Sojourners

We have a tendency to get bogged down and distracted by the great amount of negativity surrounding the biblical texts in our culture and society. Maybe it’s the way Christians use the Bible to devalue women or to promote hate, or maybe you’ve been sucked into the scientific debate that focuses our attention on peripheral concerns instead of the beauty of our text.

One biblical concept that restores my faith in the glory of the bible is the sojourner, or the alien, the person dwelling in a foreign land. The cultural chasm between the biblical world and ours is sometimes difficult to cross, but we are keenly aware of what it means to be a in a foreign land.

The life of the sojourner is challenging, isolating and long-suffering. Last week, Canada declared Mexico a safe place to live. That will cause alarm for any who are aware of the growing violence and organized crime making many cities extremely dangerous places to live.

Canada’s designation is not about the living conditions in Mexico or the safety of travel; it is a statement determining how we are going to treat Mexican immigrants. The statement makes certain immigration possibilities unavailable, most notably the refugee status.

We are keenly aware of our borders and cultural surroundings. We feel out of place when we are unfamiliar with language, cultural practices and the unspoken societal rules. We become vulnerable.

Addressing this vulnerability in the sojourner, Leviticus sets an ethical standard far above the societal standards of the time, and even challenges us today.

“You are to not oppress the alien…you are to consider the sojourner a citizen among you…love the alien as yourself…For you were once an alien in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Law codes do two things. First they determine a minimum ethical standard and dictate appropriate actions. Second, every law code contains a motivation. We are most familiar with punitive measures as the motivation, and the Leviticus law code often includes punitive motivation.

When addressing the treatment of sojourners and aliens, however, Leviticus calls for the highest ethical standards: love them as yourself.

The motivation behind the law also changes its impact considerably. Instead of simply dictating actions, the law continues, “for you were once aliens,” and calls the reader to identify with the alien, to identify with the ‘other.’

Found right in the middle of a strict religious law code is this magnificent concept of the sojourner and a call to empathy.

The practice presses beyond any rule that could be put in place. The practice is to identify with the ‘other.’ The practice is empathy.

When you identify with the ‘other,’ the world changes…first in your own eyes…then through your actions.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, February 22nd, 2013.

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Redefining Jihad

My JihadWe have a way of organizing our experiences, memories and thoughts that produce some pretty prejudiced outcomes. It prevents us from listening to what someone has to say when we disagree. It prevents us from treating people as individuals with dignity and respect. It has the power to destroy faith and religion.

As a Christian I often find myself fighting against those that have come before me. It is not direct conflict. It is the influence others have had on those I encounter. To explain my faith or my beliefs, or to help someone find faith in a world and culture like ours, I regularly have to redefine Christian language that has been misused and abused by other Christians.

Our Muslim neighbors are experiencing this on a scale unknown to the modern Christian, as their words, their beliefs and their faith have been co-opted by extremists for global terrorism. The actions of a few Muslims have given certain Americans and Christians all they needed to hate and dismiss the many faithful Muslims around the world.

In October of last year, a conservative Christian began a New York add campaign to slander Muslims, referring to them as “savages”, asking the viewer to “defeat Jihad.” A pivotal concept in the faith system of Islam is the ‘jihad,’ but it has become synonymous with ‘terrorism,’ as it has been used by both extremist Muslims and extremists Christians to instill fear into their listeners.

Yes, ‘jihad’ can be defined as a militant holy war on behalf of Islam, but it is better represented in the faiths of millions of Muslims as a ‘personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline,’ as worded by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Under that definition, Christians should not only stop using ‘jihad’ to strike fear into Americans, they should also find a place of reverence and respect for Muslims seeking to more closely align themselves with the heart of God.

The first responses to these hate-ads came from the Christian group, Sojourners, and a Jewish group, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America. Each posted their own ads beside the others in the New York subway stations. They called for love of our neighbors, asked us to choose love over hate, and to reject bigotry. It is an amazing and unique moment to see that type of respect between religions that they (we) can stand with and support one another.

