Saturday, July 19, 2014

National Conscience, or National Enabler? Thoughts on the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine and the Role of Orthodox Christians

Russian Separatist fighter in Ukraine

Christianity is once again playing an all-too-familiar and unhappy role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  Russia, of course, denies any involvement or any responsibility for the events and violence occurring within the borders of its western neighbor, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 two days ago.  Despite the fact that so-called separatists have been trained and, dare we say, deployed from Russian territory, and despite the fact that these separatists have been armed with increasingly sophisticated Russian weaponry rolled across the Russian-Ukrainian frontier in brazen view of the world, and despite the fact that the Russian leadership and press has voiced full-throated support of the ‘rebels’ and inflammatory denunciations of the Ukrainian government – despite all of this, Mr. Putin, Russia’s president, has denied any involvement with and any responsibility for the chaos, bloodshed and destabilization caused by what, regardless of the denials, are his proxies in the west.  The same appears to be true in this most recent horrific incident.  Given the amount of disinformation, denial, and recrimination already dominating the media/propaganda wars swirling around this brazen mass murder, we may never be able to say with absolute certainty who did it and why.  So hardened are the perpetrators that they would prefer it this way.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill with Russian President Vladimir Putin

In the meantime, both Russia and Ukraine have huge Orthodox populations, and their hierarchs have varying degrees of influence within their respective states, be it formal or informal.  Sadly, the Church in Russia has given the impression to the rest of the world that it is little more than the lap dog of the Russian authorities.  If they have attempted to introduce a Christian perspective to the political dialogue at the Kremlin, it has not been evident to anyone outside its gates.  The Russian president and his people have, regardless of their morality, been very skillful at revving up Russian feelings of patriotism and pride, i.e. nationalism.  And while this is not a bad thing in and of itself, history tells of one bloody tale after another when leaders of nations or ethnic groups fanned the blaze of nationalism or racism to pursue their own policy or personal goals.  The wildfire too often gets out of control and people use nationalism to justify all manner of horrific actions against other human beings. 

The Orthodox Church has sometimes been complicit in such outbreaks of nationalism-inspired violence, if not by active promotion, then by not taking a vigorous stand against it in the name of Christ.  Any ideology that causes one person or one side to feel justified in taking action that harms another person is an anti-Christian, anti-Christ ideology.  The advance of one people over and against another does not serve the cause of Christ.  Instead it serves the strategy of the Devil.

By not speaking out against every act of inhumanity, even if it means speaking out against ‘our’ side, we become enablers of that inhumanity.  Our words and deeds will find us to be servants either of our nation or our Savior; it is impossible to serve the interests of both at the same time.  This, in my opinion, is the great test facing the Christians of Russia and Ukraine (we could talk about Christians in the US, but I have done that elsewhere).  The Church and its hierarchs should be holding the leadership of its nation to account, not winking and nodding and providing tacit approval as the government foments and inhuman foreign policy and misleads its own people through a deliberate campaign of spin, half-truths and outright lies.  The Church, its laity and its hierarchs give the impression that they are more afraid of what Mr. Putin might do to them than they are of Christ.  Perhaps the Church and its hierarchs have too much to lose by crossing the government (pun intended).

Ukrainian Orthodox Priests in front of Russian tank in Crimea

Christians on the Ukrainian side of this conflict have no less momentous choices to make.  The temptation to make the Church merely the instrument of the State is almost overpowering, especially when one’s people appear to be on the wrong side of neighbor-state-sponsored bullying.  But when Church and national identity become confused, history shows again and again that it’s the Church that gets used and abused by the State, and not visa versa.

I fully understand that it is incredibly difficult to stand against the crowd, especially when it has been whipped up in a fever of nationalistic fervor.  Bad things tend to happen to people who cannot demonstrate that they are on ‘our’ side.  A few recent examples make this point in spades: Rwanda twenty years ago, Southern Sudan this year, Yugoslavia twenty years ago, Northern Ireland thirty years ago, Israel and Palestine right now, Pakistan right now, etc, etc.  It is, however, no credit to Christianity or to its Lord to be leading the charge against our enemies.  Especially since Jesus repeatedly takes the side of the oppressed, the powerless, the needy and the poor.  It is precisely at times like this when our true loyalties are revealed.  And most of the time our true loyalty is neither to Church or State, but to ourselves as we wrap ourselves in whatever colors will save us from harm.

