Sunday, December 27, 2015


Will you join me for a little Bible Study? The Bible is truly a rich and amazing book. When we dig just a bit beneath the surface, it says some surprising things. In this case it will tell us something usually overlooked about Christmas that, if noticed, can reshape our sense of the Christian life.

Our family recently gathered on a Florida beach to say the prayers of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child (BCP 439).  We were celebrating our new grandson Matthew. The service began with his 7-year-old brother, Daniel, reading Luke 18: 15-17, the story of people bringing babies to be blessed by Jesus, the disciples sending them away, and Jesus saying, “No! Let them come!” The text ends,

Whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child
will never enter it.”

I have looked and looked and cannot find an English translation that is not ambiguous. A Greek-reading friend tells me it is ambiguous in the original Greek. Did Jesus mean that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must “receive the Kingdom as a child would receive it” or did he mean that we must  “receive the Kingdom as we would receive a child”? We usually take it to mean the former (childlike faith) but the context of a dispute over how we welcome children would suggest the latter. How we receive children is what it’s all about.

How does receiving a fragile child relate to receiving the Kingdom of God, the reign of divine power? Power and childhood seem utterly opposite. But look at the lesson from Isaiah for Christmas Eve – another text where I suspect we miss the meaning – Isaiah 9: 2-7. It begins with a promise of breaking “the rod of the oppressor.” But this isn’t just the overthrow of one gang of thugs by another, as usually happens in the politics of the domination system. Instead of politics as usual, when God intervenes, war and domination are themselves vanquished. “For the boots of the trampling warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” This is not a violent overthrow but rather the overthrow of violence itself. If violence is not the means of overthrowing violence --  if as Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive away darkness” -- then how shall this come to pass? Isaiah answers:

            “For a child has been born for us
                        a child has been given to us.
             Authority rests upon his shoulders
                        And he is named
            Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
                        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The kicker here is that the verbs are present tense. It is not that the child will grow up someday, wield a sword, overthrow Assyria, Babylon, Rome, or the oppressor of the day,  and establish his dominion. It is that a child is already vested with authority and honored as the Prince of Peace. A kind of power resides in the child as a child. Some early Madonna-and-Child icons express this authority of the divine child by showing the baby Jesus wearing a crown.  This is a wildly paradoxical text. What can possibly be going on in these two lessons?

Isaiah and Luke are showing us how God exercises power. It is not in our ordinary human way.

My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts
.--  Isaiah 55: 8

God’s power is not like earthly power.  It is really quite the opposite. We will go into the difference in due course, but first we need to address the whole question of power. Frederick Nietzsche launched the most powerful philosophical attack of all time on Christianity. What he despised about Christians is that we were pusillanimous, weak, mousey – that we made a religious virtue out of mousiness. As we practice the faith, we sometimes live up to Nietzsche’s description.  A social media clergy friend recently went on a rant against broad-based community organizing to improve our common life because he had discovered it involved the building of power to effect positive change.  Christians, he insisted, should have nothing to do with power – thereby proving Nietzsche’s point.  Another clergy person on social media thought it was presumptuous for people to forgive each other because we have no right to claim such power (even though Christ commanded us to do so.) However, if we check our Bible we read that:

            God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power . . . .2 Timothy 1: 7

            For the Kingdom of God is not in word but in power. 1 Corinthians 4: 20

            But truly I am filled with power by the Sprit of the Lord, and of justice
            and of might.    Micah 3: 8

            Now when the multitudes saw (the healing miracle) they marveled
that God had given such power to men. Matthew 9: 8

To them he gave the power  to become sons of God.  John 1: 13

            You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Act 1: 8

The Bible is repeatedly and emphatically clear that Christians are invested with the power of God to do God’s will in God’s world. When we confirm a Christian we pray, “ . . .  empower her for your service.” That power goes back to our very creation. Here I must borrow from our pagan brother, Plato, who defined “being” as “the power to affect others or be affected by them.”[i] That definition remains widely accepted in philosophy today.  We exist, we have our being, by virtue of our ability to be in relationship with others, influencing and being influenced by them. God gave us our being, with its attendant power, and said, “It is good.”

