“Footprints” Thoughts

One of the great inspiring messages is “Footprints.” It’s author is unknown, but frankly that added to its popularity since it lacks any copyright issues. There are some claims as to who first wrote it. Some thoughts on the authorship and inspiration of it can be found at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/where-did-the-footprints-poem-come-from/

I always liked the story and can recall having one of

https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-web/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/27130053/footprints.jpg

those wallhangers with the story on it. But writing a sermon recently I began thinking about it more, and had reason to disagree with the story… just a bit. That being said, I am not trying to say, “It is wrong.” Rather, I am saying that perhaps the imagery can be a bit misinforming in some ways.

On a positive side, the story utilizes the image of walking and walking with Christ as a metaphor for the Christian life. I feel that is a strong metaphor. I did several posts a few years back on the use of “Walking With” as a metaphor. You can look at these if you want

Walking With. Part 1

Walking With. Part 2

Walking With. Part 3

Walking With. Part 4

Walking With. Part 5

Walking With. Part 6

So why would I have any problems with Footprints then? There are three (somewhat) minor issues.

Issue One. Task-Focus versus Person-Focus. In the imagery, Jesus carries the writer during difficult times. To me the image is one of being task-focused. The person goes through a time that he can’t continue, and Jesus carries him. To stay with the person in a difficult time suggests person-focused. To keep moving by carrying the person suggests a bit of greater interest in keeping to the task than to the person. But I believe that Jesus is more committed to us as people, than to the tasks we do.

Issue Two. Dependency. In some manner we are to be dependent on God. But generally speaking, God seeks us to mature, and that maturity comes through the trials. Peter notes that we go through suffering. James notes that we develop perseverence through the testing of our faith. The image of the story suggests more of a coddling. Kelly O’Donnell (in “Doing Member Care Well”) has noted that Jesus Christ in His handling His disciples maintained a balance that could best be described as in the region of Comforter and Challenger, while avoiding the extremes of Coddler and Condemner. Carrying to me suggests coddling.

coddling

Issue Three. Example. As I noted in my sermon (HERE). Jesus is our model for ministry. God did not create us with great power. He gave us the ability to be present with others in their struggles. We can’t carry people through their times of pain and struggles. We can suffer with the suffering. We hurt with the hurting. We can struggle with the struggling. We can take none of these things away. We can embrace a ministry of presence. We can bear the burdens of another, but only with mutuality, where others also bear our burdens.

Of these three issues, the only one that I consider strong is the third one. The first two are picky. However, if we want to understand what we are to do, following the example of Jesus, we need to understand that Footprints does not give us a good understanding of that role. It does, however, give a good image of the Christian life.

Here is another perspective (thanks to Chaplain Sal for sharing…

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Three Servants: Guiding, Healing, Sustaining

Seward Hiltner was a leading, some would say THE leading, Pastoral Theologian of the 20th Century, serving as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He saw the pastoral function as best understood with the metaphor of the shepherd. A few weeks ago, Ptr. II Samuel spoke on this metaphor of the shepherd. Within the pastoral role, Hiltner saw three primary functions of pastoral care: These are Guiding, Healing, Sustaining. Others later added more. But for today, let’s stick with the primary three— Guiding, Healing, and Sustaining. I find these primary pastoral care functions illustrated in three servants in the story of Naaman the Leper. Please open your Bibles to II Kings 5: 1-14. So for those taking BP, you should note that I am using a passage from the Bible for illustrative purposes, rather than expositional or topical.

Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.

2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents[b] of silver, six thousand shekels[c] of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”

8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.

13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.

