Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Pope Francis Against a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ?

Pope Francis has come under fire for his comments which seem to suggest that he is against a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

His phrase, from his May 25, 2014, Weekly General Audience, can sound very antagonistic to Evangelical Christians at first:

Pope Francis described as "dangerous" the temptation to believe that one can have "a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ without communion with and the mediation of the church."

I was alerted to this by a comment on the Facebook page John 17:21 Evangelicals and Catholics, which I moderate. More than any other pope, Francis has earned a strong reputation for working together and praying with Evangelical Christians. I was naturally surprised to hear that he said something so potentially off-putting to that segment of the Christian community.

While I am no expert on what the Pope is thinking or feeling, I feel the need to address this. "Personal relationship with Jesus" is an extremely important phrase to many Evangelical Christians.  In addition, telling Christians that their relationship with Christ must be mediated through the Church no doubt inflames a lot of old wounds from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers reassured us that we can go to Christ directly and that no human or institution can get in the way.

The pope actually clarified what he meant, but like so many things on the internet, one line gets taken out of context and the explanation gets forgotten. It is good to discuss what he means, though, as there is some great food for thought into how Catholics and Evangelicals think about their faith. I also recommend clicking the pope's address above and hearing in his own words what he's describing.

Like some many things that get lost, a key concept here is "only." The Pope is not suggesting that we cannot or should not have a direct, personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact, his writings tell us how important it is to have that relationship. He urges all people to accept the invitation of Christ into that very relationship. But he is saying that this shouldn't be our only approach to Christian discipleship.

He is saying that we cannot do this alone. Other human beings, their writings and the church have all helped to midwife this relationship for us. Even if you have that direct relationship with Jesus, it is probably another human being who told you that this was possible. You may have read about others having that relationship. Perhaps a preacher invited you in a sermon. It is likely that your parents or a neighbor modeled what this relationship looks like. And then once you have that relationship, it is your duty to witness to this to others. Every believer is part of a community as both receiver and giver of blessings.

The Reformers are right that no human being or institution can get in the way of our own direct contact with God through Jesus Christ. But Francis is reminding us that every single one of us has also benefited from the witness, the words and the actions of fellow believers who helped us in that relationship with Christ. And then we must help others. Bottom line: It does us no good to pretend that individuals are in isolation from others.

We pray "Our Father," not "My Father," as one website pointed out. The Christian life is lived out in community, and it would be wrong to believe we are isolated human beings completely divorced from our relationships with our fellow human beings. A personal relationship is not dangerous or harmful by itself--what is dangerous is believing that our fellow human beings have no role to play in our Christian journey. It's no different than a person claiming they are a "self-made millionaire." That is a slap in the face to everyone who mentored, taught and assisted that person in making those millions.

Here are some of my own favorite words of Pope Francis.  These are from the first major doucment that he wrote after becoming pope, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium--The Joy of the Gospel:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

It's Time to Quit Blaming Smartphones

To be human is to be social -- Aristotle

Hardly a day goes by when I do not encounter at least one article bemoaning the "tragedy" brought upon us by smart phones and social media. If you believe the hype, today's youth are going to hell in a hand basket, lured by the incessant clicking and swiping of their ever-evolving digital devices. We are losing our very ability to interact with the people around us, these doomsday prophets warn.

And I get it--we are subjecting ourselves (especially our youth) to a profound social experiment. It's hard to say definitively what impact growing up immersed in digital device use is going to have, but preliminary studies seem to indicate that they do affect our socialization and even our very brain chemistry. Social media contributes to a polarized society where it's all too easy to interact only with those with whom we already agree.

But we can also be led to the implied conclusion that somehow everything was just fine before the digital age. We can be led to the faulty conclusion that kids were living in a robust, vibrant social utopia where they played outside with other kids and where everyone sat on front porches singing, playing games and listening to grandma's tales of yesteryear--and then along came smartphones and social media and all that was gone.

Except... that's not how I experienced history at all.

I grew up Gen X. I grew up in a world of shocking, mind-numbing social isolation. You can't blame digital devices, because they only existed in science fiction movies at the time. The World War II generation and baby boomers may have grown up in small country towns and tight-knit city neighborhoods, but virtually none of that made it to my generation. I grew up longing for it, and so did many of my peers. Many people of my generation have labored intensely to discover and rediscover community through travel, intentional living situations and all sorts of other social experiments. The need is huge. In fact, community was one of the reasons I initially got involved in Christian ministry--it seemed to promise stronger community connections than anything else in the secular world.

The World War II folks and baby boomers gave us the radio and television. They gave us air conditioning and climate control, which afforded us the ability to live locked in our own homes and automobiles, sealed off from the rest of the world. They gave us suburban sprawl, where kids could only interact with other kids if their parents drove them in a car to meet them at pre-appointed times. They gave us neighborhoods that entirely depended on cars and where kids rarely played together outside on pesticide-laden lawns. Older folks ran to the suburbs, away from the nosy drama of those tight-knit families and neighborhoods, thankful for the closeness they had growing up but anxious for some privacy. But my generation did not benefit from the closeness they ran from.

THIS is the world that existed when smartphones and social media arrived. It was a world hungry--dare I say, desperate--for community. Most kids from most countries around the world would be absolutely shocked to realize the level of social isolation that most American children experience. To compound matters, if a kid has any kind of shyness or social awkwardness, you have a recipe for a walking solitary confinement. Many American kids live in a quiet misery of profound isolation.