Russian Separatists in eastern Ukraine

Being a follower of Jesus will cause one to take a different posture, to choose a different road.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., said  in so many different ways not so many years ago when Christians were facing equally momentous choices in our own country, we the Church can support the government when it chooses to do what is right, but we must stand against it when it chooses to do wrong, especially when wrong means real suffering to men, women and children.  We the Church can support the government when it speaks the truth, and when its analysis of the situation rightly reflects reality on the ground; but we must stand against it when the government by its repeated us of misinformation demonstrates that what it declares simply cannot be trusted.  We the Church can support the government when the interests, policies and actions of the government advance the cause of Christ; but we must stand against it when those interests, policies and actions discourage and destroy the mission of the Church.

I have no doubt that taking a stand for truth and love against the policies of subterfuge and war will result in suffering for the Christians who choose to do so.  But this is a very old choice, and Christians who have made this choice have often paid with their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  But those Christians who have chosen to side with the government may win for a time rewards and positions and power in this world, it will not go well when one finds oneself explaining to Christ the Judge why one chose Mr. Putin’s interests over those of the Lord Jesus’.

The bottom line is simply this – it is past time for Russia’s Christians, and Ukraine’s Christians (and America’s Christians, for that matter!) to start behaving like the Christians they profess to be.  There will be a very different reality on the ground in Russia and Ukraine (and the US) when this begins to happen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

There's Poverty, and then There's Poverty

I had the privilege of being part of a group of 9 from my church who traveled to far western Virginia, to the small town of Grundy, spending a week to work on a couple of dilapidated houses, restoring them to a liveable condition.  Our church has sent work teams for a number of summers, partnering with an impressive local organization called Buchanan [County] Neighbors United.  For us and a number of other work teams, BNU people identified needs, lined up work crews, bought materials and helped with getting to and from the work sites and even supervised and worked alongside us.  They have done a phenomenal job, by us at least.

I can’t speak for any of the other projects, but the needs we were addressing were deplorable.  One trailer that members of our team worked on was home to a grandmother and seven children 9 and under.  Two of her daughters were in prison on drug charges.  The trailer had 2 bedrooms, maybe 3.  The bathroom floor had rotted through, as had the floor in the main bedroom.  Our task was to fix the floors so the children wouldn’t fall through.

The second site was the home of a sick old woman.  What passed as a bathroom had totally rotted and collapsed, and she was reduced to relieving herself in a bucket.  One team tore out what remained of the old bathroom, another framed a new one in, another put a tin roof on it, and we were to finish the drywall, do the plumbing and put in the shower, vanity/sink and toilet.  Which is what we did, though not without the usual small dramas that accompany small construction projects.

While we were successful in completing our several projects, we were less successful in resolving the real issue behind it.  Buchanan County is coal country, and coal is not doing so good, which means that people are not working and having a real hard time supporting their families.  This obviously puts pressure on already challenged relationships, and already dysfunctional ways of coping, reflected in the high rates of alcohol and drug addiction, as well as incidences of domestic violence.  Men, women and children caught up in this maelstrom get hollowed out pretty quickly.  Some family systems have been mired in this quicksand for generations, which each generation inflicting on their children what was done to them by their fathers and mothers.

In both cases that we were helping with, both the grandmother and the old woman had family who lived nearby.  Not a single one of the extended family members offered to help us.  And we determined from talking with our hosts that both situations were allowed to deteriorate to the present unlivable and dangerous situation in full view of an extended family who in both cases chose to do nothing.  Of course we weren’t privy to family histories or family dynamics, but at the very least, I think one could say that something wasn’t right here.

