If you want peace, work for justice… really?

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.”

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Resumes, Record, References and Rhetoric

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.

Annnnnnd… the dominoes start to fall – CT recognizes same sex marriage

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?

Can I be myself?

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.

Christians politics

It strikes me as demeaning rather than flattering that political candidates so obviously fall over themselves to pander to the opinions of religious conservatives every election cycle. It is even more pathetic that we Christians go out of our way to invite such pandering and have become rather embarrassingly self congratulatory that we’ve final found issues “worthy” of being taken seriously enough to merit the attention of the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties in the US. Is it not obvious that evangelical interest in issues of poverty, justice, and environmental stewardship (none of which are new concerns for Christians, despite rhetoric to the contrary) is merely being used as a wedge to garner votes and that political elites both “conservative” and “liberal” have no interest in serious engagement with the intellectual and moral foundations of these ideas?

In many ways Christians in the US have become like the proverbial “easy” girl in high school who mistook her popularity with the boys with genuine interest rather than recognizing that her phone number was inscribed on the walls of every ill scrubbed toilet stall, “for a good time call…”. Cheap perfume and dime store flowers seem to be enough to win the affections of Christians in the US.

Having failed to take advantage of the “dial a date” availability of the evangelical vote for some time, the Democratic party conceded such votes to the Republican Party with a kind of attitude reminiscent of the high school know-it-all who claims to have read all the best sex technique books, but can’t get a date to save his life. He was above all of that; and besides who wanted to be part of the in crowd with all the popular kids when it was much more fun to join the chess club, play dungeons and dragons and hang out with the nerdy girls who wore peasant skirts and refused to shave.

Now like that same teen awakening from his adolescent slumber, the Democrats too have ditched the glasses for contacts, gotten a decent haircut, and learned to talk Christian-ese with flattering intonations of “faith” and “justice” and “God.” And like any desperately insecure girl, Christians fall for it all over again, lured by false promises and false hope.

Are we so easily impressed; so easily bought and sold by a political system that is primarily concerned with the preservation of its own power, and is decidedly and firmly not interested in the things of God and of the kingdom? Issues of “faith” have been all over this election, but not because of any substantive interest in the foundational issues of greatest concern to Christians. It has rather been a parade of pandering; a veritable side show of contortionist politics that would put the most flexible circus performer to shame. And we take much of it as complimentary; flattering ourselves to believe that this most recent shift shows that Evangelicals and other Christians don’t “belong” to the Republican Party and likewise that issues of “faith” and “morality” are not the exclusive preserve of the religious right. We borrow the language of a secular media and tell ourselves that we’ve “grown up” and matured despite the fact that Christian thought is nearly two millenia older than the republic itself.

I believe that we fail to recognize that the more Christians twist themselves to accommodate to the societal status quo – either through aggressive power politics of the last twenty years, or so called “subversive” hyper-contextualization that removes from the gospel all of its prickly and unpleasant rough edges (like the uniqueness of Jesus and the full weight of human sin) – the more we lose our witness. Even more, we will rapidly fall into the trap of those who “follow worthless things and became worthless themselves.” It is, in the end, against demonic principalities that desire nothing more than to keep millions stumbling in the dark without the light of Christ. Like those of ancient Israel, in our desire to be “like the other nations” that is, like unbelievers, we will readily trade our divine inheritance for something much more pragmatic and modern, or in our case, post-modern.

Complaint, Critique, and Prophetic Engagement

Since entering the vast wonderland of “blogging” some few years ago, I have had the privilege of electronic correspondence with people whose thoughts and ideas mirror, refine, and challenge my own. It has been a joy to read, and to be read; to challenge and to be challenged by people who I likely would never have met otherwise, and by some whom it is unlikely I shall ever meet. It is always a surprise when I find the circle of acquaintanceship somewhat larger than I had otherwise supposed. It is a small world after all.

One thing that has me pondering, however, as I return from overseas mission into the bubbling cauldron of U.S. presidential election year politicking and the ongoing self analysis done by me and like minded bloggers is the extent to which our commentary, well intended though it is, is often nothing more than complaint dressed in the acceptable clothing of critique or even prophetic engagement.

I think of this because I’ve just spent weeks with students who I taught and stressed the value and virtue, nay the command of scripture not to complain based on the well know Philippians passage. I stressed to them the importance of engaging the culture as servants and learners, and encouraged them to have a posture of openness as they encountered a different culture and worldview, and sought to have them learn from that culture and to allow themselves to be shaped by it. As we did so, I observed that much of the critique leveled by our hosts at the problems in their churches and in their culture more broadly were based almost exclusively in scripture. These were Christians who took very seriously their calling to be salt and light in the world, and who saw an urgent need for the gospel to be preached and practiced to and in society. Much of the worldview they inhabit is more similar to that of the Bible than our own, so for these believers, adherence to scripture and its radical call to discipleship is the prevailing challenge. To be people of integrity in a system that rewards bribery and corruption; to be people of holy devotion to the true and living God in a society where many openly practice false religion: these are the important things.

To the contrary, when I survey the scene in my part of the world, the picture is much different. There isn’t much emphasis, certainly not in the blogosphere, but not in churches either, on living holy and as aliens and strangers. Rather most criticism is ranged against the church itself with the charge that it is irrelevant to the culture it is to reach. The culture itself is rarely critiqued, at least not in blogging circles, and it is commonplace for Christian believers to be so immersed in the surrounding culture (from our dress to our music to our spending to our divorce patterns) as to be virtually indistinguishable. And when the critique comes, it rarely comes based on scripture, but rather based on sociology, psychology, or whatever other prevailing winds happen to be blowing at the time.

