beliefs I heard in church, although at least not preached in the pulpit. In other churches in the US, some learned of “British/American-Israelism” or “Lost Tribe Theology.” Some of these and other teachings actively support racism or national exceptionalism, while others may simply support the status quo.

Just as bad as bad theological anthropology is,  teaching NO theological anthropology may be worse. Some churches actively do NOT teach theology. For some it is seen as not important while for others it is seen as divisive. Unfortunately, if we don’t teach a theologically (Biblically) sound Doctrine of Man, Christians will be getting their beliefs on gender, race, national identity, and more from sensationalizing journalism and hatemongering politics.

Teach Cultural/Social Anthropology in Church. While some churches attempt to train their people in Theological Anthropology, few teach Cultural Anthropology. When I am speaking of cultural anthropology, I am speaking of this topic as seen through a Christian lens. This topic is taken very seriously as a topic of Missiology. It is, however, rarely brought into the church. It is the praxis side of Anthropology. If we are to love all people and share the message of Christ to all people, how do we do so in a way that is understandable to them. How can Christians honor their own birth culture, while being a good Christian, and challenging what is flawed in their own birth culture? How can churches be relevant to their culture— expressing the best of that culture while guiding people to live out that culture as God desires? How do we love all people when some people act and think very different from us?

Cultural Anthropology is not simply doctrinal— meaning in this case imparted to memory.  It must be taught and modeled.

A final suggestion would be to Separate Theology from National Identity. Churches in the US love traditionally to have patriotic songs in their hymnals, a national flag next to the “Christian flag,” behind the altar and pulpit. They love to have fervently patriotic sermons certain times of the year. Some preachers actively bring nationalistic themes into their sermons. I recall one pastor at a church I was attending at the time preaching on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. He said that as a Christian there are some beliefs one should be willing to die for— the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, and the Right to Bear Arms. Some churches seem better at honoring those who have died for their country than at honoring those who have died for their faith.

But why would this help? Nationalism is not the same as Racism. Agreed, but I believe that mixing national and religious symbols creates a civil religion, and a civil religion, traditionally, supports the status quo. Christianity should be a faith WITHIN American culture, but it never should be seen as the faith OF American culture. In my mind, we have millennia of evidence in Church history and outside of Church history of problems associated with state-sponsored religion, “court prophets,” and religious movements joined uncritically to political movements. The church must have a clear understanding of what its boundaries are and challenge those both inside and outside of those boundaries. It is hard to be a light in darkness, when we find it politically expedient to call the darkness light.

When Bad Theology Kills

Many years (decades) ago I read the book, “The History of Anti-Semitism” by Leon Poliakov. I found the book thoroughly fascinating. A section that was especially interesting to me was Spain shortly after 1492, the Fall of Granada. Christian Spain had driven out the last Muslim stronghold from Western Europe. Of course when so much time and energy was expended on warfare, the question is what to do after the fighting is over. The answer was consolidation of the gains at the individual level. The Spanish government decided to try to make it harder and harder to be Jews or Muslims or “heretics” within their domain. This became a key component of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834).

Zika and the Bubonic Plague: A Lesson From the Middle Ages ...

Of course, when one lives within a tyrannical system that will imprison, torture, and on occasion kill over religious belief, conversion to Roman Catholic Christianity was common. In some cases this was a very genuine change of faith (or was at least genuine in subsequent generations)— but, in many cases, such conversions were put on for show. Of course the government knew this and so would try to identify those who were “faking” their Christianity. Shibboleths were developed to find these individuals and families. This was done through looking at family trees (to see if the family consisted of “Old Christians” or “New Christians”), seeing if a person tended to avoid pork, and identifying those who fast at certain times that were out of schedule with the Christian calendar.

A rather strange one was regarding cleanliness. Jews, especially, abided by rigorous cleanliness laws. Good physical hygiene became seen as an identifier of being one of these fake Christians. (After all, didn’t Jesus say something about how eating with unwashed hands does not make one unclean?)

Okay, let’s use some logic here and play, “What Happens Next?”  See if this makes sense to you…

  1.  Those who followed good hygiene practices began to be identified as an enemy of the state by the government, and an enemy of Christ by the church.
  2. Christians, wanting to ensure their own safety, and their good status in the community, avoided washing and other hygienic practices.
  3. Bad hygiene, as an identifier of good Christians, began to be moralized and theologized, at least on the level of folk theology.  Good hygiene is now a “sin.”
  4. Plague spread by rats and fleas killed Christians in disproportionately high numbers compared to non-Christians, especially Jews.
  5. Christians blamed the Jews for spreading the plague.  (I hope you guessed this last one at least.)