I also observed that ‘poor’ is an elastic concept.  The house I was working on had a lot of stuff.  There was a TV with cable, a fridge, stove, washing machine, and two annoying yap dogs.  But the house itself was not far behind the old bathroom in terms of soon going the way of all things.  The woman who lived there was either on the sofa, on her bed or on a chair on the front porch, or moving with difficulty in between.  She did have a daughter who was helping her, who was herself recently out of jail for drug issues.  The county provided an aide who came several hours on most days we were there to help.  Her situation was described by people who knew the family as ‘generational’.

I’ve lived in Ethiopia and in Kenya.  I’ve stayed in the homes of people who were much ‘poorer’ than these folks in Buchanan County, who had much less in terms of things, whose homes were made of tin or wood scraps, who had an outhouse maybe.  And yet my friends in Ethiopia and Kenya often didn’t seem ‘poor’.  Their lives were rich, with lots of family, lots of relationships, church activities, community activities.  There was no government handout to be had – they were on their own.  But somehow these families lived lives that were full of meaning and even joy.  I saw very little joy in the hollers of western Virginia.

Which raises the possibility that our normal ways of thinking about poverty may be too simplistic.  There is poverty of material things.  And there is poverty of heart and soul.  One poor in material things may be rich in relationships and quality of life.  One rich in stuff may be live in a relational and interior desert.  Evidently there’s poverty, and then there’s poverty.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Death Spiral in the Holy Land

Relations between Israeli authorities and Palestinians have never been good, in my memory at least.  And this past week merely added a fresh and bloody edge to the mutual hatred and fear that defines the fractures dividing these two peoples who have been forced to contend over the same tiny swath of territory for more than a hundred years.  It would be merely tragic if this patch of land was between Uruguay and Argentina.  But given that it encompasses many of the sites mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old and New Testaments and the Muslim Koran, and given that all three religions claim specific sites as holy to their faith, and sometimes the same sites for all three, the combustible potential for trouble has flared into barely contained hotspots again and again.

This past week is no different.  Three Israeli teenagers from a West Bank Jewish settlement were kidnapped and then murdered by men related to the Islamist Hamas party, the group that governs Gaza and which recently joined the Palestinian Authority in a unity government.  This was a horrific crime, as murder always is.  Within days, a Palestinian teenager was snatched from the streets of Jerusalem, and hours later his lifeless and burned body was discovered to the grief and outrage of the Palestinian community.  Given that Jewish extremists had vowed revenge and threatened to kill Palestinians in the several days leading up to this murder, Palestinians were quick to connect the dots and blame Jewish extremists for the boy’s murder.

Then came the Friday Muslim prayer services, the emotion exploding onto the streets, the funeral procession, the violence, the calling for revenge and a new intifadah.  We have seen this all before.  Again and again.

So we are in a cycle of violence and revenge and revenge to avenge the revenge that goes way back.   This cycle has not resolved anything on the ground in the Middle East.  The only thing this violence achieves is adding to the number of men and women and children whose lives have been cruelly cut short, or whose bodies have been maimed or injured or whose hearts have been broken.  And all of this carnage has been pushed by men (almost always men) who callously advance their political agendas and don’t mind using the ‘sacrifice’ of people less powerful than they or the purported values of their religion to achieve their own ends.  People caught up in these cycles of violence, whether they are in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan are losing their lives or being wounded for no good reason, often to replace one corrupt and murderous regime with another, which is another way of saying ‘no good reason.’

Revenge is easy.  But it never fixes the real problem.  Never. 

Revenge is the coward’s way.  Because it takes character and courage and the capacity to forgive and to love and to compromise to bring about real change and even transformation in our communities.

My family would go to the beach on holiday when I was a boy, and I learned both how to make sand castles and some disconcerting things about the sand-castle-making enterprise.  First it takes time and effort to make a really good sand castle.  Secondly, any 3 year old or fool or idiot can destroy a sand castle in about five seconds.  It is always much easier to tear down than to build up.  Where are the men and women of courage in each of these places who are willing to do the very hard work of building a society that is just for all people, that respects the rights and needs and aspirations of all people?  We all know that acts of revenge (whatever the justification) accomplish no good thing and only spin the cycle of conflict closer and closer to the point of no return.  And yet we keep doing it.  That would make us not very smart, among other things.