This is wonderful and truly representative of the best of religion, but it doesn’t address the deeper problem in the anti-islamic ads. The real issue at hand is that the millions of faithful Muslims who understand ‘jihad’ in their personal devotion are stereotyped and categorized with the extremist. Our Christian and Jewish ads, while a beautiful gesture, do not understand the depth of the Muslim experience in North America and fail to draw out the necessary introspection in ourselves.

Myjihad.org has launched a national ad campaign to reclaim their language from those who have abused it for political power. In an effort to redefine the word ‘jihad’ in the public sphere and to begin reversing the negative stereotypes, their ad campaign truly speaks to the root of the problem.

Go take a look at what ‘jihad’ means to different Muslims, and share in the process as Muslims reclaim ‘jihad’ for its intended, faithful use.

There’s a Lot of Book Choosing Going On

Photo Credit: Flickr user, Mr. Ducke, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user, Mr. Ducke, used under CC license

“There seems to be a lot of book choosing going on here.” expressed one of my church members in a recent conversation. I knew exactly where she was headed, because it’s a common sentiment among evangelicals, especially those out of the Restoration Movement, of which I’m a product.

The follow-up question is always a plea, ” Why can’t we just study the Bible?” It’s not a bad question, but it is a question that is self-limiting and self-preserving, a question that doesn’t lead us to also ask, “Why wouldn’t we take advantage of so many great Christian thinkers that allow us to enrich our understanding of the Bible?”

To begin to answer, we need to know why the question is being asked. It is assumed that “book choosing” is happening, because we’re lazy or we have a lesser view of the Bible, but it takes a serious amount of time to create a quality Bible study even with the tools and knowledge to do so. Why reinvent the wheel when someone has spent years in study and practice and is possibly (though unlikely) wiser than your pastor? But this is only a side point to their real concern.

The concern in my tradition comes in the form of a sola scriptura argument combined with a firm belief in free will and accessibility of the Bible. If our theology is determined by the Bible alone, and we’re fully capable of reading and understanding it, then reason follows that we only need to pull out our text and study the Bible. We don’t need someone else telling us how to think.

The reality is that there are deeper issues at hand in these arguments, and we can only address them briefly today. If we are honest, we recognize that we are not approaching the text for the first time or in a vacuum. We bring to it our preformed beliefs and our own context.

When we read, and even study, someone else’s thoughts and approach to scripture we are exposed to new perspectives on texts we’ve read many times before. Not only do we learn more about the text, we also learn about ourselves and our own beliefs. Sometimes when asked about my theology, I reveal that the person that had the most impact was a professor that I disagreed with.

To wall ourselves off from other Christian thinkers becomes a form of self-preservation. Our beliefs are always right, if we’re unwilling to hear from another. When you are unable to listen, disagree and grow, you cease to grow entirely, and so it becomes a self-limiting question as well.

There are a wealth of quality resources available to us, that can help guide our conversations, help inform our studies, lead us into new understandings, and sometimes reaffirm our current beliefs. We are squandering our resources and our time by reproducing materials.

Worse than that, we are slowing down our potential for growth, understanding and action, if we fail to identify and use these resources appropriately.

Next time I’m asked (church, if you’re reading this), I’m going to respond with my own question, “Why wouldn’t we take advantage of so many great Christian thinkers that allow us to enrich our understanding of the Bible?”

God is a Mystery

While talking with the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu commented on the greatness of God, saying, “The glory of God is a mystery.” In a world where lives, families, communities and nations have been built upon our knowledge of God, where this information determines our politics, our ethics, our beliefs, and how we treat our sisters and brothers of humanity, Tutu reminds us that God is a mystery.

It is his following reflections that really begin to make us think: “God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her…but also to understand her.”

“He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in his name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love.”

It is the Christian that can do (and has done) the most damage to the faith of another, or the faith of multitudes. We have watched Westboro Baptist Church drag Christ’s name through the mud, and we’ve watched Christians committing hate crimes, burning down mosques and treating the LGBT community with the kind of hatred only found in the self-righteous Christian.

