Archive for category religion
My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)
My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians. The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.
(Edit: Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE. I’m not suggesting that it was…)
My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong. Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:
FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much. And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher. As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison. REPULSED.
I feel you. I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were. In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…). It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry. I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor. Let me explain.
In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself. He and I are both Tennesseans. We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance. Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan. Dave lives in my hometown. If I wanted to, I could go to church with him. I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps. And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money. Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm. God however, called me in a different direction.
But there is something else besides. Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted. Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web. He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.
And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up. Yep, someone else messed you up. Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision. But you know what? You don’t have to live there. There is a better option. YOU have power. YOU have choices. YOU have agency.
And the sarcasm? The snarkiness? It shocks your system. It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that. They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it. Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic? He’s so mean, etc., etc.
And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something. You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction. And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are. And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it. It’s ain’t about getting rich.
If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives. People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off. People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them. People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open. People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can. Or so that they can forget.
I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant. Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope. Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book. Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back. Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.
The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does. He’s rich. He’s a financial whiz. He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate. He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’
There was a group of young minority men who were among the best and brightest in society. Not only had they been top of their class, they were athletically fit, and good looking besides. They represented the whole package and consequently were selected to be a part of an elite government internship that only the very best could hope to be admitted to. Needless to say, they were very excited about the opportunity, but they were also somewhat nervous. It was not a very common practice for minorities to rise into such positions of influence, and they were concerned to make a good impression. At the same time however, they felt a lot of pressure to not “sell out” their identity in order to secure a position. It was delicate balancing act, but being friends, they worked hard to keep each other accountable and to encourage each other.
For the most part, they did well, but one day the internship director informed them that in order to advance in the program, they would need to sign some documents and agree to participate in some things that normally would be against their religion. “It’s all just a formality,” they were assured, but these young friends were a bit nervous and didn’t want to sign. The internship director told them that he’d give them a chance to think about it, but it really wasn’t an option — and he couldn’t figure what the big deal was anyway. Talking about it later on in their room, the friends decided that they really couldn’t sign it, and certainly couldn’t participate, but they knew it would only make it hard on the internship director, whom they all liked.
Somehow the next day they convinced him to let them continue the program on a trial basis, without signing, and promised him that if anything didn’t go right, they would go ahead with the full program. The director reluctantly agreed, and at the end of the program, well everything worked out for them. They were able to graduate and all of them got excellent government positions. The internship director wrote the references himself, something he rarely did.
Fast forward a few years and our young men are all still friends, well paid, and enjoying the good life. They spent their days in high level meetings and their nights out on the town enjoying the diverse and exciting night life befitting the capital of the most powerful country in the world. The petty troubles of their internship years were far behind them. They were still some of the few minorities working in such high levels of government to be sure, but they lived in enlightened times. No one bothered them much about their odd customs, other than to make the occasional joke, or the puzzled look when their friends found out that they observed such quaint religious rituals. ”To each his own,” their friends would say, “as long as you don’t try to impose it on others, I think it’s fine.” And it was fine, mostly.
Until one day when the large packet packet detailing all the requirements of recent passed legislation landed on the desk of one of the friends. He almost didn’t see it at first, as he lazily scanned the pages and pages of arcane legal language that was the most dull part of his day. But there it was, plain as day – “all employees shall…, failure to abide by this regulation…, this policy will be applied without exception….” He stopped reading, speechless. Usually regulations like this always contained some policy exemption, some language that provided a loophole here or there, but there was none.
Down the hall he ran, not bothering to knock but burst in on his friend. The others were already there. “So you heard?” he asked, but no answer was needed. They had.
Days and weeks went by; meeting after meeting was held. Promises of conciliation and assurances of good faith were given, but no, the policy would not be changing. ”You don’t understand,” they pleaded at desk after desk, higher and higher up the chain of management. Whose policy is this anyway? Surely they don’t mean to implement this. The questions swirled faster and faster but the conclusion was always the same.
The city lights sparkled in the distance. Soft music played while the smell of exquisite food being prepared in the courtyard below wafted in. The spacious apartment decorated in the latest style and filled with the finest decor was a far cry from the cramped dorm room. But the luxurious surroundings and fine wine could not hide the heaviness in the room. Their appeals were exhausted, and so it seemed were they. ”Maybe if we just…” ”No that wouldn’t work.” ”Do you think if we talked to…” Sentences half finished and never answered. They knew the answer already. ”We knew it might come to this some day. We’ve had a good ride so far. God’s been good to us, so we can’t really complain.” Muffled sighs of agreement and resignation answered. It was true. They had known; they’d always known. ”Well,” he spoke, standing and lifting his glass as for a toast, “we cannot know if the LORD will save us from destruction tomorrow or not, but whether he does or not, we will not bow.” The others lifted their glasses to the toast and drank the last in silence.