What an unnecessary waste of life.

Well, guess what? We live in a new pandemic. COVID-19 is not as deadly as bubonic plague and some other diseases that swept through Europe, as well as the Near East and Middle East, in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, its vector makes it spread more easily.

Maybe this is a time for us to look at our theology. There are a number of folk theologies that are being held onto by some Christians that just might prove a bad thing.

  • Trusting in God will keep one from getting the disease. It may be a part of “Word of Faith” theology where disease is thought a punishment for sin. However, even some groups that are not in that camp have a version of it. It goes something like: “God wants us to assemble together in the same room to worship Him. Therefore, if we do that, God will be pleased and will keep the gathering from being a cause of disease spread.”
  • Embracing “edgelord” culture of sharing the most shocking or controversial clickbait because it sort of meshes with one’s own political or personal positions.
  • Spreading the idea that vaccines are bad. Perhaps they are bad because they cause some bad things in people. Perhaps they are bad because they undermine our faith in God as healer and protector. Perhaps they are bad because “They” will put microdevices under our skin, and we will be tracked and our freedom crushed by the Antichrist and one world government.

I have no interest in arguing these theological positions. I don’t think pointing out that quarantine was very much a Biblical concept would make a difference.

I would note, however, that theology has consequences. Bad theology can kill, and has killed. As Christian leaders we need to remember our (physical and metaphoric) pulpit gives us considerable power to influence.

We need to be cautious in our prophetic roles to be certain that our words are words of life, not death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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

“Idea Tribes” and “Pravda”

Maybe it has always been this way, but there seems to be an increase of intolerance in recent years. Yes, I know that in many things— race (maybe), sexual orientation, and lifestyle choices— there seems greater tolerance. But intolerance of divergent viewpoints seems greater. I could be wrong, but it makes sense. We are group-creating creatures… we create cultures. Cultures are tied to shared beliefs and behaviors. Therefore, the notion that all taboos are going away seems doubtful. As we tear one down, we build up a different one. It seems as if we are creating “Idea Tribes” and create a culture around such ideas. I occasionally will drop in on some of these Idea Tribes on social media. I don’t do it very often,  but it is useful as an ethnographic investigation to see how such groups interact and create patterns of identification. I am blessed in that I have online friends who are in nearly the full range of (American and Filipino at least) political positions, and with a considerably broad variety of theological positions. Because of this, it is pretty easy for me to pop in on the Calvinists, or the MAGA folk, or the Complementarians, the Anti-Trumps, the Skeptics, and the Anti-vax’ers. (Many many other groups out there of course).  Occasionally I will drop a comment… but not too often. Some take the comment with grace. Others get triggered (so weird that the people who complain about others getting triggered are so susceptible to being triggered… a form of projection perhaps?).

Pretty much all such groups embrace something that years ago was called PRAVDA. Pravda is the Russian word meaning “truth.” However, it was also a newspaper that served, in part, as the media arm of the USSR. As such, the term “pravda” came to be used as a slang term for “the official truth.” All groups claim to seek truth, but in reality they seek pravda. That is, they seek a shared concensus of what is defined as truth by the group. As such, this pravda is useful to identify the boundaries of the group (who are “Us” and who are “They”). It may also come to be treated as worldview truth. That is, it is presumed to be truth and therefore is used to build off of to discover new truths, and test proposed truths.

One of the fun things to do is to see how some people will so actively seek to develop such Idea Tribes. In other cases, Idea Tribes already exist, and people wrestle in trying to get their idea tribe to take one shared view on a hitherto unexplored new idea.

One such is the response to COVID-19.  COVID-19 is a fact. It exists It is spreading. It is the truth. But truths are not that useful for defining groups. Usually, it is pravda. Pravda can be questioning facts (conspiracy theory groups, for example). More often Pravda is associated with interpretation of facts (What does it mean in terms of our group’s identity) or response to facts (How then should we respond).  It, further, may establish a battle of values (which is the lesser evil or the greater good).