The confusion arises from the exercise of two dramatically different (one might even say diametrically opposed) kinds of power: dominating power and relational power.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink traced dominating power back to the rise of the nation state in antiquity.[ii] He said the religious foundation of the domination system  was the Sumerian creation myth, The Enuma Elish, and made a persuasive case that Genesis was written to repudiate that view of God and the world. Church historian Karen Armstrong agrees, attributing dominating power to the first  nation states as a system for an agrarian society.[iii] Biblical scholars like Walter Wink and N T Wright are clear that Jesus’ message was about overcoming sin and the domination system with the paradoxical, ironic, mischievous, non-violent relational power of love. [iv]

One Sunday recently, I saw a group of young adults standing on a corner at the intersection of two narrow streets. They were having a happy, fun conversation. On the street beside them,  cars were stopped at a red light. When the light turned green, the driver of the second car in line did not think the driver of the first car was moving fast enough, so he blew his horn insistently. The young man on the corner whose back was to the street turned and waived  cordially, saying “Hi-i-i-i!” as if it had been a greeting. Point made.

Jesus showed us and taught us the exercise of relational power, the art of influencing others thorugh care, compassion, respect, appreciation. Take the list of attributes of love cited by Paul in I Corinthians 13 for a good introduction to the meaning of relational power. Take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the prototype of it.

Many people resist God because they think of God as a patriarch exercising dominating power in the world and aspiring to dominate them and their lives. On the contrary, the ancient Christian understanding of God is that God is, in God’s very being, in God’s very nature, relational – not dominating. God does not want to control us. God’s very nature would make that domination as distasteful to God as it would be to us. God wants lovers, not puppets. So God seeks to draw us by love. Hence God comes, not as a dominating conqueror, not as Attila, but as Jesus. Thus an anonymous poet in the 16th Century wrote:

                        To show God’s love aright
                        She bore for us a Savior
                        When half-spent was the night.[v]

The Kingdom of God is not like an earthly Kingdom with armies, weapons, high walls and dungeons. It is a Kingdom of Love – or if that word is too sentimental, a Kingdom of mutuality in which we all have power to affect one another for good, to build each other up – and God happens in that relational space. God is a field (in the sense of modern physics) in which such relationships can flourish.

The Kingdom of God does not overpower us like a military force. It charms us like a child in its cradle. That is why Jesus says we enter the Kingdom of God by our welcome of the vulnerable and our willingess to be vulnerable ourselves. We enter the Kingdom by submitting to the power of love. Hence God manifests at Christmas as a baby in a stable.

            Our God, heaven cannot hold him
            Nor Earth sustain . . . .
            (But) in the bleak midwinter
            A stable place sufficed
            The Lord God Incarnate
            Jesus Christ.[vi]

[i] Plato, The Sophist
[ii] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be
[iii] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood
[iv] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
[v] Anonymous, Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming
[vi] Christina Rossetti, In The Bleak Midwinter (1872)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Things fall apart
The centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
                                    -- William Butler Yeats   

            It is a dark time. I awoke early this morning, while it was still dark, at the hour when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb (John 20: 1), and looked out across the Atlantic. The moon was shining a stream of light across the water, and directly above it was the loveliest Morning Star I have ever seen. It could have been the Star of Bethlehem floating there in the Eastern sky. “For we saw his star in the East and we have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2: 2)

            It is a dark time and I am looking for that star. I do not need to tell you of the darkness. San Bernardino. Colorado Springs. Paris. Charleston. Random violence stirs our fear and in panic we race into racism, xenophobia, religious prejudice, all expressed in violent ways to defend ourselves from “them.” “Their” violence prompts “our” violence to which “they” respond with more violence. My vague pronouns reflect the fact that the violent actors in my list of cities were Muslims, Christians, and white racists, but those are just a few of the possible categories of “others” who fear “us” and prompt “us” to respond in kind, however that “us” may be defined.

            Violent religious intolerance has surged since the end of the Cold War.[i] We focus on Fundamentalist Islamic violence some of which affects Americans and Europeans, though most of it is directed against Non-Fundamentalist Muslims. But we also see Hindu violence against Sikhs and Muslims in India, Buddhist violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and Israel’s treatment of Muslims and Christians is often regrettable. Of course Israel is acting out of fear. We are all acting out of fear. It is fear that drives the  Liberty University President to urge a crowd of cheering undergraduate Fundamentalists to gun up so “we can end those Muslims.”[ii] Racist genocidal fanaticism? Yes, plus a blasphemous distortion of the Christian faith just as ISIS is a blasphemous distortion of the Islamic faith. But that’s just name-calling. It doesn’t analyze what is happening on all fronts. And it doesn’t lead to reconciliation or advance the Kingdom of God.
            So I want to start with this question: what’s really going on here? We can blame it on a sect of Islamic Fundamentalists, and certainly there is a whole truckload of truth in that. But what about the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs? What about the racist shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston? For that matter, what about the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon or Sandy Hook or Columbine or the Amish school shooting? Of course there are differences –but if they are completely different, how come they look so much alike? Is a murder somehow more ideological if the ideology is Islam than if it’s white supremacy, nihilism, or ironically a pro-life mass murder? Is there a common thread running through all this violence?