As Tutu reminds us that part of God’s glory is in God’s “incredible reverence for [our] autonomy,” we are reminded that we can use this freedom and our knowledge of God to oppress God’s people, or we can use this freedom to liberate God’s people.

In these instances and thousands of others, Christianity is used and abused for the sake of power, to control, to maintain the status quo, to promote and sustain the elite. Isn’t it ironic—a little too ironic (sorry)—that God has created a world in which we are given autonomy of thought, belief and speech even at the hindrance of God’s work, yet we use this precise freedom to control and create power structures over others, stifling this God-granted autonomy.

Our God is omnipotent and chooses to love us in a way of pure sacrifice. We, in turn, choose to run with this love and freedom to create and gain power, which our loving God is relinquishing. Ironically, these are our feeble efforts to imitate our loving God…to hate, to oppress, to attack. These are our efforts? This is our legacy? This is our impact on our communities?

In following his thoughts through, Tutu sheds light on religion, “And you have to remember that religion is of itself neither good nor badReligion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it…Religion is good when it produces a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King.

He asks, “What does your faith make you do? Make you become?

This is the question to ask of our faith. The fruit of your vine is your witness and the glory of God.

 

Find the full story of Tutu’s interaction with the Dalai Lama in THE WISDOM OF COMPASSION: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan.

Catholics Come Home Campaign Off Target

 

Screenshot from Catholics Come Home ad campaign

Screenshot from Catholics Come Home ad campaign

The Catholic Church is running tv ads in the Vancouver area targeting former Catholics, asking them to return if they’ve been away. One included a testimony from a man talking about the feeling he gets when the priest forgives his sins. His story also implied that he left the church in the first place because he couldn’t live with a particular sin he had committed.

Another ad focusses on the identity and “accomplishments” of the church, and a third suggests that those living in sin may want to repent before it’s too late. Gary Mason at the Globe and Mail reports that the archdiocese is spending $500,000 on this ad campaign.

It’s not everyday that we get to see the outreach approach of a church put as succinctly as in a 30 second tv spot. The ads speak to a larger problem in the global church (well, maybe the Western church), as the vast majority of churches have failed to recognize the significance of cultural shifts in North America.

Instead of identifying problems and discontinuity within our churches and dealing with them, we place blame on someone’s life of sin and continue to operate business as usual. But business is not as usual. The world is changing (and not necessarily for bad), but it’s churches and Christians that are a primary reason for church decline.

If we fail to communicate or even understand the potential for God’s love to work in a changed world, the church will continue its downward spiral into utter irrelevancy. As I watched these commercials, I first laughed at the claims made by the church, given the harm  Christianity has done to all the same touted programs, and then I was discouraged to see the complete disconnect between their approach and the contemporary culture.

Our churches have turned from faith that is full of wonder and discovery to a belief system that answers to church decline with hatred and judgment for sinful outsiders.

In a recent conversation regarding people leaving the church and general disinterest, someone responded with a “biblical” statement about the gospel being offensive. As if to say, we don’t need to worry about what or how we express the gospel, because it is intended to be offensive. As if to say that we don’t need to question our traditions or our interpretations or our textual assumptions, because the gospel is supposed to be offensive.

The church will continue to fall, and Christianity with it, if we continue to preach this modern western religion instead of declaring the opportunity to share and explore the vibrant love and grace of God.

If we continue to turn our heads to the changing world, place blame on secularism and accept “offensive” as an escape route from the hard work of genuine faith, we will not be in a place to respond to those in need, spiritually or physically.