It is hard for most Americans to realize how socially isolated we are. Most Americans have gotten used to it, and many have found ways to cope, but there is nothing even remotely normal or healthy about it. In another country, a walk to the town market might involve lots of conversations and interactions along the way. In America, we are locked in the isolation chambers known as automobiles with the windows rolled up. After work and school, Americans lock themselves in their homes, often without even cracking a window, glued to their televisions but divorced from human contact. It's bad enough to live like this as an adult, but it's horrific to grow up this way.

Suddenly, the digital age happens. Into a world starving for social interaction, digital devices opened a door. Suddenly, that kid locked in his suburban bedroom all alone could now chat it up with his schools friends or anyone else in the world. You can play games, share information, find a date, have long conversations and discover the world. Family members displaced around the country and globe due to a heavily globalized job market can now stay in touch and be part of each other's daily lives. Instead of just passively watching a TV, smart phones and social media allow us a chance to at least interact with others. These devices may not be perfect, but they are better than the radio and television by the sheer fact that they are interactive rather than passive.

Smartphones and social media did not create the problem. They are a response to a problem that existed long before them. If you don't like it that your kid has his nose buried in his smart phone, instead of taking away the phone, you might want to make sure there are other options in his life for social interaction.

The irony is bitter:  Older generations glued to their television sets complaining about the younger generations interacting with others on their smartphones. If I had to pick, I'd say the younger folks are improving upon what was handed down to them. Let's cut them some slack!


This is art of an ongoing series on the use of social media in ministry and it's impact on culture.
Other installments can be found by clicking the tag of "Social Media"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Pope Who Prioritizes

(CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters) From ncronline:
"Pope Francis opens the Holy Door to inaugurate the Jubilee Year
of Mercy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec 8."

There has been a lot of debate as to whether Pope Francis is changing Catholic doctrine or not. Early in his papacy, his approach was categorized as a "change in tone," and that phrase has stuck remarkably well. It's an often unquestioned subtitle to Francis' papacy.

“Change of tone” is a politically shrewd phrase. It has the word “change,” which excites liberals. But it also suggests that the change might be more along the lines of style and not substance, which is an attempt to reassure conservatives. Francis dances in the space between.

That phrase is helpful, but I have never found it wholly satisfactory.

I believe the papacy of Pope Francis has been, among many things, an attempt to put first things first and second things second: Francis is the pope who prioritizes.

Pope Francis affirms the centrality of a joyful, living relationship with Jesus Christ in Evangelii Gaudium. He holds up the primacy of conscience in navigating grey areas in Amoris Laetitia. Francis raises up care for creation to its rightful place in Laudato Si. He not only erases all doubt that environmental issues are merely a secondary matter but actually holds up an integral human ecology as an overarching paradigm encompassing other life issues. Throughout his papacy, Francis has asserted Catholic values of life and family while avoiding getting entrenched in the culture wars quagmire.

In a likewise fashion, I believe Francis instituted the Year of Mercy in part to search for the appropriate balance between the necessary rules of the institution and the role of love. This is to put the practices of the Church more in line with a Gospel vision. We Catholics know how to focus on rules. We don’t do as well of a job navigating in the territory of mercy. That should alarm us, given the centrality that Jesus himself gives it.

Matthew 22:40 reminds us that how the doctrines are arranged and prioritized matters immensely. When introducing the Greatest Commandment to love God and one another, Jesus adds that, "all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:40). This often glossed over line provides a stunning vision if we pause to consider it. This requires more than just a change in tone or even of emphasis.

Imagine that our religious laws, customs and moral codes are like Christmas
 ornaments.  Mercy is the tree on which they all hang.  The tree not only displays them, but it helps them rise to the dignity they are meant for. The tree helps them all make sense.  Some ornaments may look good sitting by themselves on a mantle, but most of them do not function well without the tree. Without the tree they could all just as easily sit in some dusty box in an attic somewhere.

The ornaments themselves do not really make sense, nor do they serve much of a purpose, without the tree on which to hang.  This is, I believe, what the Jesus is saying in the Gospel of Matthew.  Love and mercy is the structure on which the rules and regulations of the Church hang.  Without it, they don’t make much sense. 

We may get all the rules right but if we put them in the wrong order of emphasis, or without a corresponding love, we can get it wrong.

Anyone who has spent any time immersed in the struggles of what it means to be “church” knows that there is a place for rules. Love them or hate them, they aren’t going away entirely. But how they are applied and administered can be where the error lies. Mercy has to be held in balance with the rules of the institution.

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI may have had a knack for speaking to the letter of the law, Pope Francis has the calling to speak to the infrastructure of that law, especially as it relates to mercy. As Francis puts the house in order, he has called us into a whole Church conversation about the parts of our faith and tradition that have not seen the light of day in accordance with their due and the signs of the times. These include the role of conscience, the care for our common home and mercy. 

It’s not just a kinder, gentler application of the same thing. 

It’s a vastly reordered, radically restructured system that puts Jesus first, that takes the words of Jesus seriously, that takes the Gospel seriously, and which reorders all our rules, regulations and codes in light of those fundamental truths.  It also raise mercy to its rightful place as the overarching theme, as it is the structure on which all law and prophets hang.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Need for a Long-Overdue Racial Reconstruction

Maybe my soul caught wind of an upcoming controversy, because for a while now I've been carrying around Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in my work bag. I suspected his testimony was relevant for today. I never predicted Douglass would also be trending.

The recent remarks of Donald Trump on Black History Month have sparked quite a controversy, but they also brought Frederick Douglass back into the national conversation. Despite the circumstances, it is always good to hear what Frederick Douglass has to say to us today.

I have been completely engrossed in his story. It's extremely helpful in understanding what slavery looked like in day-to-day life and imagining the lingering impacts that history would have today. Some of the incidents in his book may never leave me.