With COVID-19 it is interesting to see that many groups, since they haven’t really dealt with a pandemic before, do not have a shared belief (pravda) so we find Idea Tribes struggling with it. Some of these battling Pravdas are:

  • It’s a Chinese plot.  (Interpretation of facts)
  • We should let the virus run its course (Response to facts.  Darwinian approach)
  • It is the judgment of God (Interpretation of facts)
  • We must meet as a church in defiance to Law (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must obey the Law and support fighting the virus (Interpretation and Response)
  • We must invigorate the economy even if it leads to some people dying (battle of values)

What is funny is how many will try to look open-minded and share a controversial article or video. But then they share another article or video of the same type… and then another and another. Eventually it is clear that they are not being open-minded. They are cherry-picking data to try to sway the group to incorporate their viewpoint as part of the dogma of their Idea Tribe.

One will quote a “leading epidemologist” or a “registered nurse” or a “respected physician” or an “anonymous Chinese witness”. The stream of articles from (sometimes dubious) sources keeps coming in hopes that their view is accepted.

I know as a former mechanical design engineer, there is likely to be a wide range of beliefs within design. The underlying facts remain unchanged. We have Newtonian Physics, Maxwell’s Laws, and the Laws of Thermodynamics. These don’t change… but how to apply them requires certain viewpoints. Do we emphasize performance? quality? economy? flexibility? speed? durability? aesthetics? marketability? Good people can differ about that. Good engineers can vary widely in how to design something because of these perspectives (either personal or corporate perspectives).

In epidemics, does one prioritize human life? economy? liberty?

In epidemic response, is it better to let an illness “burn itself out” or stretch it out so as to be able to ensure that the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed?

We live in a weird time where we have a weird mix of Modernism (trust the experts) and Post-Modernism (trust our own subjective experiences). Both have their problems. Post-Modernism tends to reinforce Idea Tribes— those whose subjective views align. Decisions tend to be made based on what we want to be true, rather than what is. Modernism has problems as well. Experts are also subjective, limited, beings. Modernism can easily devolve into a battle royale of experts, or a democracy (55% of leading experts concur that…).

In such a time, how should we respond? In some ways, I don’t know. As Christians I do think we have to look to Christ for guidance. I don’t think Jesus would prioritize economy over human life, or prioritize who should live and who from the herd can be thinned-out. But for some other things, I think it best to stay cautiously open-minded. We should not squelch divergent viewpoints. We can also withhold judgment when that is useful. I live in Baguio City, Philippines with a very strict “enhanced quarantine.” Some of my friends online support a more laissez-faire policy. Baguio City has had no new cases of COVID-19 in 9 days, while the laisser-faire places I have looked up are not doing nearly so well. So I feel justified to think that the plan for Baguio City is correct… but I must also accept the possibility that new facts may come out later that would challenge this view.

 

 

 

 

 

The Church and “Pandemic Love”

Pandemic Love, by Charles E. Moore, is one of my favorite articles. I had found it a few years ago on http://www.plough.com. It is the website

Image result for antonine plague
Antonine Plague

for the journal “Plough Quarterly.” But I can’t find the article there anymore. Then it was on http://www.barclaypress.com. But I can’t find it there either. FORTUNATELY, around 5 or 6 years ago I had asked permission to reprint the article from Plough.com, and was given permission as long as I referenced them. Since it is no longer on their website, I can only reference their site as a whole. Although it was written a few years ago, and references historical events from almost 2 millenia ago, it seems especially relevant during this time in March 2020.

The avian flu, and the possibility of a world pandemic, is not only in the news, it is unnerving. One has only to recall history to realize that global killers have plagued human civilization. Gruesome details abound. But, surprisingly, so do acts of love.

Greek historian Thucydides describes the pandemic of 430 B.C., the world’s first recorded pandemic, as being characterized by sudden attack; inflammation of eyes; burning in the stomach and throat; bloody coughing; diarrhea; violent vomiting; livid, ulcerated skin; and then death. Those who survived were often left without toes, fingers, genitals, eyesight, and even with an entire loss of memory. One-third of Athens was killed.


Other plagues mar history. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, disease-ridden fleas killed 40% of Constantinople’s population and a quarter of the whole region’s population. Another outbreak occurred in France in A.D. 588, where an estimated 25 million lost their lives. Under a new name, the disease returned in the middle of the 14th century. Known as the Black Death because of a blackening of the skin due to hemorrhaging, people fled its path and in so doing aided its spread across the continent. A quarter of Europe’s population was decimated, and Asia and the Middle East were also hit. By the 18th century, an estimated 140 million people had died from the bubonic plague. Then in the 20th century, the Spanish flu came and went like a flash, killing an estimated 40 million people—more than were lost in the Great War.