————–
Here is the transcript of one of the Catholic Come Home ads:

Our family has spanned the centuries and the globe.
With God’s grace we started hospitals to care for the sick.
We established orphanages and helped the poor.
We are the largest charitable organization on the planet, bringing comfort to those in need.
We educate more children than any other institution.
We developed the scientific method and founded the university system.
We defend the dignity of human life and uphold marriage.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, we compiled the Bible.
We are transformed by sacred scripture and sacred tradition, which have guided us for 2000 years.
We are the Catholic Church,
With over 1 billion in our family, sharing in the sacraments and fulness of the christian faith.
Jesus started this church when he said to Peter, the first pope, “You are rock and upon this rock I will build my church.”
So if you’ve been away from the Catholic Church, we invite you to take another look.
Visit Catholics Come Home.org.
We are Catholic, welcome home.

 

When in Texas…

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

In Fort Worth, Texas for the Christmas season, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of the heightened gun control debate following the recent Newton shooting.

We were trying to get to a pajama party at a museum with a special Omni screening of The Polar Express for the kids, but we couldn’t make it through the sea of trucks gridlocked in L.A.-like traffic within a 2 mile radius of the museum (and conveniently the convention center hosting the Lone Star Gun Show). According to later reports, this gun show had record numbers that rivalled the opening hours of Black Friday shopping.

Blown away by the number of military style assault weapons being carried down the street in plain sight by average people, my thoughts naturally turned to crime, gun control, the debate, and their connection to the highly political Christian right.

I live in a strange place, between worlds and worldviews. I grew up in Fort Worth, where the 2nd Amendment is biblical, where personal liberties are biblical even at the expense and danger to the broader community, and where the gun show is the only show more popular than church. Currently, however, I live and work outside Vancouver, BC, where they are quick to give up personal liberties for the safety and security of everyone.

The distinctions between the two show up in a number ways, and I find myself fighting internally over the line between personal liberties and how they impact the broader community. Often I’m concerned with how someone decides what is best for me or how I should protect myself, but I’m keenly aware of how my actions and the actions of others impact our community.

David Heim responded to these recent debates with a quote from Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar, who wrote, “Just as it is forbidden to sell idolaters articles that assist them in idol worship, it is forbidden to sell them articles that can cause harm to many people—for example, bears, lions, weapons, fetters and chains.”

It seems common sensical to him that it is your business to care for the community first, regardless of the cost to your own wealth or liberties. He speaks to a specific people, called to a different ethical standard than the rest of society. His comments understand that others will sell and collect things that bring harm to their community, but your role, as God’s people, is to care for your community and to minimize the potential harm.

We would like to argue that the Bible defends our personal liberties, but truthfully the Bible is a communal book concerned with communal activities. The laws provide ways to naturally care for the community, particularly the vulnerable. The prophets speak against the abuse of the powerful, who forsake the betterment of their community for their own wealth and power. Jesus returns dignity and worth to individuals outcast by society, and the early church takes to communal living in way that cared for one another as Jesus had taught.

More guns and more access leads to more violence in the same way that more television programming and more access has led to more tv viewers for more hours. It is an ethical question: do we concern ourselves with our liberties or our communities?

Transformational Forgiveness

In March 2010, 19 year old Conor shot and killed his 19 year old fiancée, Ann. Conor  had never been in serious trouble before that day. It was the final moment of an argument and fight that had stretched over the course of three days. It ended with Ann on her knees with a shotgun in her face. Conor then turned himself into the police.

That is not the story to be told today, only the beginning. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to deal with the tragic death of a child at an age still full of life, hopes and dreams.

Ann was still alive when emergency crews arrived that afternoon; she would remain on life support, unresponsive for several days until her parents had to make the decision to let her go. As Andy sat with his daughter in the hospital, he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him, forgive him.”

Andy didn’t think that he could ever forgive anyone for this, even Conor, someone that had grown to be part of the family, someone he loved. It wasn’t possible, not realistic, too much to ask. Yet he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him.”

It was his faith that finally allowed Andy to listen to her voice. It was Christ’s call for him to listen that allowed him to begin the process of healing and forgiveness. If only we could all hear that call, the world would be a different place.

While Ann was still in the hospital on life support, Kate visited her daughter’s murderer in jail with a message of forgiveness, and the two cried together. Her faith led her to a place Conor never deserved and could never earn.