We in the United States of America are not immune to this sort of conflict.  No society is.  Every community, every city, every state, every nation has fault lines that could rupture with catastrophic consequences for everyone caught up in the conflagration.  One doesn't need to be much of a student of history to know that this has all happened before, and unless we figure out a better way, it will all happen again.  As it seems to be today in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bumper Sticker of the Month

Seen recently:

Honk if you love Jesus!
Text while driving if you would like to meet Him!

Thanks to Robin and Linda Williams.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Game of Thrones

Trooping the Colour

In case you haven’t noticed, the game is about power.  In many places this is simply obvious.  In Washington, DC, despite the fulminations about (pick your topic) the budget, the deficit, Benghazi, Obamacare, the bottom line issue is power.  In whatever horrific civil war currently underway, regardless of the lofty-sounding propaganda put forth by all sides, the bottom line issue is power.  In boardrooms and corporate offices across the globe, forget the idealistic made-for-advertising drivel about serving customers or even serving shareholders; the issue is power.  In each of these places, the struggle is intense, the stakes are high, the collateral damage is staggering, the casualties are real.  In this world of ours, there are winners and there are losers.  And the goal is not to be numbered among the latter at any cost.

The Kremlin

But even in less obvious places the same dynamic is in place.  In places of worship all across the globe, the spiritual ideals espoused might be truly beautiful, but the game played inside is simply about pure naked power.  At a mosque in Mombasa, Kenya a week or so ago, a prominent imam was gunned down by disgruntled attendees because he refused to take a more militant line.  Western Christian churches are not known for shooting (or burning) their leaders, in this century at least, but the power plays are no less intense, and the result is too often broken relationships, broken careers, even broken lives.  Imagine the mixed message that is sent when one Sunday, the pastor of a large congregation leads his people in the celebration of our communion as members of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and the next Sunday he is gone, forbidden to stand before the congregation again by a couple of rogue elders who, unhappy that they couldn’t make the pastor do their bidding, finally found a pretext to get rid of him.  This sort of thing is much more common than one might think.

Christians have a long history of being no different than the rest of the world in the way they do business, conduct their affairs, manage conflicts and look after their interests.  We just feel more or less obligated to mask our motives and behaviors behind an obscuring fog of Christian jargon.  I speak from experience, because I am that Christian.  So whether one is a Renaissance pope or a 21st century Televangelist, the issues are remarkably the same.  The only interest being served is neither Christ’s nor the gospel’s, but one’s reputation, influence, coffers and prestige and CV.

Tianamen Square

But if the issue of power and control dominates the world and its religions, power and control are the currency of individual relationships as well.  Just think of cliques of girls or boys in junior high school.  Think of the playground bully.  Think of the pecking order that exists on sports teams.  We all learn very early that the game is about power.  Some of us learn how to play it and stay on top.  Some of us want to be with the powerful, beautiful, cool people, but are cut out of the game.  Some of us become skilled at avoiding the issue.  But the game remains the same.

Sadly, power often becomes the issue in marriages and families.  One spouse is or becomes dominant, the other becomes subservient or accommodates.  The status quo is maintained by all sorts of dysfunctional behavior, from veiled (or overt) threats, verbal abuse, passive aggressive behavior, and physical abuse.  Given that half of all marriages end in divorce, and (as statistics indicate) half of Christian marriages end in divorce as well, this is no isolated problem.

Elysee Palace

Power is the only language this world knows.  That’s why the US builds aircraft carriers.  It is the only game this world plays.  Most lives are lived as if the old bumper sticker seen on the back of an old man’s Porche is the one incontrovertible fact of the universe: ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins!’  It is the soul-reverberating theme of advertising, the chorus of popular music.  Magazines trumpet the latest surefire ways to achieve ascendancy.  Health and wealth gospellers assure us they own and define the way to success.