“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”
So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference. The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.” Praise God for such a vision! And praise God for the organizers of this event. Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event. Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”
The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids. Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference. These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music. They will surge and sing. They will cry and commit. And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).
The faces on the stage matter. If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band. These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.
They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy. It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was). The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone. The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.
Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse? Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material? Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?
Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves. Call it FUBU for White people.
The truth is, the faces do matter. And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think. Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters. Think I’m wrong? Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself. You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important. Call it the incarnation experience. You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.
It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.
This post is about ordinary Christians.
Not that there is any sort of person who is ever really ordinary.
But there are ordinary Christians who simply want to follow Jesus. They are people like so many folks at my church who simply want to faithfully follow Jesus. They don’t know anything about blogging. They aren’t riled up about questions of what Bible translation to use, or the proper English translation of some Greek phrase, or issues of “social justice” (whatever that means).
They go to church. They pray. They give. They sing in the choir. They try to honor God the best way they can.
So often as a “professional Christian worker” ministering in the university context and with access to all the latest and greatest theological, eschatological, and philosophical debates and questions, it becomes very easy to grow arrogant and dismissive of those who do not. Why is this? Quite honestly it is because we believe that greater knowledge equates to greater spiritual maturity or spirituality. We believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yet, if this were true, one would find the most faithful, most mature, and most biblically literate Christians among those who have the most access. The testimony of history and indeed of scripture tells us that this is not true.
Much is said about Jesus’ ministry to the poor. I don’t know if it is so accurate to describe his ministry in that way. There were, to be sure, poor among his followers. But the bulk of his followers were what we might call working class or middle class (though such classes were functionally poor in Roman society, socially they fit the description). They were people who were lectured to by the more learned among them about the hows and whys of following the covenant. And they too were looking for the messiah to come. It was among the most educated classes that the greatest disputes and arguments about theology broke out.
The arguments among the teachers of the Law are much like the arguments today among the blogosphere as people debate back and forth the fine points of the law. We split hairs over exceedingly minor interpretive issues in the Greek text which make absolutely no difference to the maturity or discipleship of Christians for example.
I grew up in a church full of everyday, ordinary Christians. I did not have the benefit of a seminary trained clerical staff, a full time paid youth minister, a library full of books on Christian doctrine. I had rather, faithful Christians who loved the Lord, who cared deeply about seeing that we grew up in the fear of the Lord and had a reverence for scripture. They wanted me to be filled with Holy Spirit and to live a life pleasing to God. They laid the foundation for my faith. They were serious believers. They obeyed the Bible as best they could.
I tip my hat to them. Ordinary spirit filled saints who prayed, preached, and taught me the way of salvation with little more than a KJV Bible, a United Gospel Press Sunday school book, and a decrepit totally useless blackboard.
Higher education in the United States and indeed throughout the so-called “West” is dominated by multiculturalism, with the “hard” sciences, professional schools, and business schools being somewhat the exception. It is an unquestioned assumption within the storied halls of our most elite and least elite colleges and universities that the dominant narrative of Western culture is insufficient to educate students. Their biases, assumptions, and worldviews must be challenged, deconstructed and hopefully re-assembled into something resembling coherence.
Concurrent with these assumptions has come a rejection of what had been the core content of a “liberal” education – namely becoming conversant with the thoughts, ideas, and stories of Western culture (i.e. dead White men) and a departure from what had been the intent of such an education (the discovery of ‘truth’). Heretofore marginalized voices (women, minorities) are given privileged status as a consequence of their having been deemed historically oppressed. In history especially (my field), the European explorers, philosophers and missionaries of old have been transformed into apostles of intolerance, genocide, and unremitting oppression. Simply put, dead White guys are out of fashion and truth as a governing or transcendent concept is not even really talked about.
Of course this shift represents a major challenge for Christians in the academy since we follow a religion that both makes transcendent governing truth claims and whose most significant theologians happen to have been mostly dead White guys. It doesn’t help that the “West” is popularly associated with Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity did indeed originate in the Near East, its most famous early theologians (Augustine and Tertullian) were Africans, and the Christian legacy of India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is far older than that of Ireland. It follows easily that the worst crimes of the western world are laid at the feet of the theology, practice, and indeed even the existence of the Christian faith.
