A Rewind at the Love Feast

Have you ever wanted to do things over again— perhaps do something different, or something the same but better. I rewind things in my mind and try to “fix” whatever I did poorly, or not as well as I could have. One of the joys of blogging is the ability to do just that. Go back and fix whatever wrong-headed opinions I had` before, or perhaps simply say it better or with less grammatical or typographical errors.

There are stories in the Bible that I would love to see a rewind made. Obviously, I am not speaking of changing the Bible, but simply wondering if the participants in the bible story would like to amend their words or behavior. This is actually one of the wonderful things about the Bible that “heroes of the faith” are shown as humans, with both strengths and weaknesses. In the church age thinsg began to change when it became impious to show such people in ways that were not laudatory. This pattern of sanitizing the records of Christian saints was so prevalent that one argument for the early date of some Christian writing was willingness of the writers to show Christian saints “warts and all.”

One story in the Bible that I wonder if the participants would have liked a rewind is found in Galatians 2:11. The story, related by Paul says:

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he wold eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? …” (Galatians 2: 11-14 NKJV)

This passage is generally taken by commentators as an example of Peter behaving badly. I have a study Bible with me (“The Nelson Study Bible”). In the notes for this passage, the commentators say things like, “Given Peter’s immense influence, Paul had little choice but to point out the hypocrisy directly.” “… the behavior of Peter in Antioch was contradictory and hypocritical.” “Peter’s example was so divisive…” “Peter’s actions did not represent conviction, but hypocrisy.” “Peter’s hypocritical example implied that Gentiles had to behave like Jews in order to receive God’s grace.” Clearly, the commentators have taken a position that takes Paul’s actions and perceptions quite uncritically.

I struggle with this passage, and even more so with many commentators. First and foremost, I don’t see anything in the passage that indicates that Peter was guilty of hypcrisy. Perhaps it could be generously stated that he behaved in a manner that some would be tempted to interpret as hypocritical. Of course, perhaps he DID do something wrong, but if he did, the text doesn’t clearly indicate it. After all, adapting to the culture of those you are ministering to is considered a good behavior, not bad. Behaving as a Gentile with Gentiles and a Jew with Jews could arguably be described as good missiological practice. In fact, Paul did exactly that at times. Now some would argue that the fact that it is in the canon of Scripture it must indicate the truth that Paul’s charges are completely correct and Peter was completely in the wrong. However, often godly principles in the Bible are revealed through stories that are in themselves contrasting rather than supporting godliness, or containing ambivalent behavior. Also, the point of the story was that “all people are justified equally before God” NOT “how I was completely right and Peter was completely wrong.”

Secondly, even if you feel that the context suggests that Peter did something wrong, that doesn’t mean that Paul was in the right. In fact, even if you feel that the story must accurately indicate a failing of Peter (and don’t we all have failings?), there is nothing explicit (or I would argue implicit) in the passage that the Holy Spirit found Paul’s behavior without fault.

Instead of arguing that one must be completely right and one completely wrong, is it possible that both were right… and both were wrong? Real life is often muddy that way. Only rarely is one side of a disagreement completely right and blameless and the other side completely wrong and deserving of all blame. If this story is real, as the text indicates, most likely such muddiness exists here as well. And I have to wonder if one or both of them would have liked to have a rewind.

I might imagine such a rewind as being something like this:

Paul came over to where Peter was dining and said, “Brother can I speak to you on a matter privately.”

“Of course,” responded Peter. They went outside to a quite place and Paul spoke.

“Peter, I see you separating yourself from the Gentiles for at the love feast just now. In the past, you joined with all Gentiles and Jews to eat. I felt that you provided a great example to all parties that God is not a respecter of persons— all are equal before Him. But now associates of James from the church in Jerusalem visit and suddenly you are separating yourself off from the Gentiles. It seems hypocritical to me.”

“Paul, I don’t really see it as hypocritical. Here in Antioch there is a strong culture of accepting each other regardless of our background. That is something I really love about this place. But the church in Jerusalem is not like that. While all of the leadership understand that we are equal before God, there is still a strong sense that being Jews is a key part of their group identity. Many of them still go to the temple regularly and participate in many of the festivals and activities of the Jews. Perhaps their attitude is immature, but sometimes one has to adapt oneself to the immature because they are not ready yet for the more challenging things. It is not hypocritical to feed a baby, while expecting an adult to feed himself. One needs special care and another doesn’t.”

Paul responds, “Peter, I see where you are coming from. But I think you need to know something about Antioch and many of the churches that are up here. They are not as mature as you think. They struggle like a yoke of oxen with each ox trying to go in a different direction and a different speed. There is a lot of tension between Jews and Greeks, Rich and Poor, Slaves and Masters, and more. One thing I appreciate in the love feast is that it models, symbolically, what we are and what we are meant to be— one family of one God and Savior. You may be acting in consideration to our brothers from Jerusalem, but there is a cost. That cost is the confusion it causes here in Antioch.”

“Paul. I did not know the challenges you and Barnabas and the rest have here in Syria. I will talk to our brothers from Jerusalem. I think I can explain it to them in a way they would understand. This may be a good time for them to learn not just through words, but through actions.