Douglass goes into great detail about the evils of Slavery. Families were torn apart. People were prevented from knowing their own relatives or even the date of their own birth. Slaves had virtually no say in their life circumstances and could be permanently separated from loved ones at any moment. Mothers could be stripped of their children for the slightest offenses and sometimes for no discernible reason whatsoever. Slaves were not just whipped--let's call it what it was--torture was a way of life for many. Mind games and abuse of alcohol were all used to cripple and manipulate black folk into accepting the lifestyle of slavery. One of the most serious offences was educating a black person. Black people were kept as poorly educated as possible.

Those evils did not suddenly vanish when slavery formally ended 150 years ago. Imagine being torn apart from your own parents at a young age. That will be a pain you may have to wrestle with the rest of your life. It may also impact how you parent your own children. It could take generations for that pain to be healed, even if someone works very hard to heal it. Before that can happen, lives may be destroyed as people use better and worse ways to cope with that pain. That's just one example in a long line of atrocities which black Americans have endured.

All of these evils can persist for generations even with strong efforts to undo them. In the case of slavery, most of American society (in particular: white American society) did not even make minimal efforts to correct these evils.

The need for a New Reconstruction

After the Civil War, the bloodiest of all American wars, much was done to promote reconciliation and reconstruction--but that was almost exclusively among white people. That Reconstruction was in so many ways a huge success. While there is still lingering resentment to this day along Civil War battle lines, overall the healing of the nation has been largely successful. In other countries, there could be decades of skirmishes, in-fighting, battles and other acts of violence that could occasionally pop up. There could be a series of wars. Virtually none of that happened in America. When the Civil War ended, it was basically over--for white America. In other countries, after a civil war, the winning side could have spent a lot of effort hurting down the leaders of the opposition and settling old scores and grudges. We didn't do that. A lot of effort was made to start fresh and move forward in as much of a positive way as possible.

But this was primarily only between white Americans. America society in general never attempted the same kind of reconstruction with black people.

Imagine taking a people from their homeland in Africa. They were subjugated to the evils of slavery for hundreds of years. They were systematically stripped of their cultural, linguistic and family identities. Slaves were prevented from knowing much about their families and from even knowing their own birthdays. Decisions could be made to separate them from loved ones at any moment. They were manipulated with alcohol and alcoholism. They were kept purposefully uneducated and then mocked for being uneducated.

Then suddenly, the gates of the plantations were open and slaves were free to go. White America could wash its hands of the evils of slavery and move on, right? 

Not so fast. No only did American society in general do very little to reconcile with the former slaves, but it also gave them additional obstacles that the rest of American society did not have. Jim Crow laws were in effect for a hundred years after slavery. Black people were technically “free” but constantly harassed, marginalized, segregated and discriminated against in everything from the housing and job markets to the voting booth and criminal justice system. To add insult to injury, they were then blamed if they didn’t enthusiastically support the system. They were blamed if they did not have the same success as whites. They were blamed if they resorted to crime to make ends meet.

While Jim Crow laws are now off the books, many have seen similar patterns of systemic oppression along racial lines still in American society, especially in the criminal justice system.

Here is What Should Have Happened

A wound needs to be healed. It cannot be ignored.  You can try to sweep it under the rug only to discover that many years later it's all still there waiting to be addressed. 

All America had to do was attempt a similar kind of reconciliation that it did between white Americans and apply that also to black Americans. We already recognized the value of reconstruction. We knew it would save us many years of struggle and anguish. We just didn't apply it across the board.

Once America realized the evils of slavery and decided to end it, it should have gone to great lengths to incorporate black folks into mainstream society. Ending the sin of slavery was only the first step--a big step, but also the bare minimum. The next step is doing the penance to correct the injustices that were done. It means public and sincere apologies. It means humility. It means that American society should have bent over backwards to reconcile with black Americans. It means a robust program of education, housing, job training and mentoring in citizenship, personal finance and anything else that any other citizen would have gotten by being raised in American society. It means being welcomed with a hearty handshake. It also means retribution and restitution. It means kindness and patience. America still needs to do that. No wound can be ignored forever--even a time span of 150 years does not erase the harm that was done or the need for real reconciliation. 

The Church can lead the way in this by calling us all to good, old fashioned repentance.

Every effort should have been made to apologize over and over and welcome black folk into mainstream society with great care and patience. The doors to our churches, civic organization, jobs and schools should have been swung wide open. Furthermore, not only should black people have been welcomed, but every effort should have been made to actively reach out to them. While we can all point to some great places where this did in face occur, this never did happen in a widespread, systematic way in American society.

What has happened instead is that American society largely has done the absolute minimum to correct the wrongs it has done, and then it gets pretty darn angry when anyone complains that it should do more. As a result, many in the black community continue to feel like second-class citizens, and there is quite a bit of evidence to support this.

Some will say that what I'm suggesting amounts to coddling. People should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, right? Black Americans largely have done that, but that isn't the point. This isn't about judging the achievements of the black community. This is about calling American society in general to task, and by that I mean mostly white America. It's simple: If you have wronged someone, you have to attempt to correct the wrongs you have done. That's basic morality. We learn it in Kindergarten and in Sunday School. No one can ever correct several hundred years of enslaving an entire people, but every effort must be done to do what can be done. Instead, we see many white Americans resisting and fighting any attempt to address this. White American has dragged its feet long enough on this. It's time for a real reconciliation and a real reconstruction.