The Sources of Religious Violence

            Five books have shaped my view of religious violence.

Fields Of Blood: Religion And The History Of Violence by Karen Armstrong.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming The Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age by Martha Nussbaum (a Jewish author, but I found this book in a jihadist-leaning Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem):

Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks.

The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium by my late hero Walter Wink.

From those wise writers, I have learned the following things we need to remember if we are to have any hope of stemming “this blood dimmed tide”:

1.    The causes of violence are complex. Religion (ours or theirs) is not the primary cause. The vast majority of conflict in the world has not been about religion. It has been about power and wealth. Even the so-called “Wars Of Religion” in the 16th Century saw Protestants and Catholics on the same side from foot soldiers up to monarchs on one side against Protestants and Catholics on the other. Even the so-called “Wars of Religion” were about state autonomy versus empire. But religion has often been enlisted in the fights, and we religious folks have all too often joined right in to drum up support for the powers that be to wage war, persecute minorities, and perpetrate violence for their non-religious ends. Religious folks have historically been prime dupes. Our hands are not clean but I believe historian Karen Armstrong would say that there are propagandizers and manipulators behind the trigger pullers. To find them, half the moral is “follow the money.” The other half is “follow the power.” Note: it isn’t just about the trigger puller. It isn’t even just about the jihadist figurehead. We have congratulated ourselves on killing Osama Bin Laden, Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi (Al-Qaeda), Abu Sayyaf (ISIS Syria), Abu Nabil (ISIS Libya), Abdirhraman Sadhere (Al-Shabab), etc. But terrorism increases after our victorious coups. Why is that? As Bob Dylan said, “The executioner’s face is always well hidden.”

2.    We are groupish. This goes back to Darwin, who did not say we are selfish. In The Descent of Man, he explained how survival depends on cooperation. As a result our DNA is wired through millennia of evolution to be altruistic, even sacrificial, within our group; but aggressive and destructive to people outside our group. Interestingly, the rise of cities led to broadening the definition of the in-group to include more people. Trade with far off peoples broadened it further still. In both cases, religion was the social mechanism that extended trust and caring farther out into the human species. Religion’s basic function is the opposite of war mongering and violence. It establishes the basis for trust and cooperation.

3.    Altruistic evil is the child of pathological dualism[iii]. “Dualism” is the belief that the universe is a battleground between ultimate good and ultimate evil. This runs against the grain of monotheism, the Jewish-Christian-Islamic belief that we have one source, one destiny, one meaning; so evil is never ultimate. When bad things happen, when we suffer, we are tempted toward “pathological dualism” in which we blame some “other,” demonize some “other,” regard ourselves as victims whose victim status means we are not only innocent but entitled to unleash all our destructive hatred on the “other.” Pathological dualism (we are good victims; they are bad perpetrators) reduces people from the status as persons responsible for their own lives to that of victims, passively blaming “others.” It licenses “altruistic evil,” horrors committed for ostensibly good and noble causes. Finally, altruistic evil discredits the very religions that are our best hope for a peaceful and just world order. The prototype of pathological dualism is “the good guy with a gun against the bad guy with a gun.” The practical problem with that picture is that each gunman thinks he is the good guy. From the religious perspective, that is the rhetoric of a heresy repudiated by the Church since the first Century, by Judaism since the 4th Century BCE, and by Islam thereafter in a medieval controversy with dualists in Iran. It is a persistent heresy, manifesting in Judaism at Qumran, in Christianity with the Gnostics, and in Islam in medieval Iran; but it is not now, has never been, and never will be the teaching of any monotheistic faith. We repudiate this heresy because it makes people smaller, meaner, and blinder.

