Reflection on “The Exodus”

Thanks to everyone who has found this blog by reading “The Exodus.” I’ve appreciated reading the feedback—all of it, positive, negative, questioning, or reflective. I’ve especially appreciated some of the email from folks who shared deeply personal struggles with faith, those who feel alienated by the dominant Christian narrative in our culture, or who simply resonated with the words. I’ve been touched by stories of people who have told me they have left church, but would go to a church if they could find one that said these words.

Thanks to John Archibald and Kissing Fish for helping it to go viral.

I was inspired to write it after reading the Song of Miriam in Exodus. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest text in the Bible.

I just want to offer a few words to folks who have commented, emailed, or shared discussion on social media.

1) In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that friends are those who “see the same truth.” So I am delighted to make the acquaintance of new friends. When I read something that plucks a string in my soul that vibrates for days, or I’m stunned to learn someone else has put into words thoughts I’ve thought or feelings I’ve felt, I feel less alone. It means a lot to me that some of you have shared that these words did that for you, or that they offered courage, comfort, or challenge. Thank you.

2) For everyone who has been alienated from the church, who told me it is a relief or a surprise to hear Christian religious language used in a way that was not advancing a right-wing agenda, just know that there is a long, long tradition of religious social justice work. I’m part of a grassroots community organizing group called Faith in Action Alabama, and one of our themes is that what we’re talking about is not a thin veneer of religious language over a political agenda, but a deeply-rooted faith response that claims that God is not neutral about injustice, that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that prophetic imagination is part of our calling. I encourage you to find a group doing such work in your area. I also recommend Common Prayer for daily devotional.

While the piece is titled “The Exodus,” I’m still very firmly part of a church. Even an institutional church. But I totally understand the desire to leave both church and nation for a new land. For me, the Good News is that there is an alternative in our midst. “The Kingdom is among y’all,” as JC said.

3) For critics, know that I appreciate thoughtful criticism and read what you write, even if I don’t always reply. I am happy to debate the finer points of policy, government intervention, evidence-based programs that reduce poverty, and the effects of legislation on things like the health of LGBTQ persons and reduction of abortion. I believe in respectful dialogue and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.

But polemic, art, and imagination—not rational debate—is the proper response to oppressive, bullying, tone-policing, white-supremacist, patriarchal theology. Jesus knew this, and his response to the dominant theology of his day is recorded in Matthew 23. I will not legitimize the dominant narrative by speaking on its terms. Doing so is simply throwing pearls before swine, an activity Jesus admonishes his followers to avoid (Matthew 7:6).

I reject any view of the Bible that limits it to how we behave in our personal lives, or that walls off personal faith from the personal lives of marginalized communities under threat. A faith that is strictly private and does not impinge upon public life, that does not inform how we talk about poverty or injustice in the public sphere, that makes Jesus my Personal Savior but not Savior of the World, is a faith not worth having, in my opinion. There are plenty of Dominionists working in our federal government, and their vision of God and God’s Kingdom is directly opposed to everything I love. And retreat from politics into a privileged sphere of personal pietistic religion is not a luxury I—or the church—can afford.

Jesus told us to take up our crosses. This did not mean giving up chocolate, sex, or beer. The cross was reserved for enemies of the state. If your faith does not lead you to stand with the crucified, with black kids gunned down, with LGBTQ families prevented from adopting, with refugees, then I have no interest in your religion. It simply fails the test. I have no interest in following a Jesus who does not offer the cross. Characterize it as “left wing” if you like. That’s hardly a stinging critique in the world we live in. I have yet to see a martyr of the faith crucified by the state for defending the rights of the privileged and powerful.

4) Here are some books that I’ve been reading recently that inspired my writing:
Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.
Walter Brueggemann, Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.
Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

Thanks again for reading, for sharing, and for commenting.
“Be a prophet of the resistance, not a priest of the empire.”

God Cares About Your Happiness

Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf.JPG
Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf” by 4028mdk09Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing. 

“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.

It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.

God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.

“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.

I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.

I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”

In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.

Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)

You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.

God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.

A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.

This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.

The Problem of God

In Christian theology, we often talk about “the problem of evil,” but I think atheists are often more honest in their assessment: The problem is God.

This is why I love Dr. Alyce McKenzie’s recent post, “There’s No Problem Bigger Than God.” It is one of the most succinct and eloquent essays on theodicy I have ever read.

Biblical literalists, of course, will not like it, because her analysis of Paul’s rhetoric points out how Paul was just as flummoxed as anyone by the problem of God’s will. She also indicates that Jesus, Paul, Job, Luke, Isaiah, and the author(s) of Exodus all have different perspectives on God’s will and the problem of evil. Even Jesus (gasp!) was not always theologically consistent.*  (*In the differing accounts in the gospels, anyway).

One of my favorite examples of the Bible’s diverse perspectives is the story of David’s census. People of his day believed that because King David counted the population of Israel, God punished him—and the nation—by sending a plague and killing a huge number of people. This story alone is difficult enough, because I can’t help but think about the current Ebola epidemic. Whose fault is this epidemic? What bad policy decision is God punishing? I don’t believe God acts so capriciously. This puts me at odds with a sizable number of Christians who do.

But although two different authors agreed that God punished bad policy decisions with plague, they disagreed about the cause of David’s disobedience. The author of 2 Samuel says that God incited David to count the people of Israel. The author of 1 Chronicles claims it was Satan. Of course, there are various kinds of intellectual acrobatics you can perform to resolve these dissonant explanations. But McKenzie hits the nail on the head: the Biblical authors are just as flummoxed by the relationship between God and evil as we are.

While recognizing that fact may be uncomfortable for many Christians, for others of us it is a great comfort. Seeking God or following Jesus does not mean living a life free from contradictions. The God who cries out, through Jesus, “Why have you forsaken me?” and who prays, “Not my will, but yours be done,” understands the problem of evil better than the platitudes on church marquees. The God who says, through Jesus, “Happy are those who mourn. Ecstatic are those who are poor,” forces us to confront the paradoxes of our lives and of human society.

If everything that happens is God’s will, then there is no point in praying, “Your will be done.” We pray for the kingdom and for God’s reign precisely because we live in a world where God’s will isn’t always done. The challenge for God-seekers and Jesus-followers is not to resolve the problem of God and evil so we can be intellectually comfortable. The challenge is to turn our discomfort into action, to reduce the distance between God’s kingdom and this hurting planet, and to bear the goodness of God to the world by actively resisting evil and injustice.

When It’s Hard to Let Go

(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)

“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Worried_People_2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Worried_People_2.jpg

“Worried People 2” by Bhernandez from Miami –  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?

In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.

What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.

Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.

The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.

“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.

Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.