True Christ-like forgiveness and compassion by Andy and Kate paved the way for a healing process unprecedented in our court system. A restorative justice process seeks to open the lines of communication between the offender, the victim(s), and their community. Justice then is restored through accepting responsibility, making amends and forgiveness rather than traditional punitive measures.

In the case of Conor’s actions, few would even attempt a path of restoration, and no amount of reparations can restore justice. Andy and Kate, however, were called to forgive, and with exceptional compassion they refused to define Conor by this one moment (or allow their daughter to be defined by that single moment). In a restorative justice community conference, Conor shared his entire story, each parent expressed their loss and hopes for moving forward.

Jesus stood next to a broken and guilty woman and asked for compassion and forgiveness from her community. As Jesus hung on the cross, he asked forgiveness for those responsible. I don’t pretend to understand the compassion necessary for those words, but Andy and Kate offer us an example of how it transforms lives and how forgiveness speaks louder than any words.

Christianity is defined by Christians and their actions. Our community is transformed when we strive for forgiveness and compassion that shocks the world around us. This is the example set for us in Christ. This is our call, “Forgive him.”

Read the full story of Ann Grosmaire and Conor McBride written by Paul Tullis in the New York Times Magazine, 6 January 2013.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, 8 February 2013.

Peculiarities of the Fiscal Cliff Deal

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

We’ve watched repeatedly as the conservative right sheds concern for the “least of these” to improve the lives of wealthy Americans. Like any other financial bill making its way through Congress, there are a few items that we should take note of in the “fiscal cliff bill” that reveal the true powers of our society. Spoiler alert: It’s not the people.

Given the GOP’s close ties to conservative evangelicalism and the overall religious bent of those in political offices, financial decisions that impact our community are closely tied to our religious ethics.

As you work your way through the fiscal cliff bill, it is not difficult to see the compromises made by each side of the senate, but you’d be surprised by some of the winners of the bill that result from these partisan compromises.

These are a few items that Brad Plumer discovered at the Washington Post; you can read the full bill here.

You’re probably already aware of the extension of the Bush tax cuts for household incomes under $450,000, but how about the $9 billion in tax breaks to multinational companies to compete overseas? According to a report from Dan Eggen, companies like JP Morgan and GE receive breaks for certain types of overseas business (read job creating overseas). It’s not a coincidence that they also spend a great deal of time and money lobbying for this lucrative tax incentive.

We’ve come to expect big business and Wall Street to insert itself in financial policy and to receive special treatment, so that one probably didn’t catch you off guard. But how about NASCAR?

The fiscal cliff bill extends tax breaks for NASCAR to build new racetracks to compete with theme parks. This inclusion is expected to cost more than $40 million this year.

Another $75 million will subsidize Hollywood film industry when they film %75 of a movie on US soil.

Almost $550 million will be taxed on rum this year, and then the money will be returned to the rum industry in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Seriously.

All of this money looks suspicious when conservative congress members fight to keep tax breaks for the wealthy, NASCAR and JP Morgan. Then, to cover for the big business, they toss under the bus those who really need it: those in poverty, seniors, unemployed, underemployed, etc.

Our Christian call is to care for these people in need that Jesus calls “the least of these,” so why do so many support the policies and political figures working to do them harm?

Is the Church Radical? Jesus Was

Reposted from my Maple Ridge News article July 27, 2012.

Jesus was radical, but you wouldn’t always know that by looking at his followers. I am consistently amazed at how Jesus re-envisioned the heart of the scriptures.

Radicals are scorned, hated, attacked and persecuted. Jesus was, as were the early Christians, but most of us today (save those facing intense persecution in places like China) are generally unaware of persecution due to our radical Christianity.

If these are true statements, we need to ask two questions: what was radical about Jesus? and, what isn’t radical about our Christianity?

When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he replied with two. Both of them came direct from the legalistic laws of his misguided adversaries. “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.”