4.    The myth of redemptive violence – not the orthodox teaching of any religion – is the prevailing moral assumption of the world. It is what Paul meant by the spiritual power “of this present age.” It is drummed into us thorugh movies, tv, internet, journalism, and all non-religious voices; so it is not surprising that some religious leaders have been led astray and proclaim the myth of redemptive violence as Christianity, though it runs 180 degrees opposite to the teachings of Jesus. The symbol of the myth of redemptive violence is the good guy with a gun shooting down the bad guy with a gun. The myth rooted in dualism says the evil people oppress the good people until a good hero rises up and slays the bad people – and we all rejoice because we love aggression and just need a moral pretext of victimhood to set free our baser nature. Walter Wink traces that destructive thirst for vengeance elevated to a moral principle back to the ancient Sumerian creation myth in The Enuma Elish. He shows that the Biblical creation story is written to repudiate the myth of redemptive violence and that Jesus’ mission and ministry were completely devoted to overcoming that false and bloody creed with peace and justice. His death on the cross was a paradoxical defeat of violence with love vindicated by the Resurrection. But, notwithstanding the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other world religions, the vast majority of us still place our faith not in the Prince of Peace, but the myth of redemptive violence.

5.    Violence arises from a failure of empathy/ participatory imagination. Rabbi Sacks offers a cogent analysis of sibling rivalry in Genesis because, following Rene Girard, he regards sibling rivalry as the primal “genesis” of our violence. Regardless of the source of violence, he shows that in Genesis hatred is vanquished and violence allayed by seeing oneself in the other’s shoes. He tells the story of a rising star in a neo-fascist party who was shocked to discover he was a Jew. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes of how fear blocks our capacity for “participatory imagination,” the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. This loss makes our world smaller and leads us to turn “others” into something less than human, in fact to make them screens for the projection of all our worst impulses and imaginings.

6.    We cannot live without meaning and identity. In my book, this is the most important point. No human society has ever lasted without a religion or some ideology that took on ultimate significance (Fascism, Communism, etc.) Religion makes meaning out of life. We find our identity through belonging to a community, especially a faith community, people who find meaning not just in the same way but together. Sacks and Haidt agree that our Western culture, which is spreading through globalization, is devoid of meaning and its universalism threatens our sense of identity. Terrorism and mass violence are cries of protest against that vapid shallow imitation of life. Jihadists and nihilistic white teenagers alike have “Imagine(d) there’s no heaven . . . . nothing to kill or die for . . . . imagine(d) all the people living or today” and cried NOOOOO!!!! Sacks says that the joining of a cause and dying for that cause gives the existentially desperate person a brief but ultimately meaning-making identity. And we respond to terrorism by splitting into extremes, in desperate search of a group sufficiently at odds with banal secularism that joining it will give us an identity. Hence,

The centre cannot hold . . ..
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A Christian response to religious violence

         We begin in darkness. We probe the nature of the darkness. The darkness is the context of the Morning Star shining in the East over the choppy waters below. Christians are stargazers. Our place on this planet is to see the star and to be the star  -- both at once. Jesus called us “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5: 15) How shall we be the light shining in the midst of this particular darkness?

         Giving the culture a meaning transfusion. We do not write laws or command armies. But laws and armies, while having their role to play, have proven ultimately unable to curb religious and ideological violence. So it is just as well that we do not write laws or command armies. Instead, we shape culture. We have abdicated that role in recent decades. But our mission is to show the world the way to a meaningful life, one in which there may be nothing to kill for but there is decidedly something worth living and dying for, and yes there is a heaven, a realm of God’s justice waiting to come to earth when we are ready. The best thing we can do to counter terrorism is to infuse our society with faith, hope, and love. We need to spread some gospel right now.

Spreading gospel requires us to intentionally and deliberately commit to a robust campaign of non-coercive, non-manipulative, tolerant, relational, hospitable, attractive evangelism. There are specific ways to do this. People at our diocesan convention 2015 learned some of the basics. If we want to give our culture a meaning transfusion, we must – I truly mean must  -- make the effort to learn and practice a robust evangelism. We can no longer afford to live with:

         The best lack all conviction

But that does not mean we offer our gospel in opposition to other religious traditions. Authentic Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the other world religions also infuse the culture with meaning and identity. They are not our enemies or competitors. They are our allies. For example, when ISIS sets out to radicalize a teenager, the first thing they try to do is separate the teen from his mosque. They want the youth alienated, especially from orthodox Islam. The mosque provides meaning and identity, the antidotes to jihadist radicalism. If we want to prevent American teens from becoming jihadists, the best thing we can do is support our local mosque.

         I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions this Fall. People from all sorts of different faiths gathered in friendship and respect. I attended multiple workshops on combatting religious violence. Our own Dr. Aslam Abdullah, a Las Vegas imam, led the best workshop. We Christians discredit ourselves when we disrespect other religious traditions. We are far more attractive (and therefore evangelistically successful) when we treat our co-religionists with respect and partner with them in acts of charity and the quest for social justice.