Peter and Paul returned to the love feast and had a joyous time.

Frankly, I like the sound of this story better. Now you may not feel the same. You may feel it is unrealistic because people tend not to deal with disagreements in such a tranquil thoughtful manner. But I can’t help but think that Paul and Peter would have preferred this rewind if they thought about it. That is because in the first story, arguably, both Peter and Paul were wrong. Peter was wrong in that he adapted culturally to a small number of people from Jerusalem without understanding that it would be interpreted by people in Antioch as either hypocritical, or supporting a racist or separatist perspective in the churches of Syria. This would be quite consistent with the impetuousness that seems to be part of the personality. of Peter. He could definitely act in ways that failed to consider the repercussions on others. Paul, on the other hand, has issues with anger. That anger sometimes leads him to lash out. (Let’s be honest, telling Galatian church members that they might want to consider emasculating themselves certainly points to someone who struggles with anger management.) Paul sees Peter respecting the feelings of the churchmembers of Jerusalem while undermining, intentionally or not, the work of the leadership at Antioch. So Paul publically lashed out at Peter.

Both were wrong, but both were right. Muddy… just like real life.

Personhood and the Escalation of Conflict. Part 2

How does this apply to missions or ministry?

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”    -Blaise Pascal.

This is a quote worthy of mulling over. Periodically, atheists (or “freethinkers”?) charge all sorts of evil to religion. That is not to say that the irreligious (or the pragmatic) have such a great track record. Delving into the true depths of evil seems to be in the realm of two groups of people:

  • Truly Religious Atheists (“Evildoing should not only be permitted but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person!” -View of Father Paissy, character of Dostoyevsky.) A person who truly embraces his own lack of ultimate accountability, can justify nearly any evil. And some do delve these depths.
  • Truly Religious Theists. If morality is based on a divine standard, to believe that one is acting in the name of that standard, some can do the unspeakable with a calm sense of personal righteousness.

Missionaries are certainly at risk of falling into the trap of doing what is wrong in the name of right. That is because they have the following characterisitcs:

1.  Are very religious. While most missionaries I know are not extreme in their religious fervor, they are often encouraged or expected to be intensely “radical” or “extreme” in their religious faith.

2.  Are typically segregated. Missionaries are commonly cross-cultural, meaning they are often foreigners, of a different culture, and of a different religion to those they are ministering to. As such, it is easy, even natural, to have an US versus THEM attitude. After all, many of the locals will look at missionaries as THEM.

3.  May be prone to spiritual militancy. Missionaries are often encouraged to embrace the metaphor of spiritual warfare or “power encounter” by (perhaps) well-meaning missiologists and religious leaders. Often other faiths are demonized, and it is easy to demonize the proponents of such faiths, or see them as willingly acting in league with Satan.

These tend to emphasize conflict. Therefore, there is a tendency to depersonalize. As we depersonalize, we empathize less and become more dedicated to task over people. If we are called to task first, that might be okay. But if the Great Commission is an application of the Great Commandment, our task is FOUNDED on caring more about God AND people, not caring so much about task, or mission.

Of course, there are principles that should mitigate this potential for misdirection:

1.  We are really called to be Christ-like, not Religious. It is not that religion is wrong, but it is inadequate and is prone to abuse. We are to follow Christ’s example. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” connects His ministry with ours.

2.  We are to be Incarnational, not “Segregational.” Paul was to be a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. Jesus enculturated in the culture, challenging as an insider, not an outsider.

3.  We are given better metaphors, such as servant, rather than warrior. The warfare metaphor has more relevance on a spiritual level or on the level of ideals, “not against flesh and blood.” The full armor of God is mostly defensive, and spiritual, not offensive and physical. Isaiah 53 and Philippians 2 (among others) focus on Jesus as one who came to serve, not to be served. His ministry is made powerful through being a servant, not a warrior.

I am not of the other faiths. If some feel they are at their best in projection of physical power, control, and coersion, I am not one to say otherwise. But Christianity is at its worst with these things. We are at our best as Christians, missionaries, and ministers when we care more about people (BECAUSE we care more about God) than we care about tasks. We are at our best as Christians when we identify ourselves with all people, not being quick to coming up with narrower and narrower designations of who WE are. We are all in this together after all.

We are humans first, more than we are male or female. We are humans first (precious creations designed by God) than we are Christians, or of some nationality, or sect, or race, or cultural designation. Christians are at their best when WE don’t reach out to THEM, because understand that THEY are also US.

We are at our best when we embrace our role as humble servants of Christ, seeking Christ as our model, than when we are radical, extreme, spiritual, religious, or any other description that is focused on tasks, programs, ideas, or missions, rather than people.

Personhood and the Escalation of Conflict. Part 1


A few days ago, the “Islamic State” or “ISS” or “ISIL” made a statement (or its leadership made a statement) that it was okay to enslave and have (non-mutual) sex with non-Muslim women and girls. It is hard, as an outsider, to fathom why a group that claims to be acting for a righteous cause, would make a statement so obviously evil. It seems that three things must have happened:

#2.  A legal analysis of the issue was presumably done from the standpoint of their own religious regulations.