Enter: multiculturalism and the gospel of relativism. According to an article in First Thingsthe task of
a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade
The article continues:
All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true.
And so it is that Christians hold as profoundly and universally true the very thing that sticks in the craw of post-modern cultural relativists. Thus Christian students, albeit thoroughly unversed and ill prepared to “give an answer for the hope that lies within them”, they are nonetheless adherents of a gospel that declares that truth does indeed exist; truth about God, the meaning of life, the condition of man, and man himself. Further, they hold to the notion that these truths are not culturally bound, nor limited by time, but are always and in every place profoundly and fundamentally true.
It is true though that the lens of multiculturalism has brought a needed corrective to the myopia of the Christian church in the United States. It is perhaps a function of our relative isolation from people of different languages and ethnicity that the universality and thus the infinite translatability of the Christian religion has been lost on us. It is a good thing that churches are wrestling with questions of multi-ethnicity and culture. We must be careful though as we wrestle not to adopt the singularly unChristian, dare I say anti-Christian academy that reflexively dismisses the achievements of Christian civilization while highlighting its sins and lionizing those presumed to be victims.
It is no small thing that it is only in the Christian west that human freedom as a concept rooted in the Biblical view of all people being made in God’s image bore the fruit of eliminating slavery, or that women have enjoyed the relative equality of status that they do. When the West failed, it is perhaps not the failure of Christianity, but only an indication that the Christianization of society did not go far enough.
Generally speaking, I am not an especially “sad” person. On most days, I wake up and go through my days relatively happy or at least busy. Those who do not know me well would be surprised to know that I have, for as long as I can remember, struggled with intense bouts of periodic melancholy. I hesitate to use the word “depression” because it carries the connotation of a medically or psychologically diagnosed condition. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed that way, but I would be unsurprised if such diagnosis were ever applied to me.
When I was a teenager it was not unusual for me to have episodes of intense emotional distress (i.e. weeping and/or being perpetually on the edge of tears) for hours on end, though my outer demeanor betrayed none of that and my parents were absolutely unaware that crying myself to sleep was not at all uncommon. I was rather ashamed to tell them that. Experiencing such depth of emotion seemed to me to be “weak” and I didn’t want to 1) embarrass my parents for having such a punk for a son, 2) make them feel badly for raising a son who couldn’t keep it together, or 3) admit that how terrified I was of the intensity of my own emotions.
To cope with all of this, I became outwardly a very emotionally distant person who was charming and yet in possession of a biting sarcastic wit. The painful shyness of my youth was covered up well under a veneer of impassibility and a stubborn inward decision to never be dependent on anyone. I never asked for help for anything; a habit that still persists to this day. In the leadership I rose to in college, I was extremely competent and utterly independent, but also very distant and uncompassionate to those around me. I could with no emotion whatever humiliate and crush someone who opposed me without any sense of real guilt.
Over the years, I’ve mostly matured past many of these sinful behaviors, constructed as they were to prevent me from dealing with the inward depression I periodically experienced. They will always be strong temptations to me. God has been gracious to me, and I pray he has repaired the damage I undoubtedly caused to many people through the years. Even so, I still struggle with depression, though thankfully not as in previous years. When it comes, it no longer washes over me like a tidal wave, but rather seeps in and creeps up, like a slowly rising flood slowly stripping me of desire or passion or motivation. Once it has fully come, simply getting through the day feels like a major accomplishment, though there is a grace that seems to come when I must minister to others. When that grace lifts, I rely on the discipline of obedience and steadfast trust in God to carry me through. Sometimes this barely feels like enough.
I do not write this in pity, nor in regret. I do wonder for those who have this struggle and minister to others especially how you cope with it.
I ran across this bumper sticker slogan today as I was leaving a local coffee shop. My first thought upon reading it was, “Yup, that’s right.” And then I thought again, “Really?” I mean, it is a neat slogan, and it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. In fact I really like it. But as I thought about it, I realized that there are some assumptions buried deep within this seemingly innocuous statement. These assumptions are deeply and profoundly mistaken.