         A society in which the religions flourish and faith communities treat each other as friends is a better place to live than the lonely atomistic individualistic cynical world we Westerners inhabit today. Such a world would not drive people to crazed violence committed in existential despair.

A different narrative of God and a different picture of the world. It is essential that we return a sense of meaning and identity to our culture. And it is true that different religions can work together for that essential goal. But that does not mean just any religion will do. As we have seen dualism and the myth of redemptive violence are at the root of religious intolerance and terrorism. Those dark doctrines do not need us – they have the largest most effective propaganda machine the world has ever known – and we do not need them.

What the world needs now is a different story, a story of peace practiced in the face of violence, of love overcoming hatred. We need Jesus – his words, his example, his living presence giving us the strength not to strike back. We need a religion true to the Genesis creation story, true to God’s rejection of violence in the Flood and new creation, true to the stories of reconciliation, true to Jesus – and incidentally true to the original social function of religion to extend trust and relationality beyond the confines of our group out into the wider world.

We do not want the President of Liberty University speaking in the name of Jesus without a vigorous response from the orthodox Christians. Again, we cannot even survive if:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We better get ourselves some conviction right now.

         A spiritual discipline of knowing one another.  I have said we need to publicly profess our faith out loud, and that our faith must be a Bible-based Jesus-centered commitment to the practice of peace in the face of violence. But how do we practice that faith? How do we propound it by word and deed? Not with a coercive, dogmatic, hitting people over the head with the Bible sort of encounter. The story of the New Testament is about encountering the other in a very different way. Jesus formed his band of followers out of political and religious antagonists. They got to know Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Roman Centurions, rich people, poor people, sick people, sinners, crazy people, all sorts of folks. And they were themselves transformed by their encounters. That’s evangelism.

         The Epistles are guides to relationship for people who had regarded each other as “other” until they found themselves bound together in the Body of Christ, and they didn’t know how to manage that. But they learned. They befriended one another and in time became the Church.

         The story of Pentecost is about all different nations and languages gathered together hearing the gospel each in their own language. They did not all become alike. They kept their languages. They were different, but they were together.

         This is the spiritual discipline of participatory imagination, imagining our way inside someone else’s skin, seeing the world through their eyes. This discipline can be disturbing and humbling. But it enlarges our experience and makes us wiser, kinder, slower to judge, readier to lend a hand.

         Such spirituality would be quite countercultural. These days we are segregating ourselves into communities that look and think alike. We watch only the news networks that will give us the facts to reinforce what we already want to think. But what if we chose instead to get to know people different from ourselves, to engage them in conversations not to straighten them out but to learn from them. What if curiosity replaced dogmatism?

         If we grew the Christian faith and then practiced it – by practicing it I mean precisely this spiritual discipline of openhearted gracious relationship – that would change the world. We would not all suddenly fall into each other’s arms in a love fest. But the society would not be nearly so highly conductive of the energies of fear and hatred.

         Jonathan Haidt says we are biologically wired to distrust and think ill of people who are not in our group. But he then adds we are not hardwired to distrust and think ill of others. We can change our hearts and minds. But how? It does not happen through confrontation or rational argument. (This is where my friends are – I say this in love – missing the boat in berating the xenophobic, fearful, prejudiced public figures today.) People change when they get to know each other. So this requires us to get acquainted with people of other faiths personally, but it also means having respectful caring encounters with our fellow Christians who are saying things we find morally repugnant.


         It is a dark time. But the dark time is when the Morning Star shines brightest. I have seen it over the Atlantic and I have seen it in the eyes of people of faith who refuse to succumb to the darkness of dualism, redemptive violence, and altruistic evil. It is a dark time, but a time in which hope is on the brink of dawning.

[i] Religious violence is not entirely new. From ancient days, Jews persecuted Samaritans. Christians persecuted Jews. Pagans persecuted Christians. Confucians persecuted Buddhists. All of us, certainly including Christians, are apt to persecute dissenting sects within our own general faith. Christians have treated Mormons harshly. Protestants and Catholics have a tortured history. So this is not new. But it is dramatically heightened in the Post Cold War Era.

[ii] Clearly demonstrating why Pope Francis says Fundamentalism is a “disease” that afflicts all religion, not just Islam.

[iii] These terms and this analysis are from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not In God’s Name.