The literal and proverbial gates to the plantation swung open. Black people walked out into a void with very little preparation, incredible wounds and very little support from mainstream society. That is not how it should have happened. Even worse, new forms of control and oppression replaced the former plantation gates of slavery, many of which continue to this day. What a terrible way to treat a group of people who had been so openly and systematically wronged. Even 150 years later, full reconciliation, full restitution and full reconstruction still hang out of reach while America wallows in the filth of a sin it refuses to confess and a wrong it refuses to right.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The False Promise of Personal Charity

Some people say that the best way to address poverty is through personal charity. They say we should not involve the government when trying to help struggling neighbors.

They say it's because the government is inefficient and impersonal. They argue that government programs "force" people (through taxation) who do not want to help, thereby creating resentment and undermining the development of their conscience. You shouldn't force someone to do charity any more than you should force someone to go to church, they would argue. The desire has to come from within. Their point is that the poor are best served by individuals who are personally moved by compassion to assist them directly.

I've heard this line of reasoning over and over. It fails on many counts. First, there's a common sense question that rarely gets asked:

If individual charity were able to solve the problems of poverty, then why hasn't it done so already?

Seriously, show me one place in the world where individuals doing private charity have ever been able to solve the systemic problems of poverty. You can pick any place you want over the course of global history.

If personal charity ever solved the problems of poverty, we wouldn't even need to talk about it. There is nothing stopping people from doing this right now. Neighbors can help neighbors, churches can help neighborhoods, and if the theory held up, we should have eliminated poverty ages ago.

There have been some great individual efforts over the years. People have bonded together through churches and other groups to do marvelous charitable deeds, such as the hospital networks of Catholic religious sisters or ecumenical disaster relief efforts, to name only a couple in a long line of impressive efforts. Of course, a key phrase here is "bonded together." When you come face to face with poverty and attempt to do something about it, the first thing you may realize is that you just can't do much by yourself. You've got to join your efforts with those of others. First, you may try to involve your family. Then you may solicit the involvement of your church. Eventually, you probably realize that the problem needs all of society pulling together, and you work hard to convince people to utilize the government to achieve this goal.

The history of Christians addressing poverty is stunning indeed. Still, many faith-based groups whose mission it is to alleviate poverty openly support the critical role of the government in helping meet this goal. See Bread for the World, for example. Christians who are working hard to alleviate poverty typically support a strong partnership with the government in this work.

The reason is this: The state is the most effective instrument to provide this kind of service. The government is neither good nor bad, it is simply the best tool for the job. No other organization is big enough or as well-connected. The faith community can compel and convince voters to provide this care, but when we do so, the tool we need to use is the government. Why? Because quite simply: It works.

It is like trying to tunnel through a mountain with toothpicks. You can bring an army of extremely dedicated people, but it would take millions and millions of people and probably just as many years to dig that tunnel using toothpicks. Another option is that somebody could bring in a carton of dynamite, a bulldozer and a team of engineers to blow that tunnel wide open. The government is like the second option--dynamite, bulldozers and experts. There are some things a large body like a government can do that no team of individuals could ever do, no matter how noble or well-intentioned. A large body is often greater than merely the sum of its parts.

It is easy to understand why people are wary of the government. Some of the worst actions in human history have been done of, by and for governments. But on the flip side, any society that has been able to reduce, minimize or come close to eliminating poverty has been a society that has learned to effectively involve the government in this process.

There is another reason why government matters so much: The future of the human race will be based on our ability to cooperate with each other. Community is extremely difficult. It's extremely messy. But it's also essential. God gave us a big planet, but it is not so big that any of us can live in isolation from our neighbors. No matter how hard we try, no matter how strongly we detest it, the fact remains that we are stuck with each other. We share this planet. In light of this, we have a choice: We can either learn to work together or we can fight with each other, but we can't pretend to ignore each other. The government is not the only way that people come together, but it is the one institution that includes ALL members of a society. Eliminating the government from charity efforts eliminates an essential way that people can work together.

This is an especially difficult concept for us in the United States. Many of the people who helped form this country tried to solve their problems by simply moving away from people they had difficulties with. This method of dealing with problems is deeply embedded in the American psyche. When people get on your nerves, you can simply "go west" to get a little peace and quiet, a little piece of your own ground, and live with minimal interactions with neighbors. You don't have to learn to live with difficult people, rather you can just pick the people you want to be with. People first left the problems of Europe behind. When life here got too tense, many continued pioneering westward to get away from everyone. Part of the American Dream is the illusion that you can create and control the bubble you live in. Perhaps this method worked for a couple hundred years until the empty spaces ran out and we were stuck staring eyeball to eyeball with our neighbors, again. Still, the fantasy remains that the individual acting alone is the most advanced and enlightened form of human activity. Yet Christianity has always held that life is about "we" not about "me."

There have been many societies across human history that have provided very little government support to struggling citizens. The result? People lived in desperate poverty. The personal charity efforts of their neighbors did not change that. There is no historical example where a society has removed government sponsored social services and then ended up with individuals taking on the burden doing a better job of helping their fellow neighbors in need. People do help each other out, but rarely to the point of eliminating poverty or making up for what a whole-government effort could do. The only exception I can think of would be very small societies, like the Amish or traditional hunter-gatherer societies. Small societies like that rarely have the wealthy living next to the desperately poor, but that juxtaposition is common in any larger societies.

I suspect that the real reason why some folks are against the government getting involved is because they know that it might actually effect some real changes in power.