Assumption 1: The cause of war or violence is injustice
The implicit nature of this assumption becomes clear when you look at the statement itself: If there were no injustice, there would be peace. This is definitely untrue. Indeed much of the violence in human history, whether the violence of spousal abuse and homicide, or genocide and war between nations is itself unjust. Injustice is not the cause of violence. There is much violence in the world that has nothing to do with injustice and is not a response to it. Contrary to what many have been taught to believe, sometimes people do evil and violent things simply out of malice, hatred, or ill will. Sometimes, there is no justification nor explanation for the wrong that people do. Sometimes there is injustice, or the violence done by poverty and oppression to the human spirit, and such conditions make reciprocal violence all the more plausible or likely. But many times, it is the violent who bring about injustice.
Assumption 2: The presence of injustice is a justification for violence
Yes, there is a threat of violence inherent in the rather innocuous bumper sticker. You see if you want peace, you must work for justice. Otherwise there will be no peace. So then is violence is an expected or at least appropriate response to injustice? Is it justifiable to respond to unjust conditions with violence? Are those who have been subject to oppression and injustice somehow unable to act with restraint or are they somehow slaves to their situation?
Assumption 3: Peace can be “worked for”
This sentiment seems to be the most innocent of all, but is it really? In a purely secular sense, yes, social equity and the absence of violence can be worked towards. But inherent in the maintenance of any society is the power to enforce the social order, which includes, by necessity, the threat or actual use of violence. Sure, it isn’t something we like to admit, but until the final king comes in glory, all human societies and government enforce the existing social order through force. True peace, that is shalom, is much more than the absence of conflict or violence. It is the positive presence of a just, equitable and holy order wherein there is space for human flourishing. Such a world is not attainable by human effort, but is only foreseeable in God’s economy. Even then, it is the authority of the sovereign Lord that establishes and maintains that order. And what we perceive of as a more perfect form of government; democracy, has historically come through the violence of war and revolution and sometimes a literal “coup d’etat.”
It is not an easy task to make an informed decision when it comes to hiring someone, especially in a ministry field such as my own. There are so many competing issues with which to contend, not the least of which is the notion that all such applicants have that God has led them to apply for the position. Hiring, supervising, and firing people seems such an easier thing in a secular context where personal feelings and question of faith need not be given much (if any) consideration. Certainly when I was laid off from my position in the insurance industry some years ago, no one in management seemed especially concerned about the impact of that decision on my faith. (Ironically, it was wonderfully providential as it afforded me the necessary space and time to transition smoothly into my current work).
However, there are clearly some issues that translate into a secular construct, as I’ve laid out in my title. These four: resume, record, references, and rhetoric (I love alliteration!!) are the key things I examine when weighing in on a hiring decision and I believe that these four things are important to examine in the context of politics.
Resume: The resume is quite simply a candidates (job or political) history of relevant experiences and education. When hiring, it is very important to examine, because experience in a similar type job can tell you a lot about whether a person has the requisite understanding of what the job they’re applying for entails. In ministry it means that youth or missions work relates more easily to campus work than say, parish work with the elderly. In politics it means that executive leadership (governorships, business executive) translates more directly to president than does legislative work — which is why we don’t typically elect senators to the presidency. Legislators rarely have experience running anything other than their mouth.
Record: The record is what person has actually accomplished in their previous work. When I hire someone, the fact that they’ve achieved certain demonstrable goals, or accomplished certain objectives counts for a lot. In politics it should be the same: examination of the actual policy changes achieved or bipartisanship, or significant legislation, or initiatives accomplished matter a great deal.
References: Usually I don’t let references make or break a hiring decision, but they can be the difference between a solid yes and a strong maybe; sometimes they bring me to a full NO! References give insight to the kind of people and relationships a person cultivates. In politics, references are best not done through the lens of endorsements, because the endorsing parties have too much to gain, but by examining the kinds of people, institutions, and associations a politician has. One or two oddities are forgivable; three or four ought to give SERIOUS pause.
Rhetoric: I say rhetoric just because it starts with R, but I mean the interview. This is the least important part of the process for me, because the interviewee is doing all he or she can to impress me and answer the questions the right way. All an interview can really do is give me a face to face sense of the person, or perhaps give them an opportunity to clear up anything that seems untoward from the other 3 things. In politics, the election campaign is the interview, so I don’t put much stock in anything the candidates say about what they’re going to do. They are just interviewing for the job and will tell me exactly what I want to hear.
Of these four, the record counts the most. If the rhetoric matches the record, then it is believable. If not, the person is not honest. So if a candidate claims to be a unifier, look for evidence in their record, their resume, and their references. If a candidate claims to be bipartisan or wants to work in a bipartisan way – examine the record. If he/she has done it before, then believe them. Otherwise they’re lying. If a candidate has lots of bad references and associations, question their judgment and disregard their rhetoric. It really doesn’t matter how well a person interviews / campaigns if everything else about them doesn’t add up. Likewise no matter how poor someone interviews, if the rest of the things stack up, hire them.