The first servant here is described as a young girl from Israel… living as a captive… a slave in Aram… Syria. This young girl typifies the first function of Pastoral Care. That is Guiding without much knowledge. This young girl did not seem to have a lot of knowledge. But that is okay. Hiltner points out that good guidance is not highly directive. He states that it should be more eductive than deductive. Deductive guidance is acting like a detective. I have studied your situation, and I am able to deduce that THIS is what is going on and THAT is what you need to do. Eductive guidance is drawing out. Picture a bucket that draws water from a well. It presumes that the other person already knows most of what they need to know… so you as a pastoral care provider help draw that out of him or her. Consider the case of the prophet Nathan speaking to King David. The story or parable of the Ewe lamb is a classic example of Eductived Guidance. Nathan really did not tell David anything he did not already know. David already knew that it was wrong for a rich and powerful person to use his power to steal from the poor and needy. This was not an issue he was confused about… but he needed to be reminded. Maybe he had sort of forgotten. Maybe he had rationalized his behavior. Or maybe he had bracketed his knowledge, compartmentalizing what he knew to be true from what he did. Nathan drew out what David knew, guiding him eductively. In this case, the young servant knew something that General Naaman did not know, but he needed to know, so she gave the guidance. There is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him of his leprosy. Apparently she did not know the prophet’s name or where he lived. If she knew these things, they would have been added to the letter and the King of Israel would not have been so distressed. She did not know much… but she knew enough to guide Naaman.

Guidance without much Knowledge is good… because the temptation in pastoral care is to be Clever. It is tempting to show off what we know. Someone comes to you about a marriage problem. It is tempting to start talking about the 3 Greek words for love… or the 4 Greek words, or 6, or 7 (depending on which book you are reading at the moment). But while you are showing off all of the cool things you learned in seminary, what you are doing is caring for yourself— satisfying your need to be seen as clever, knowledgeable, wise… when really they need just a little guidance, and have a great need to be listened to. Times of Guidance are actually great opportunities to practice the Ministry of Silence. That is not easy. Pastors love to talk… they don’t like to listen all that much. Seminaries have classes in Preaching. They have classes in Teaching. Some even have classes in Arguing or Apologetics. Not too many have classes in Listening. Yet guiding a little in an environment of unclever, silent listeing is commonly what the other person really needs. I struggle with this principle because I want to be seen as clever. Maybe you share that same problem with me. However, the second principle I am much better at.

The second principle is Healing… but without much skill. I am much better at this… since I have no real skills at healing. When Naaman finally gets to Elisha’s home. Elisha does not come out. Instead he sends a servant, described as Elisha’s messenger to pass on the healer’s words to him— go to the Jordan River and wash yourself 7 times to be healed. Naaman was angry. He wanted to be healed by the prophet… the professional healer… not simply get a message from his servant. People want to see an expert. In fact… in pastoral care, that is the temptation for a pastoral person— to be seen as the expert… especially an expert healer. If you as a pastor, or a chaplain, or as a seminarian visit a sick person, you will be asked to pray for them. Why? Typically, they believe that you as a religious professional have prayers that are just a bit more UMPHH then their own. And often, we love that. We love it when people believe that we are closer to God… that our prayers have more power— that our requests are put on the top of God’s to-do list. The temptation to be an expert can show itself in other ways as well. Celia is a nurse, and it is tempting when doing chaplain work at the hospital to draw from her nursing background and second-guess the doctors, nurses, psychiatric staff, and social workers. She fights that temptation. There are some ministers who believe that they have received from God the gift of supernatural healing or deliverance. That’s fine. Maybe they do. But most of the time, God doesn’t look for us to be the expert. Most of the time, God wants us to serve in a ministry of mediation. We connect those in need with the resources of healing— within themselves… with God… and with others.

Reading the passage here… Naaman wasn’t happy that a servant came out rather than Elisha. Naaman said “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.” In a different context he may have said… “I expected someone who would sprinkle me with holy water… mark me with olive oil… dust me with salt… blow cigar smoke or spit Tanduay on me… all while saying some holy incantation. Why didn’t he put his hand on my forehead and shove, while declaring “I declare you healed!!” But the servant was not a healer and that’s okay because Naaman did not need a healer. He needed a mediator— one who connected him to the one who truly heals. He did not need someone to wave their hands over him. He needed to hear the word of the Lord and obey it. Elisha’s servant did not provide what Naaman wanted, but rather what he needed.

The third servant is listed as the servant who joined Naaman on his journey. Actually it describes Naaman as having several servants, but one presumably served as the spokesperson for the rest. The servants exhibited the pastoral function of sustaining. Sustaining but with not much power. Naaman was a sick man… having leprosy. Skin diseases were a public shame… not just in Israel but throughout the world and throughout history. Such skin diseases were contagious, and the shame, the stigma, associated with such visible illness are also contagious. Shame is always contagious. But the servants traveled with him in his illness and shame through Israel— enemy territory. They even called him “Father,” a term of both honor and affection. They sustained him. But they did not sustain with power… they were simply servants with very little influence or strength.