So what about forcing people to do charity? I don't get why this is a big deal. If I'm sick and need to go to the hospital, I'm sure glad there's a road I can take to get there. It doesn't matter to me in the least if workers built that road out of charitable love or whether they built that road just because it was what they had to do to get a paycheck, I'm just glad there's a road when I need one. I don't need to know the motivations of each of the highway workers. But I can trust that the decision to build that road in the first place and allocate tax dollars to pay for it was certainly wise and probably charitable, and I'm glad that enough of my neighbors were smart enough and generous enough to make sure that road exists. People had a vision for making society better and part of the vision included building a road so that people could get to the hospital.

The same analogy holds true when it comes to giving a hand-up to people in poverty. If folks need assistance with food, heating bills or medical care, I think we should provide it. What helps my neighbor helps me.

Besides, why are we making a game out of poverty? I would hate for the poor to suffer just as a test to see if other people develop the "right attitude" out of which to help them.

Whenever people are able to make huge gains eliminating poverty, the government is almost always a huge part of that effort. And that is because the future of the human race will be determined on how well we cooperate with each other, and that includes, among other things, the oftentimes messy but always necessary aspect of the government. Individual charity is still important. It is still an extremely high calling. But it is through individual charity that we learn how important it is to involve others in this task.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ancient Hospitality: A Lost Religious Practice

Ulysses [Odysseus] Conversing With Emaeus
by John Flaxman (1755-1826)

Hospitality to strangers was a very big deal throughout the ancient world. I am not sure if any of us in the modern era have any appreciation for just how important it was. There were no hotels, no GPS systems, few restaurants. Being in a tough spot away from home was a life or death situation!

Hospitality was not only a cultural practice, but it also had serious religious significance.

I just finished listening to an audio book of The Odyssey, the Ancient Greek poem attributed to Homer. It was an appropriate companion on some recent long road trips (this blog is called "The Traveling Ecumenist" for a reason!) It is generally thought to have been written in the 8th century BCE, and it is the second-oldest surviving work in western literature.

The Odyssey is called an "epic" for a good reason--it is a sweeping saga of wartime battles, magical meanderings, courtly drama and intense personal struggles. It is the quintessential tale of a young man who goes off to build his identity by confronting challenges and then faces the equally difficult-struggle to come home again as a wiser, more mature adult. Yet in the midst of so many complex themes, the subject of hospitality makes it mark on nearly every scene.

I'm not even exaggerating: Hospitality is just everywhere in this story. As Odysseus, his son Telemachus and others travel through the ancient world, they are continually treated to lavish feasts, incredible gifts and a warm welcome nearly everywhere they go. In fact, one time Telemachus had to actually sneak away from an exuberant King Nestor just to keep up with a rigorous travel schedule. No good host would have allowed him to leave so quickly without being received properly.

Hospitality wasn't just for royalty. How the poor were treated was also of special importance. The Goddess Athena once turned Odysseus into a beggar so he could case his palace in disguise and test the loyalty of his subjects. While there, an elaborate debate ensued among the crowd. Many taunted the beggar. Others attacked him, urging him to get lost. Many accused the beggar of being lazy or an opportunist, living off of the work of others. Still others begrudgingly gave charity but withheld respect. Those with contrary views asserted that they should treat the beggar kindly, as no one knows what circumstances brought the beggar to this place in life. Still others postulated that the beggar could be a test from the gods.

You can hear the same comments today about the poor that were in full voice 2,800 years ago. Almost daily I hear the same debates rage in regards to homeless beggars and immigrants knocking on the door asking for safe refuge. The one thing that's so different from our modern society was the underlying code of ethics about how to treat the stranger who comes to the door begging. We seem to have lost this.

I was amazed when listening to this story just how similar the views of hospitality were to those found in the Bible. Even though the Ancient Greeks had a very different religious tradition from the Ancient Israelites, they came to similar conclusions. The Greeks were worried that the gods themselves would disguise themselves as beggars just to test their charity. Mistreating beggars--perhaps the most vulnerable members of society--was believed to warrant the gravest consequences from the gods. Stories from the Bible have very similar notions. Consider these passages:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

This is a reference to Abraham and Sarah's experiences in Genesis 18-1-15. Abraham wasn't just kind to three unexpected guests--he went out of his way to dote on them. These men turned out to be angels. Tradition even suggests that these were the three persons of the Holy Trinity. As a reward for treating strangers kindly, God granted Abraham and Sarah a child. You just never know who the person who knocks on your door may be! And while helping others, you just never know what blessings may come back to you.

It is actually Jesus himself who confirms everyone's suspicions on the matter. In the famous passage Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus as God incarnate comes right out and tells us:  

"‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Jesus actually admits directly what everyone has already known in their hearts.

In so many cultures, people have an intuition that beggars, strangers and the homeless are special representatives from God.

We refer to this as the preferential option for the poor in the Catholic tradition. What this means is:  Yes, Jesus is incarnate into all of humanity, and God loves every one of us. But the "least" should get our preferential attention and treatment, because God is there with them and in them in a special way. A preferential way.

The Ancient Greeks did not know Jesus by name, but they still knew that there was something special about a guest who comes to the door--especially a guest in need who is desperate enough to beg for help. Yes, despite the religious overtones, the Ancient Greeks still struggled, like we do today, over whether or not to assist the stranger. But at least their religious tradition gave strong support to the side of hospitality.

When we see a beggar on the streets, we can choose to see him in glass half-empty or half-full terms. It is within the realm of possibility that the beggar has either the best or worst intentions or something in between. Anything is possible. But what is going to be our assumption? We can choose to either assume that he is attempting to swindle us or whether he is just trying to cope with difficult circumstances. We can also choose to see the presence of God in this person and offer warm hospitality.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why Are Christians So Easily Blinded?