I’ve recently been in long earnest conversations with a friend who was lamenting the state of American Christianity and how if we would just learn to seek first the kingdom of God, we would see God do dramatic things in our midst.  My friend is surely right in some of her observations:  the state of American Christianity is deplorable.  Churches are full of people who say one thing and do something else.  Few seem willing to listen to what Jesus says, much less act on it.  Churches have become auditoriums where one can come and listen and watch and then go back home, more of an opportunity for lifestyle enhancement than a community of intentional disciples.  Preachers preach messages seemingly full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, to paraphrase Shakespeare.  There are exceptions.  But the pull of our culture’s current is so powerful and the perceived costs of resistance so steep that most individuals, churches and Christian institutions have chosen to drift along under the unfailing banner of God and country, or at least the unthinking banner of ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’.

Japan's Parliament in session

But none of this should be shocking or a surprise.  Jesus himself and his apostles flagged at the very beginning of this movement that the dangers of hypocrisy and of conformity with the values of the world would be the chief dangers facing Christians – not opposition, persecution or even martyrdom.  One of the reasons the early churches did not grow and spread even faster is that the gospel, and Jesus’ call to discipleship, is inherently and fundamentally opposed to the surrounding cultures’ way of doing things.  Being a Christian sets one against one’s culture.  Being a Christian sets one against one’s family system.  Being a Christian is very costly.   

There are some who are attracted to Christianity; they like the perceived perks, they like being associated with these people, but they themselves want to have it their way.  They want to define repentance on their terms, they want to demonstrate love on their terms, they want to practice spirituality on their terms, they want to be involved on their terms.  These people may be ‘Christian’ by association and even membership. But they are not Christian as Christ and the apostles understand the term.
The Reichstag dome
It should come as no surprise that our churches, our staffs, our classes, our seminaries are all full of people who are busy defining Christianity according to their perceived needs and desires.  The reason one can say this is that the one marker given by Jesus and by Paul for genuine Christianity seems so totally lacking in our churches and (so-called) 'Christian' institutions.  Jesus says, ‘This is how everybody else will know that you are my follower if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  Paul says, ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love’. (Galatians 5:22)  Without this defining our relationships and our interactions and our dealings and our priorities, we are clashing cymbals.  It really is this simple.
There is a lot of energy spent in Christian circles rooting out those who seem to threaten ‘Christianity’ as we define it.  Seminaries uncover and toss out professors who cannot sign this statement on inerrancy or that statement on justification.  Denominations toss out pastors who get divorced or who suffer from depression or who are gay, all in the name of purity.  But none of those issues threatens the movement started by the incarnate Son of God; what guts the gospel and the church in our generation and what has gutted it in every previous generation back to the time of the apostles is the lack of love.  Period.  We aren’t what we are called to be because we do not love.  And that is primarily because none of us are called to be professors or teachers or pastors or administrators or best-selling authors or successful megachurch hyperleaders or top-of-the-ponzi-scheme prosperity gospellers.  We are called to love, and to love in the same way Jesus has loved us.  This is what Christianity is.  This is what Christianity does.  This is what salvation actually looks like.  Anything less has missed the mark.
British Parliament

Jesus was firmly rooted in the world of his time.  He knew what the game was, amongst the religious leaders, amongst the Roman occupiers, in the lives of the men and women who made of the crowds who turned out to see if he might do a miracle.  Jesus didn’t come to give self-help tips to show us how to make it in this world.  He intended to turn the world upside down, and us with it.

What Jesus says, what Jesus stands for, is simply counter-intuitive to the way things are and the way things are done.  It’s no wonder that hardly anyone takes what he says seriously.  It is rhetoric to be ignored, just as we have learned to ignore the rhetoric of our parents, our teachers, our pastors, our politicians.  The disciples led the way in making this mistake.  The very ones who heard Jesus day in and day out and had a front row seat from which to view how he actually lived and what he actually did, they insisted on defining the ‘kingdom’ as best suited them, and proceeded to set up its administration in good first century style, with them in charge of course.  Or they went after each other over who was the greatest, and thus who stood in line to receive to top position of power and perks when Jesus got around to divvying up the inevitable spoils of conquest.  It would seem that nothing has changed.  Every generation of Christian since then has made the same mistakes, more or less, to the present day.  The results are, sadly, everywhere on display.