Pandemics are real, and we are not exempt. Our natural instinct is either to worry about what might happen and become obsessed with protecting ourselves, or to ignore the doomsday prophets all together by burying ourselves deeper into a life of distraction and diversion. Neither response prepares us.


The history books are full of horror. As it is today, death and the horrid get the headlines. But throughout history, there exist stories of hope, not just horror. I can’t help but think of the early church in this regard.

In the Roman Empire…

In A.D. 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. The mortality rate was so high in many cities that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, between a quarter and a third of the empire’s population died. Almost a century later, a second terrible epidemic struck the Roman world. From 251 to 266, at the height of what became known as the Plague of Cyprian (Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population most likely perished.


Pagan Rome was completely ill-prepared to help the sick or deal with mass death. People knew that their priests were clueless as to why the gods had sent so much misery to earth, or whether the gods were involved or even cared. Worse yet, the doctors, priests, and nobles fled infected areas in droves. Since pagans had no belief in immortality, and Stoicism demeaned any sort of heartfelt compassion, the plagues were meaningless and cruel. The basic response of pagans was one of flight.


The best of Greco-Roman science knew nothing about how to treat epidemics other than to avoid all contact with those who had the disease. And this they did, often evacuating entire towns, being afraid to visit one another. Hence, it turned out that the famous physician Galen who lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius got out of Rome as quickly as possible.


Christian response

In stark contrast to such hopelessness and fear, Christians showed how their faith made this life—and even death—meaningful. Cyprian, for example, almost welcomed the great epidemic of his time, knowing that it was an opportunity for the church to give witness to the hope that was within them. He was so overwhelmed by a sense of confidence that the members of the Alexandrian church were accused of regarding the plague as a time of festival.


Instead of fear and despondency, then, the earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them God loved humanity, and in order to love God back they believed they needed to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed in deeds of compassion on earth.


This love took on very practical, concrete forms. In Rome, Christians buried not just their own, but pagans who had died without funds for a proper burial. They also supplied food for 1,500 poor people on a daily basis. In Antioch of Syria, the number of destitute persons the church was feeding had reached 3,000. Church funds were also used in special cases to buy the emancipation of Christian slaves.


During the plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Emperor Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. His efforts failed, however, because for Christians it was love—not duty—that was their motivation.


The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to
a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick who were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.


Pagans couldn’t help but notice that Christians not only found strength to risk their lives, but they also noticed that in caring for one another they were much less likely to die. Christian survivors of the plague became immune, and therefore they were able to pass among the afflicted with apparent invulnerability. In fact, those most active in nursing the sick were the very ones who had already contracted the disease early on, but who were cared for by their brothers and sisters. In this way, the early Christians became, in the words of one scholar, “a whole force of miracle workers to heal the ‘dying.’” Or as historian Rodney Spark puts it, “It was the soup they [the Christians] so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them.”


In the midst of intermittent persecution and colossal misunderstanding, and in an era when serving others was thought to be demeaning, the “followers of the way”—instead of fleeing disease and death—went about ministering to the sick and helping the poor, the widowed, the crippled, the blind, the orphaned, and the aged. The people of the Roman Empire were forced to admire their works and dedication. “Look how they love one another,” was heard on the streets.


What about us today?

Our time is not unlike the twilight years of the Roman Empire. The god of materialism provides no hope; the structures and institutions of society that are meant to address social needs are indifferent and cold; and the current adversarial atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence breed fear and loneliness.


In an age of impersonal medicine, fear of death, social isolation, and mounting catastrophe, today’s church has the opportunity of going beyond the precautions of quarantine and vaccine
by trusting in the ultimate protection: love. Instead of retreating from the onslaught of pain and death, the church has the chance to demonstrate that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Instead of fear, which makes it difficult to look beyond the precautionary, followers of Christ can show the world that it is in giving our lives away that we find life. How we live and how we die is our message. If we would but dare more in faith in the here-and-now, then perhaps, as with the early church, an outpouring of new life and real hope—instead of terror and flight—will sweep the earth.