#3.  Presumably an ethical analysis was done to see whether the behavior is in line with what a good follower of their god would do. (After all, many things may be legal, but not appropriate for a faithful adherent.)

The big concern however is #1.

#1.  There must have been members of their group that desired to enslave and rape and so sought to be given the “thumbs up.”

Since, I am not a member of their religion, I don’t particularly care about #2 and #3. But I do care about #1. How could people get to the point where such horrible mistreatment seems like a nifty idea?

For me, I have to think that a lot of this goes back to the issue of personhood and of conflict escalation (and, YES, human evil is always in the mix… but that is not my focus today). Generally, when a group of people want to do something horrific to another human, they first make a determination that that other human really isn’t a human. He or she is not a person, but is sub-human. In some cases, the determination is that the individual IS a person, but has lost the rights (or privileges) of being a person. This may include murderers who are placed on death row, or (in some prisons of the recent past) experimented upon or tortured.

But often what is done is not to assume someone has lost their rights as a person, but he never was a person in the first place. History, has had slavery based on race. In arguments over emancipation, economic and political issues may be argued… but commonly underlying these arguments is a foundational issue of personhood. Some believe that people of a different race are sub-human… not a person… and so enslavement is okay. It would be wrong to enslave a relative… a fellow human… but someone who looks different and has a different nationality is something less.

Abortion rights boils down to the same issue. Some try to argue the issue over practical issues. The foundational issue is personhood. Some argue that abortion should be permitted because women should have rights to do as they wish with their bodies. (Of course, no person on earth has unlimited rights to do whatever they want with their bodies.) What is really meant is that the unborn child (or the less “person”al term… fetus) is not a person. If he/she/it is not a person, than he/she/it lacks basic rights of personhood, and so he/she/it may be deemed simply part of the mother’s/woman’s body.

In recent years there has been a move by some animal rights groups to designate certain animals (such as apes or dolphins) as persons. I don’t know why they feel relative intelligence should be a the determining of value as a person. But the move is obvious. If certain animals are designated as persons… certain rights logically become theirs. My personal fear, however, is that such a move may not elevate the animals, but devalue personhood… but who knows?

Okay… back on topic.  ISIS appears to devalue a person for not sharing their religious viewpoint/ideology, and then further devalues them for not sharing the same gender as the leadership. Perhaps the religious test is more important since, presumably, leaders of ISIS would not be quick to acquiesce to female members of their own clan being raped and enslaved.

It seems likely that such logic doesn’t not come out of careful ethical consideration, but out of the emotions of conflict. The torture (and yes, it sure sounds like torture to me) of “the enemy” by the CIA in the first decade of the 21st century was justified based on conflict.

Consider an escalation of conflict. Although described for church conflcts, the list of stages in “The Escalating Stages of Unresolved Church Conflict” by Ken Newberger seems informative.

Stage 1. (Sometimes) an Uncomfortable Feeling. Something is wrong but not sure what.

Stage 2 A Problem to be Resolved. Problem identified. <Issue-focused>

Stage 3. A Person to Differ with. (Other person-focused) Sides are determined. Discussion changes from what is the best solution, to who is right and who is wrong.

Stage 4. A Dispute to Win. <Issue-focused with greater intensity> Collaboration breaks down. Other issues begin to add to the conflict. Feelings get hurt.

Stage 5. A Person to Attack. <Other person-focused. Greater intensity>. Battle lines are drawn. Stereotyping of the other side occurs with the worst thought of adversaries.

Stage 6. My “Face” to Save. <Self-focused. Greater Intensity> Things get personal. Protecting one’s image and character become dominant. Things are seen as black vs white, good versus evil.

Stage 7. A Person to Expel, Withdraw from, or Ruin. <Other person-focused, Greater intensity> All or nothing battle. Someone or a whole group must go.

You will notice as the stages go higher, the problem becomes more personal, but the other side loses personhood. What starts out as a problem to resolve becomes by Stage 7 a time where people who have another opinion must not exist (at least within their church) or must be shamed or shunned. That is personal. Yet by stage 5, stereotyping begins to dominate. That is, the person on the other side no longer really matters… what matters is that he or she is one of THEM. And as one of THEM, he or she has horrible traits and motives, so unlike people who are part of US. With stage 6, nuances are lost. If someone is not with us… he is against us. Not just one of THEM… but the ENEMY. By stage 7, not only are THEY the ENEMY, but their thoughts and views are unworthy of consideration, and even their presence is at best grudgingly tolerated, and at worst, to be ended.

By stage 5, the personhood of those on the other side of an issue is being replaced by group labelling. By level 6, the group has been labelled as BAD. By level 7, the group is rejected… a problem to be gotten rid of. Personhood has been effectively removed (at least on an emotional level).

The 2nd post will look at this from a missional perspective (believe it or not).

Controntation in Relationships

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_11775576″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3/confrontation-in-relationships&#8221; title=”Confrontation in relationships” target=”_blank”>Confrontation in relationships</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint&#8221; target=”_blank”>PowerPoint</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3&#8243; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>