Are doctors of divinity blind, or are they hypocrites? I suppose some are the one, and some are the other; but if they felt the interest in the poor and the lowly, that they ought to feel, they would not be so easily blinded.

Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Chapter XIII The Church and Slavery

Harriet Ann Jacobs, public domain picture 
Harriet Jacobs is describing the disturbing relationship between Christianity and the practice of slavery in the above quote.

The quote can apply to any of us in any situation.

Jacobs hits the nail on the head: It is perfectly understandable that we will fall short of what the Gospel demands of us. But is it really understandable that so many of us fall short so easily?

If the poor and lowly were first on our minds, as the Gospels demand, would we say and do the same things that we currently say and do?

Take the situation with immigrants and refugees today in America. We preach a Gospel of hospitality but practice exclusion on a hairpin trigger. Few of us really know what immigrants and refugees have gone through. Fewer still take the time to investigate. Yes, there may be some rare times when we may have to say "No" and build a wall and exclude. But... why are we so quick to do that? Why is that our first response? On top of that, many Christians get angry if anyone even suggests they consider doing something other than excluding people.

The same holds true for race relations in America. Many in the black community tell us that racism is an ongoing, destructive element in society. Before someone even finishes saying, "Black lives matter," another person will cut them off shouting, "All lives matter!" It's a clear sign the second person doesn't want to hear what the first person is saying. Why are so many people so quick to get angry and turn away? The least we can do is listen to what each other has to say before rushing to any conclusions. After talking to each other, we may not totally agree on every point, but why are people so quick to be defensive before actually listening?

In Jacobs' time, the practice of slavery was in full swing. Today, we can all recognize instantly how evil and awful it was. But as Jacob points out, there were many Christians who found it all too easy to shrug their shoulders and dismiss it. They said things like: "Maybe it's not as bad as it seems," or, "Maybe it's actually a good thing deep down," or, "Well, it's complicated," or some other excuse. Those are the same excuses we hear today about contemporary issues. There was a mountain of evidence screaming that slavery was evil, but folks allowed themselves to be so easily distracted by any perspective or anecdote, no matter how small, that reassured them that slavery might not be so bad after all.

There was plenty of fake news about slavery in the early 1800s. For example, some people investigated the conditions of slavery and said that the slaves seemed happy and prosperous. Many people in the North allowed themselves to be so easily deceived by stories that made no sense and were obviously staged. Likewise, they would hear 99 stories of the horrors of slavery and then one story surfaced where the conditions we not quite so bad, and they allowed that one story to blind them to the 99. People today are deceived by the same things. Many Christians are so quick to believe lies about immigrants, refugees, the African-American community, Native Americans and any other group that raises their voices demanding justice and mercy. One questionable incident may discredit a mountain of evidence on the other side.

When slaves escaped, many people in the North helped re-capture them. They would say a nineteenth-century version of: "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" After all, it was against the law for a slave to escape and for someone to assist them. Today, we realize that the entire system of slavery was immoral and we regard the people who gave them sanctuary as heroes. The entire system needed to be changed. Many immigrants today wallow in detention centers and many refugees suffer in camps all because "it's the law."

It is easy for most of us to look back on slavery and instantly recognize the evil it was. But what are the issues today that we are allowing ourselves to be deceived about?  HINT: It is probably when we are unwilling to calmly hear what someone else has to say. Our quick, defensive reaction is usually a sure sign of our own shortcomings and blind spots. It is our duty at those moments to take the time to understand why we are so quick to shout over someone else and block out what they are saying. Why are we resisting what they are saying?

The Gospels instruct us to think first of the poor and lowly. That message is on almost every page of Scripture in one form or another. It's in every parable and sermon of Jesus. We all do a poor job of putting into practice the awesome vision described by Jesus of Nazareth--the Beatitudes and the Greatest Commandment are both mind-blowing and revolutionary. To say we fall short is an understatement. We know that. It's a given. It just goes with the territory of the Gospel.

We also know there are times when we are all also hypocrites. We preach a Gospel that we fail to emulate. This is also somewhat understandable. The Gospels are so bold that it is a foregone conclusion that we will fail putting them into practice in such a broken, fallen world.

But this is no excuse for the fact that each of us can, in fact, do better.

The message of Harriet Jacobs haunts me: Why are we so easily blinded?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Top 5 Demands of Christian Hospitality

Syrian refugees arriving into Greece.
Discussions about refugees and immigrants almost invariably include people who strongly express the need to protect borders.

Pope Francis has a helpful perspective that hits the nail on the head:

A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not a Christian.

The key word here is "only." 

Protecting our borders is important. I can't think of a single Christian denomination that does not value the need to protect borders, big or small. After all, most of us lock our houses and cars. Similar reasoning can apply to the borders of a nation.

However, protecting borders should be one of the last things on our minds as Christians--not the first. The biblical demands of hospitality are pretty strong, especially given so many statements by Jesus himself.

So if protecting borders isn't the only consideration, what else should a Christian do?

1. Welcome.  If someone is a stranger in your land, the least you can do is acknowledge them kindly and be nice to them. You don't know the circumstances that brought them to your land. Even if you do, the Bible would not give you license to be mean to them.

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:7

2. Compassion and Dialogue.  If someone is at your doorstep begging for entry, you ought to at least ask why. Sit and talk with them. Hear their story. I've found that people who want to uniformly exclude refugees and immigrants are those who have never had a meaningful conversation with them about their circumstances. Their position is based on what they have heard from other sources.

The world "compassion" literally translates as "to suffer with" someone. Being compassionate means you have listened so deeply and are so emotionally invested that it is like you are walking right beside them in their struggles Then and only then are you in any position at all to make a decision that may impact their lives (if ever).