This is not new information to his audience. They know these laws forwards and backwards. The message, however, has been re-envisioned and radicalized. Jesus expands neighbour to include the broken, the impoverished, the outcast foreigner, and even your enemy.

Jesus consistently asked his audience to pause and rethink the religious order, not to refute the law, but to challenge his listener to a higher authority found in the author and the intent.

He was scorned and hated, because his message challenged the status quo and threatened authorities. Jewish leaders feared the passion and challenge, and Roman authorities feared the threat of disruption to societal order.

Christians do have a growing sense of persecution in North America, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because we love our neighbour in a way that threatens the fabric of society.

What if it was?

A recent Nat Geo documentary (When Rome Ruled: The Rise of Christianity) had an interesting story to tell of the early Christians. The radical Christianity, inherited from Christ, which led to their persecution and scorn, may also have had an impact on the growth of the church.

They even suggested that Christians lived longer, fought off diseases more frequently and survived better in harsh times. This documentary attributed much of Christianity’s growth to how they cared for their community, the poor and the outcast.

That is to say that, “love your neighbour as yourself” was a radical message that caused both growth and scorn, liberation and hatred.

What if we did love our neighbour in a way that threatened the fabric of our society? What if the scorn Christian’s faced today was not because of our piety and condemnation but because of our radical love, passion and care for people?

Is there a problem with that? Sure, in the process we will also disrupt the religious order, the status quo of our churches. In the process of living our faith, we’ll probably give in to all of society’s pressures and fall victim to secular culture. Well, that’s what I’m told.

Radical faith has to constantly fight against the human desire to create a new law that makes obsolete the radical message and love of Christ.

Pastors Are Searching for the Same Thing You Are

My article from the local paper, Maple Ridge News, reposted here:

The church is in crisis mode, as the number of people leaving church each Sunday continues to outnumber the number that return. The crisis, however, isn’t about the numbers, an increasingly ‘secular culture’ or some kind of societal pressures to dismiss God.

The crisis is internal. It is in the reality of our faith, and the numbers are simply a symptom. We have ended our genuine and persistent exploration of God’s love in lieu of doctrine, programs, services, and contentment.

Just this week I opened my email to read, “Bradley, you know I had trouble with church and ‘God’…” The trouble with ‘God’ is an expression of the trouble with church, it is the ‘god’ we’re representing, a ‘god’ that is not present, a ‘god’ that doesn’t transform our life or our community, a ‘god’ that doesn’t impassion us to live and breathe our faith, a ‘god’ that doesn’t reflect the most perfect expression in the life of Jesus.

Our faith isn’t touchable or real or visible. At least it doesn’t appear to be. Countless of my conversations begin just like that email, because the world cannot see what a Christian community is supposed to be in the midst of our crisis of faith.

Hugh Halter asks in The Tangible Kingdom, “If Christianity was only about finding a group of people to live life with, who shared openly their search for God and allowed anyone, regardless of behavior, to seek too, and who collectively lived by faith to make the world a little more like Heaven, would you be interested?”

Halter was met with an exuberant response, because, like the rest of us, the man was searching for tangible faith, a place where faith impacts life in our community, a place where Jesus’ words come to life.

I assure you that pastors are aware of the crisis (although sometimes misunderstood as a crisis of numbers), but we, just like you, are searching for this tangible faith. We sense too the inconsistencies between Jesus’ passionate message of love and our internal and un-impactful faith.

Seven words have become increasingly significant to my personal understanding of the Christian’s call. You’re probably familiar with them, “on earth as it is in heaven.” We’re not simply called to pray about it; we’re called to live out our faith in a way that God’s kingdom is present on earth.

Your pastor is searching for the same thing you are: a tangible faith that produces a “tangible kingdom.” Real, visible, touchable faith is hard. Our God has endless mystery and a love that should infiltrate our entire beings, our lives and our community. Exploring God’s love is an act of receiving and expressing that love in our community; it is an act that brings God’s kingdom to earth.