Those who are hurting, struggling, shamed, need our presence… a ministry of presence. We walk with them, sustaining them and encouraging them to keep progressing. But when things get too difficult and they refuse to go on— we don’t carry them… we can’t. We stop and remain with them until they move forward. (For those who are familiar with the Christian poem, Footprints, I feel it is a bit of questionable imagery. I believe Christ is best understood as one who does not carry us in difficult times, but remains with us where we are.) Certainly that is what we can do. We don’t have the power to carry them. We can barely carry ourselves. That is not exciting. We have a temptation here as well. Our temptation is to “Be the Hero.” To be the Savior… to be the Messiah. But Jesus is the Savior… they don’t need you to be a second one. They need your presence. Chaplains in the olden days had two different roles. One roles was mobile and one was stationary. Some chaplains would travel with military forces or other trading groups to be a constant presence with the group. Others lived along traderoutes or other major roadways. In that setting, they were a stationary presence for those to be cared for as they passed through. Both are forms of presence. Sometimes your role is to be a mentor for someone… a supportive companion and accountability partner. Sometimes, you are the one to show temporary presence to people who need support is that pass through where you are.

In the story, Naaman had servants who traveled with him to care for him wherever he went. They not only sustained, but they also guided. In this case they practiced eductive guidance. Remember eductive guidance is where one guides by helping to draw out what the person already knows. Namaan was ranting about how he had been insulted and told to do some stupid silly thing to be healed. His servants said, My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” Naaman was willing to give a king’s fortune to be healed. He was prepared to walk through fire or do most any extreme thing to be healed. He already showed this by traveling into enemy territory as a military general without his army risking his own life to be healed. Naaman already knew that he would do most anything… even something seemingly stupid or silly to be healed. He just needed a bit of help to remember this.

In Pastoral Care, the Cure of Souls, there are many temptations. When I came here back in 2004, I was told that people who took CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, were often prideful about it … acting like they were better ministers or seminarians than those who had not taken it. Was this bit of gossip true? I don’t know. As Paul might say, “May it Not Be So” or in another translation, “Horrors No.” But maybe the perception was correct. There is the temptation to be the Clever One, to be the Expert, to be the Hero.

But… We are NOT called to be Clever, but rather to be a Guide with little knowledge, practicing the Ministry of Silence.

WE are NOT called to be the Expert, but rather Be a Healer without much skill, practicing the Ministry of Mediation

We are NOT called to play the Hero, but rather to Be a Sustainer without much power, practicing the Ministry of Presence.

My hope is that each of you will seek to develop the ministries of silence, mediation, and presence. My desire is that the people you provide care for will not see you as clever, as and expert, or as a hero. My prayer is that you will embrace a life-long ministry of care for others where you will be seen as having little knowledge, little skill, and little power.

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.

 

 

 

What Would You Do If Jesus Returned… in 200 Years?

Many have asked the question, “What would you do if Jesus returned tomorrow.” I generally don’t worry about that question. I look to the Parable of the Faithful Servant for wisdom. The faithful servant does not focus on when his master will return… but rather to be faithful each day… doing what one should be doing every day.

But then I must be honest. Today I taught two classes (“Contemporary Issues in Missions” and “Cultural Anthropology”) at seminary. It occurs to me that if Christ was returning tomorrow, then teaching students to do ministry would be quite a waste of time. Maybe there would be something more important to do than train students for a ministerial vocation that would cease to be in a matter of hours. Image result for question mark

But that is the problem isn’t it. If we spend too much time focusing on the nearness of Christ’s return, it can actually motivate us to the wrong action. At first this seems counter-intuitive.  Wouldn’t doing right be the correct response to the nearness of Christ? But many of the best life choices demand investment in long-term processes. Focusing on the nearness of Christ’s return can motivate one away from long-term investment in important relationships and spiritual discipline and more towards something that could be thought of as “spiritual day-trading”– short-term activities that seem like they would give a quick return even if they lead to minimal long-term “fruits.”

So, consider the this question, WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF CHRIST RETURNS IN 200 YEARS?” Here are some possibilities:

  • Would you spend time in discipling others— preparing the next generation of the church?

  • Would you invest your life in your children to raise them up in the way they should go?