What is the difference between valid critique, prophetic engagement, and just plain old sinful complaining? The line is probably not as fine as I would like to make it. If I am honest, I am much given to complaint rather than to honest critique. It really isn’t even about what I say as much as the heart attitude behind it. It is very easy to judge “the church” for all its shortcomings, failings, errors, and misdeeds as though I were not myself the product and a full participant in the same church. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” may or may not be true for nations, but it is definitely not true of church. What right do I have, and by what authority do I stand apart from this sacred institution and judge it? Indeed the fact that I esteem myself to have such a right is rooted not in scripture, but in American cultural values of self expression. This tension underlies much of the challenge faced in ethnic immigrant churches because one group chafes at the cultural constraints imposed by another without recognizing that the values in whose name they protest are not at all Christian, but neo-Enlightenment and in some cases anti-Christian.

The Politics of Hope and other Myths

I am somewhat of a political junkie. I watch cable news shows, read multiple papers, and peruse blogs. I regularly become either enraged or hopeful, despondent or encouraged about the state of our nation and our world as I track politics through the media. I have become, in my view, a somewhat savvy consumer of news and information.

I am also a Christian. I read the Bible. I pray. I worship. I read Christian books and subscribe to Christian magazines. I even preach the occasional sermon. I love the art of preaching and love to hear good preachers. In my view I have become a somewhat savvy discerner of all things good and godly (just kidding).

There are several things that continue to strike me over and again as I track this latest season of election year politics which make it difficult for me as a believer to engage as completely as I’d like in the process, though I will of course cast my vote in November.

The first is the wholesale abandonment of any true sense of a journalistic ethic of objectivity or honesty in reporting. Much of what is called “reporting” or even news is quite simply running commentary in the mold of poorly written and even more poorly edited opinion pages. It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. I was trained as a historian and I know that the selection of materials to report and analyze has as much if not more impact on how history is read and understood as any of the “facts” that have actually occurred. In other words, the fact that so called journalists even report on certain issues and fail to report on other is itself noteworthy. Elizabeth Edwards writes a striking commentary on just this issue.

I am frankly incensed by the ways in which the media falls over itself creating “news” when no news exists, or to express preference for a candidate without expressly doing so. This is evident from such things as where a reporter position himself or herself for reporting. For example, if a journalist reporting on a campaign consistently reports from inside a rally so that the candidate and his supporters can be constantly heard in the background speechmaking and cheering, it creates in the mind of the viewer an image of excitement and inevitably presents that candidate in a favorable light. Another example is the failure of journalist to actual report or show what a candidate says or does in a speech or at an event. Instead, we hear commentary on those speeches alongside interpretations of what it means so that an undiscerning channel surfer (most viewers) will quickly get an impression of a candidate based not on what they say, but on what others say about them (i.e. He’s an elitist; she’s negative).

The second thing that strikes me is the trotting out again and again of the same themes every four years – Washington is broken, Congress is horrible, we need to change the way we do business in Washington., etc. Closely tied to this is the notion that politics should be more civil and polite – more on the order of a moderated debate between two college professors and less “rancorous.” This narrative works of course because no one admits to being “for” negativity and uncivil discourse. It is also helpful to run as an outsider who is untainted from the stain of Washington politics. However the whole thing works because it is based on wholesale and generally willful ignorance on the part of the electorate. People hate “Congress” but generally love their congressman or senator. They hate “rancor” but get pretty worked up themselves when issues like war, gay marriage, abortion, retirement, and taxes are brought up. The fact is people have serious disagreements on these issues and politics is about power. Where there is power, there will be struggle.

The third thing that strikes me, especially this year, is the constant emergence of the theme of hope and transformation. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing to hate on Sens Clinton, McCain, and Obama. No, I am writing to hate on the notion that large scale societal change or transformation needs to take place at all. It does, but not in the political sense. The challenges of our society are not explicitly political, but moral and ethical, and to my ears the candidates are not articulating a moral vision for reform or change, but a political vision. This is exactly counter to the ways in which societal transformations and reformations typically take place. The Civil Rights movement was a political movement, but it was political secondary to its moral commitments. As a Christian I am exceedingly committed to redemption and transformation, but I also know quite well that “(his) kingdom is not of this world.” Anytime the agenda of Christians becomes too tied to Earth, we very quickly lose out on heaven.

Moral visions that are tied to the election of a candidate lend themselves to political messiah-ism that is antithetical to my Christian commitments. God is God whomever is president, or even with no president at all. Christians on the right have erred greatly in the past by hoping for moral transformations coming from political changes. In this election, Christians on the left stand to make the same error in judgment.

The final observation, is that democracy is not especially Biblical. Certainly the founders were for the most part Christian, but we must remember that our nation was founded in rebellion against duly constituted and recognized (even God ordained) authority. The foundations of modern democratic government rest in the supremely liberal ideals of the French Enlightenment which were mostly anti-God and anti-church. The notion that men can rule themselves was revolutionary indeed, and democratic revolutions have almost always been imposed on societies by elite groups who felt they knew what was best for the generally conservative masses who are more inclined usually to order than the chaos of revolution.