The 1976 Coronation of Emperor Bokassa, CAR

So in every home, in every church, in every denomination, in every religion, in every organization, in every movement, in every government, in every relationship it’s a game of thrones, to borrow the title from the popular TV show.  It’s a game that consumes our lives.  But our games are played detached from reality, because in actuality the real throne is already taken.  When understood, this sets me free from living my agenda at someone else’s expense.  I can instead devote my life to life according to the rightful king’s agenda.  I can take the posture of a servant, I can give my time and possessions without expectation of reward or return.  I can sacrifice my wants and even my needs for the sake of another.  I can do good to those who persecute me, love those who set themselves against me and are determined to be my enemy.

But for some reason, this is very, very hard.  The world has seen glimpses of this, flashes of ‘made in the image of God’ glory, has had foretastes of new heaven and new earth reality.  But the world has, tragically, seen no consistent evidence that Jesus’ counter culture kingdom is anything more than pious nonsense.  ‘You are the salt of the earth’?  ‘You are the light of the world’?  If this is it, if Christianity today is what Jesus had in mind, then we are in trouble.

The answer is not more programs, not more leadership, not more conferences, not more seeker friendly, not more miracles, not more healings, not more ‘faith’, not more studies, not more diversity.  The Christian answer is, simply, repentance.  History is an endless book of examples of how humanity has tried the same things and with the same results, ad nauseum.  History provides as close as one can come to proof that we are not dealing with an intelligent species after all.  The cycle of dysfunction, the endless climb towards power, the game of thrones, when all is said and done, is a road that ends in the middle of nowhere.  Such is the destruction and pain caused by this way of being, one would think men and women would be desperate to take the first possible exit off this highway to hell.  But it is the mystery and delusion of iniquity that the vast majority think any alternative would be worse.  And so we stay strapped into this roller coaster for a ride that actually will end in eternal freefall.

Jesus is the icon of what God intends for all of us.  He has reclaimed human life for its rightful purpose in glorious relationship with God and one another.  He has demonstrated that an alternative way to the world’s mythology and methodology is not only to be preferred, but is in fact the only way out of the mess that all of us are currently in. The church is meant to be God’s hospital where His regimen of healing and salvation takes place.  The sacraments are the medicines prescribed by Christ our Healer.  And prayer the measure of our love of God the holy Trinity.  All of us are congenitally oriented against the call and means of love, the bend towards power and control runs deep in us all.  But our fellowship with other Christians on the way is meant to be the place where we practice our call to be like Christ.  While I resonate with the image of the church as hospital, perhaps a better analogy is that of an emergency room.  All of us arrive in bad shape.  All of us need serious help. We have spent our entire lives treating symptoms.  The doctor is concerned not to give acetaminophen for a head ache; he finds us instead afflicted by an end-stage metastasized cancer. Without his intervention this patient will surely perish.

It is common to rail and whinge about the government, or the economy, or big business, or this or that conglomerate, or those rich people, or those drug addicts, or that teacher, or that pastor, or that neighbor or that husband/wife.  But the real issue lies with none of these.  Until we can look in the mirror and own our need and our dysfunction and our choices and our own game of thrones we are no different nor will we be any more effectual than any other human being who has been caught up in a similar version of what our broken humanity has become.  This, at least, is my current struggle.  I’ve awakened late to the fact that none of my exalted experience or education or long identity as a ‘Christian’ absolves me from my own desperate need to repent, and too often my repentance is hindered by these things, connected like a pernicious weed with runners from the controlling node of my pride.

The Mall

Only when my pride is exposed and pulled out can the gospel be good news.  With clearing mind and clearing eyes, we see death for what it is, sin for what it is, brokenness for what it is.  And we also see Jesus for who he is, and his cross for what it is, and salvation for what it is.  We become a sign to the rest of the world – to our spouses, our neighbors, our community, our churches our nation – that it need not be as it has been.  There is a different way, a better way:  ‘I am the way,’ says Jesus.

Power promises way more than it ever delivers.  ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but it ends in death.’ (Proverbs 14:12)  Like the classic pre-GPS American male who would drive for miles refusing to ask for directions and refusing to admit that he was lost, it is long past time to admit that standard operating procedure is not leading us to our desired haven.  Asking directions and changing course may seem humiliating, but it is surely better than the alternative.