They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water. Isaiah 49:10.

3. Benefit of the Doubt. No amount of dialogue can ever replace the visceral experience of walking a mile in another's shoes. We still have to try, but it can be a long process to truly understand someone else's situation. I have struggled with this. I have heard people talk about all sorts of issues ranging from addiction to racial discrimination to mental health problems to political views. Sometimes it has taken years before I finally get it and understand their point of view. In the meantime, before we "get it", we can at least give the benefit of the doubt. This means that I may not fully understand someone else's point of view, but I will trust that something has brought them to this place in life and respect that. When in doubt, I will trust their testimony unless I have very strong reason to believe otherwise.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is a great guideline here: Be patient and kind. Do not be resentful. Bear a burden for your brother or sister. Trust in them and know there is a deeper reason for everything. This is how we should relate to others, especially when we are in that limbo phase of not truly understanding their situation.

4. Recognizing Rights. Christian churches almost universally affirm that people have the right to migrate to support and protect their families. Most people generally want to stay in their native land and only move when circumstances are extremely dire. Many families are caught in an impossible situation--either respect a border and watch their family suffer or break a law in hopes of saving their family. What would you do in this situation?

The Bible reminds us that we have all benefitted from a warm welcome from others when we ourselves were facing hard times:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 22:21.

5. Protecting borders. I've worked in homeless shelters. Most are places of enormous hospitality for people who often find little of that on the streets. However, nearly every shelter has well-established rules for conduct and access. For example, most shelters would not allow someone who comes to the door in a drunken rage wielding a loaded gun. As hard as it may be to refuse entry on a cold night, it may also be wrong to put the whole community at risk just to offer a bed to someone who is actively a threat.

Excluding someone is never a happy circumstance. People will often feel like they have "closed the door on Jesus." Based on Matthew 25, there is a solid biblical reason to feel this way. But a small shelter trying to make the best decision in a world of limitations has to make tough choices.

Excluding someone should never be taken lightly. It is always a very sensitive, delicate matter. The duty of a Christian is to welcome, give the benefit of the doubt, walk in compassion and recognize the rights of others long before putting up a wall. All throughout, the duty is to listen--and then listen some more--and then listen still further. At some point in the process, you may come to an unfortunate place where the only decision you see is to exclude someone, and pray to God you are making the best possible choice. But it should only be the method of last resort. You should be able to easily demonstrate that all else has been tried. 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:37-40.

Refugees Today

In light of the above criteria, it makes no sense for the US to turn away refugees at this time. Our vetting system is one of the most effective processes of the whole government. There is no evidence that refugees bring with them risks of increased crime or terrorism. They are some of the least dangerous and most productive members of society.

Refugees are in a dire situation. They are literally fleeing for their lives from war and most have generally lost everything. By definition, this is what makes them a refugee in the first place. The risks are minimal and the needs are great. On what grounds can we possibly refuse them from a Christian standpoint?


I hear Christians making impassioned arguments about the need to protect borders. It often seems to be the only consideration they express. I'm left with the eerie feeling that many Christians spend enormous amounts of energy justifying why they should NOT reach out to their brothers and sisters in need. Protecting borders is a sobering, responsible consideration. However, it should be the method of last resort after all else has been reasonably tried.

This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics,
we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.
Pope Francis, Homily from a Mass in Mexico

Friday, January 13, 2017

Strangers and Aliens

Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.


See this article:  Jeff Sessions got it right on immigrants and the Bible. It has been circulating around social media, and it has caused quite a stir. 

The basic argument of James K. Hoffmeier is that "social justice advocates" often employ a simplistic read of the Old Testament when they use it to advocate for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

"Strangers" and "aliens" were not broad terms referring to just anybody who happens to wander into a foreign land, Hoffmeier argues, but rather people with varying levels of permission to be there.

Hoffmeier writes: "I would argue that if one wants to apply biblical passages ... to our context, green card holders would better correspond. They need protections so as not to be abused and exploited as we have unfortunately seen. Old Testament law simply does not address how people in the U.S. illegally should be treated."

He may be right in the Hebrew language translation, I don't know. I support all efforts to employ good scholarship and make sure we are reading as accurately as possible. But using his own argument, he is wrong on at least two points.

The first: Is he actually suggesting that those without a green card should be abused and exploited? Abuse and exploitation are never appropriate actions, regardless of whether the Old Testament fails to mention them or not. The argument that legal status is the determining factor for protections from abuse and exploitation is morally empty by any standard. People do not void their human rights just because of their legal status. That's why they are called "rights." They don't go away just because they are in an awkward situation.

For example, if a cop pulls you over for speeding, the fact that you broke the law does not mean that it's a free-for-all and the cop can suddenly do whatever he wants to do. Absolutely not. You have a fracture in your relationship with the state that needs to be addressed, but all your other rights remain intact. The only issue between you and the state is whatever specifically relates to your speeding. The cop cannot rape you, take your money or attack you just because of speeding. The same is true for immigration status.

Second point: The main premise of Hoffmeier is that "green card holder" is the closest modern equivalent of the aliens and strangers mentioned in these texts. I would argue that green card holder is not inclusive of all the immigrants in question. Instead of an "alien" being compared to a green card holder, the alien could also be compared to a refugee. Green card holders often have the means to live comfortably and safely in their home country. Some are refugees, some are not. Refugees specifically come because they are fleeing a hostile situation. Refugee is a necessary category (along with green card holder) to describe these sanctioned aliens, because of the next point:

There are two kinds of refugees. The first are those approved and brought over by the State Department. The second are those who should be considered refugees but due to political games are not. Most undocumented immigrants in America meet the moral definition of refugee. They may not be sanctioned by the state, but they are sanctioned by God. Many of them are not "officially" declared by the US government as refugee, but that is a sin on us, not them. They meet the qualifications. Many are fleeing violence, war or life-threatening poverty, much of it brought on by the actions of our own country. They should be welcomed in our land with full rights. The fact that they are not is OUR sin, not theirs.