Our current president interviewed /campaigned very well, as a compassionate conservative and a unifying figure, but his resume showed a track record of minimal accomplishment, cronyism, partisanship, and pretty poor executive experience. Is it any wonder that his administration has been so thoroughly unaccomplished, and plagued with cronyism, excessive partisanship and horribly administration? The administration of the next president will not reflect his rhetoric, but his record; of that you can be sure.
Just reported a little while ago, the Supreme Court of the state of Connecticut reversed a lower court ruling against the recognition of same sex marriage. Connecticut is the third such state to move in this direction, though NY state’s supreme court has already ruled that they must recognize same sex marriages that have been performed in other states.
Gay rights, especially same sex marriage rights, are THE civil rights issue of our time, or at least that is how the issue is largely presented in the media. In the course of my adult life, homosexuality has moved quite rapidly into the conscience of mainstream America as an acceptable, though not necessarily welcomed, reality. Most people are still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality and even more are opposed to gay marriage, though notably they often lack a sustainable moral philosophy to underlie their opposition. Mostly it comes down to a kind of “ick”‘ factor and some sense that it just isn’t quite right. Inundated as we have been as a society in the last twenty years with the normalcy and acceptability of homosexuality, most people really aren’t quite sure why they’re opposed to gay rights, and at minimum self censor lest they be thought to be homophobic. Certainly most people haven’t really thought through the issue in any way other than the bare minimum required to get on with their lives. This is most especially obvious among our youth for whom homosexuality is regarded as one reality of a diverse society among many, without any particular morality attached to it.
Due to the nature of the controversy, the same sex marriage issue is unlikely to be quickly resolved at the state level before it is kicked upstairs to the federal courts. Both candidates Obama and McCain are ostensibly opposed to gay marriage or want to leave it to the states, but it is very unlikely that either will have the luxury of maintaining their default position if elected to the presidency. This issue is not going away. The Defense of Marriage Act is unlikely to remained unchallenged, though the Supreme Court has heretofore turned down opportunities to take it up. It remains a controversial piece of legislation.
Christians have a different set of concerns as the church (and I speak broadly here) is currently convulsed with controversy over the issue. Few churches openly embrace homosexual practice as valid from a scriptural or historic point of view, and even those churches which are most “liberal” have not gone so far as to accept homosexuality entirely. Unlike politicians, pastors do not have the luxury of remaining uncommitted on this issue as it directly affects the pastoral, priestly, and prophetic roles of the church. Contrary to the beliefs of some, most evangelicals are not unconcerned about the impact of their theology on the lives of those within and without the congregation who are gay, nor are they especially homophobic — which is a word that is thrown around far too easily these days. They, and all Christians who hold to historic Christian orthodoxy on issues of sexual ethics, tread uneasy ground and the convulsions of a social earthquake shift the landscape around them.
Many Christians, having “failed” to act quickly during the Civil Rights era, do not know want to be seen as being on the “wrong side of history” and yet also want to remain faithful to scripture. Others believe that their embrace of gay rights is being faithful to scripture. Caught in the very center of this vortex are those Christians and their families who are themselves gay and seek to live with integrity and in obedience to Jesus.
All of this brings to mind the scripture from Psalms 11.3: If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The foundations of societal consensus on the meaning of life, what marriage is, the ethics that ought to govern social relations, and the role and function of the family have all been consistently undermined over the past 80 years with remarkably predictable results.
From the sexual revolution (the real one in the twenties, not the fake one of the sixties) onward, churches have been consistent in first actively fighting, then passively resisting, then grudgingly accepting and finally actively endorsing social change. The path from the acceptance of artificial birth control as a right to the normalization of divorce, straight through to women’s liberation (which has happened in ALL the churches complementarian and otherwise) is clear and will likely lead, inexorably to an embrace of homosexuality as a valid practice. The link between all of these seemingly disparate matters is clear as Mary Eberstadt says in First Things:
Before 1930, no Christian Church permitted the use of contraception, but that year’s Lambeth Conference, with its approval of contraceptive intercourse, was the beginning of the end. “If a church cannot tell its flock ‘what to do with my body,’ as the saying goes, with regard to contraception,” writes Eberstadt, “then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.” In short, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity will—and did—quickly follow.
And so it is. Are the foundations destroyed? If so, what can the righteous do?
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.