  • Would you seek to grow in your relationship with God, accepting life as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, of faith?

  • Would you seek to become a positive transformative influence in your community?

  • Would you seek to express love of God in the love of others and action against social evils wherever they exist?

  • Would you seek to be a good steward of the world you live in to help ensure a healthy place for your descendants to the 4th or 5th generation?

Would you do these things if you were convinced that Jesus was coming tomorrow? I don’t know, but probably not. Would you consider doing these things if Jesus was coming in 200 years? I hope so.

Embracing Mystery

Above is a graph on XKCD. It is described as  A webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language.
You can visit this specific comic at https://xkcd.com/1991/

The graph is meant to be humourous but also reasonable. It looks at areas of study based on two spectra— How big is the things studied, and what is the quantity of the things studied.

Theology is placed quite correctly. It seeks to study God… and that which is created by God. That is pretty big— arguably there could be nothing bigger. For the second axis,  Quantity, I might be tempted to change the label to Mystery. To what extent are we delving into things beyond our understanding versus addressing areas of study that already have well-worn paths.  If one understands theology as the biggest and most tentative/mysterious of fields, then the “God of the Gaps” theory sort of breaks down. It would be more accurate to say “Science (or Empiricism) of the Gaps.”

For some, this seems wrong. Theology is often taught in repetition of dogma. Theology is small and well-structured and defined. This is understandable. After all, to study what is beyond our comprehension and experience, requires (I believe) the presumption that the infinite and ineffable has at times in history intentionally broken into the finite and mundane and revealed itself to us. Thus, a major aspect of theology is to look back at such revelations. As a Christian, I certainly see the incarnation of Christ as central. All other revelations (with the possible exception of the Creation) hold a 2nd position at best.

At the same time, theology, as a thoroughly human endeavor and construct, should alway be entered into with humility and a certain tentativeness.

When we have all of the answers… we are almost certainly missing the most important answers, and perhaps the most important questions.

 

Canonicity of Self

What is true… real… reliable? Each of us have our own criteria.

The most universal criteria is “It feels correct.” This is not in itself wrong. We were designed (by God) to evaluate affectively and unconsciously, every bit as much or more than cognitively and consciously. Captain Kirk is better at making decisions than Mr. Spock… or HAL. However, for our feelings to work well, they do need to be well-trained. Healthy beliefs guide our “personal culture” that interprets experience and guides behavior. As these beliefs become internalized, they become part of our values— our affective part of our thought patterns.

Image result for ad hominem

But, regardless, our feelings do fail us at times… so we need some good humility and feedback loops to challenge our decisions.

Probably the second most universal criteria is “ad hominem.” That term relates to an argument or reaction “directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.” But one can broaden the concept more to say:

  • I accept some things to be true because a person I respect espouses it.
  • I accect some things as false because a person I do not respect espouses it.
  • I agree with a person because they repeat what I already believe to be true.
  • I disagree with a person because they challenge what I already believe to be true.
  • I trust a person because I assume their motives are in line with my own.
  • I distrust a person because I assume their motives are dissonant with my own.

Both of these are understandable and very human. But they both essentially come down to a “Canonicity of Self.”

My children are into anime’ and computer games and such. They often talk about canonicity in story lines— what stories or games are considered to be canon to the created world they exist in, and what are not. What games involving Mario and Luigi (of all things) are part of an official story line, and what things were created with no formal connection to the rest. Once a canon is determined, one can analyze characters, causalities, relationships, and timelines. Without a canon that is external to the individual, there is just a pooling of opinions.

The role of Canon in one’s faith life and lived life is huge in my opinion. Reformed theologians classically embrace “Soli Scriptorum” (Scripture only… or at least Primacy of Scripture). I can see value in that. One starts from an accepted cononical scripture, and deduces theological principles.

But the other direction is at least as important. That is that Scripture, as canon, provides the criteria to test against.

Properly speaking Canonicity needs to push in both directions. Beliefs should be drawn from the whole of Scripture, and then the veracity of other truth claims.

I find it interesting that many Christians complain about post-modern thought— subjectivity (or at least inter-subjectivity) over objectivity. Yet many of these same Christians commonly utilize themselves as the standard for truth. Then they find Biblical passages to support their own opinions. That process is backwards.

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.”