Hoffmeier used the example of Jacob. Due to a drought, Jacob's family fled to Egypt. They got the permission of the Pharaoh to do this. That's wonderful. However, what would Jacob's family have done if the Pharaoh did not grant this permission and give the equivalent of a "green card"? They would be faced with a tough choiceeither watch their family and flocks die in the drought or escape into Egypt without permission. Every responsible father would do the right thing and break a law instead of watch his family die. You would do it. I would do it. And we would be called heroes, not criminals. This more accurately captures the situation of undocumented immigrants in the USA today. If the Pharaoh (i.e. US government) does not grant permission, the one who commits the sin is NOT the undocumented immigrant trying to feed his familythe one who commits the sin is the one who denies permission.

The Scripture quotes at the top of this post tell us to treat the stranger as we were treated in Egypt.  What happened in Egypt? We were in a desperate situation and needed to escape a drought. The Pharaoh welcomed us. Our job, according to Scripture, is not to differentiate between those who are welcomed legally and those who are notrather, our job is to do the welcoming and grant legal permission to those who need it.

The term green card holder is helpful, but it is not inclusive of all the people and situations that Scripture is describing.

We are to treat people as we were treated in Egypt. How we were treated there? We were welcomed.  Hoffmeier starts his definition after the welcoming had already happened. It seems to me that the decision to do the welcoming is an integral part of the moral decision that Scripture is describing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's on TV Tonight?

A scene depicting an American heartland barn dance
by William Medcalf

I didn't intend to write a series on smart phones and social media. This is a blog about spirituality, religious harmony and related topics, after all. I try to keep on topic. However, given the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, many people have been rethinking how we use these new technologies. Does it serve our faith life? Does it improve our culture and society? Is this really the best way to evangelize? One thing led to another.

I stumbled upon some thoughts that have been sitting with me a long time. 

It's tragically ironic when older folks criticize young people for using smart phones and social media. It was precisely those older folks--the World War II generation and the baby boomers--who gave us the television.

I don't want to get into a battle between the generations, but I can't let this one go.

Absolutely nothing in human history has lulled more people into a lifestyle of blatant passivity than the television. Probably nothing else has eroded the foundational interactions of community itself more than the TV. Smart phones and social media are actually an attempt to re-discover community and reclaim an active role in our own lives. They come with their own problems, for certain, but they are an attempt to recover what our culture has lost. 

Compared with TV, when I surf Facebook I'm actually communicating with other human beings directly. I'm debating and interacting. This includes geographically distant family and friends. I have access to all sorts of independent news and opinion sources. Yes, the rise of "fake news" is a problem, and choosing social media instead of interacting with the people physically adjacent to us is problematic, but the Enquirer was in print and the TV embedded in every western home long before the internet came along.

I found parallel thoughts when reading How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot. To paraphrase one of my favorite contemporary authors: The last few generations have had more free time and recreational income than perhaps any other people in human history. Yet, we squander our lives passively watching others live their lives on a flashing box in our living rooms. 

I will challenge Monbiot by saying that watching other humans is nothing new. Humans have been acting out skits, performing theater and sharing story narratives since the tribal days. But at least in those older forms, presenters and audience members had more active roles compared with a TV viewers. The TV is categorically different than tribal kids acting out a skit they made, but it does feed a similar need to interpret and observe human drama as it unfolds.

If you ask people what did human beings do before the invention of the television, most will stare at you blankly. Few people have any idea. It should scare the living daylights out of us that we can't answer this question very easily. The fact that it doesn't scare us should alarm us even more. The rise of the TV is perhaps the most quiet revolution ever but perhaps the most destructive.

Yet, the human race has existed for thousands and thousands of years. The television has only been a mainstay in our culture for less than 75 years, and yet we have completely lost all ability to imagine life without it. We have also lost the ability to function with it, too, as it is a very passive activity that erodes our very functioning--the fact that we don't even know what people did before it is a testament to its destructive influence. 

People played sports. They talked. They make their own fun. They planned events, knew their neighbors and got invested in hobbies. Small towns would organize dances and shows. People sat on porches and chatted with neighbors as they walked by. Families sang together. They played parlor games. Kids probably got into all sorts of mischief. People knew how to be social in a way that we no longer do.

The TV doesn't have to get in the way of this. Families can use the TV as a focal point to gather together in one room and talk, read and play games while the glowing box is playing. But far too often, TV has been a replacement for human interaction rather than a stimulus for it. Like any technology, on the surface, it seems like it's neither good nor evil, it's more about how you use it. But I don't think it's completely innocent, either: The TV can help community, but more often than not, is makes it difficult for that to happen.

Just like smart phones and social media, the TV is not going away anytime soon. I'd love to issue a rallying cry of "blow up your TV!" but I'm far too cynical that this is a realistic scenario to hope for. The TV is probably not going away, so we best learn to live with it. But since this is indeed a blog about Christian hope, let me dig deep and say we must hope against hope, even for things that seem impossible. 

But let's not be so quick to attack the newer technologies that give users a more active role, because TV has probably been rock bottom when it comes to active community interaction. Maybe, just maybe, smart phones and social media represent some of our first steps out of the pit we've been in and not a step further down.