The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence.
There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight.
“If, as Christians, we believe that peace is rooted in Christ, then how we build that peace within us, in one way, is through the disciplines of solitude and silence; through spending time with God. Solitude is not necessarily extremely easy process, because it will bring to the fore all sorts of things that are within us. We will get to know ourselves in a fuller way. In solitude, where you know that God is with you, you can just be with God, and there is no need for a mask. Also, your humility might grow because you will see yourself as you really are — in a way that needs to be healed and transformed.”
We’re headed home from Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of artists, activists, musicians, and theologians, in Hot Springs, N.C. It was hot, rainy, and messy. My suitcase smells like my fifth grade gym locker.
I can’t wait to go back next year.
The speakers are remarkable; many of them are walking the talk they’re offering, which is an unfortunately rare phenomenon. The music is fresh and exciting, the art is created before your eyes, and there is an energy of hopeful expectation that renews your soul, flushing out the broken-down-ness of daily life.
But the most important part of the whole four-day event lies in the unexpected moments. Sometimes I would walk along the main dirt road in the middle of the grounds, lined with tables, tents, and makeshift gathering spaces, until I saw something interesting going on and just joined in.
In one moment you’re debating the theological implications of the American food-industrial complex. Half an hour later, you’re laughing with new friends in the beer tent. And then, just when the sun sets and you’re sure you lack the fortitude to go one any more, the music on the main stage cranks up and the very earth beneath you vibrates.
I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??
That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.
It’s easy for the faith of children to go unnoticed. But here are four spiritual things kids do better than adults:
They Ask Questions:
Nobody asks more — or better — questions than children. “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” and “Why?” are expressions patented by kids everywhere. They’re obnoxiously curious and want to know everything about everything.
They aren’t afraid to ask the most difficult and messy questions. Too often we mistake spiritual maturity for certainty, and lose our thirst for discovery. Kids remind us how to approach God — truthfully, stubbornly, inquisitively, and tirelessly.
You can smile at someone, but you can’t really smile with someone until you’ve cried with them, too. Shared their pain, their doubts, their questions, their uncertainty, even their despair. And their joy as well, those moments when your eyes fill with tears for a different reason. You end up smiling together with tear-stained cheeks. And those smiles matter the most.
What a difference 10 years makes.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the cultural and legal landscape could hardly be more different. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, and federal courts have struck down bans in 11 more states. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages after ditching a central portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act last year, and 44 percent of Americans now live in states that allow same-sex marriage.
After four same-sex couples filed suit Wednesday challenging Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage, neighboring North Dakota is the only state that isn’t facing a challenge to its gay marriage ban — at least not yet.
So what changed?
The brutal abduction of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has stunned and outraged the world. A violent organization called Boko Haram, and its leader Abubakar Shekau, took credit for the kidnapping more than 300 female students from their classrooms at gunpoint, from a government-run school in Chibok, on April 14. In his subsequent video, the smiling terrorist leader told the world they would sell the teenage girls “into the marketplace” or forced marriages; in his latest, he claims the girls have converted to Islam. Shekau has claimed that God told him to do all of this. That is a lie. It is an abomination. It is a blasphemy against God, and people of faith from all traditions should denounce his words.
Invoking the name of God to justify human barbarity is a painfully tragic and an ongoing occurrence. If hearing these lies about God breaks our hearts, we can only imagine they must also break the heart of God. As the Qur’an warns, “Who is more unjust than he who lies against God?” This kind of blasphemy often derives from extreme religious fanaticism that can be found in all of our faith traditions — those who pervert, abuse, and use the language of religion for fear, hate, and power. These self-proclaimed religious leaders must be utterly denounced as false and human abominations of religion and must be publically condemned and held accountable by faith communities around the world.
Most people in their right minds consider Sarah Palin’s statement about using waterboarding to “baptize” terrorists as insensitive at the very least. It further reinforces the notion that she will say or do nearly anything to grab a headline, even if it is at the expense of her own integrity, and perhaps that of her political cohorts or even her faith.
She’d be doing all of us a favor if she’d simply stop talking publically. But in as much as she continues to be afforded a microphone and speaking pulpit, we get to bear witness to her attempts to improvise a caricature of herself on the fly.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the statement to me is not the brazenness of it, or even the apparent lack of self-awareness or personal filter. It’s that she’s actually speaking on behalf of a significant – albeit shrinking – subset of Christian culture in the United States. It’s the strain that believes that the Prayer of Jabez (a prayer about expanding one’s spiritual territory) is a Manifest Destiny of sorts from Jesus to his followers. We’re to reach to all corners of the earth, emboldened with a “be assimilated or be eliminated” mentality at our backs.
A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.
He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”
It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).
Many people exploit the Bible to furiously cast judgment on others — sinfully using condemnation, guilt, shame, fear, and hatred to abuse others — all under the guise of “accountability” and the false premise of “Christianity.”
But according to the Bible, various people were used by God to do amazing things, and these individuals were often described as righteous and holy … even though they were dramatically flawed.
To be human is to be imperfect, and although we shouldn’t glorify sin or purposefully live in sin, we need to be careful about labeling others at “heretics,” “unbelievers,” and “sinners.” Because in reality, contrary to everything we assume, those whom we detest just might be favored by God.
Sinful attributes and misdeeds don’t disqualify you from a life of holiness, righteousness, and Godliness, but we often treat people as such — and condemn them to an eternity in hell. But according to the Bible, you might be a ‘Christian’ even if …
Among the many images of the marathon victims that emerged shortly after the attack, I remember being most struck by the photographs of the injured victims, missing their once sturdy limbs, lying in hospital beds. For me, those images perfectly conveyed how our city was feeling at that moment. We had just had something ripped away from us. We were assaulted, grieving for our loss, and outraged that any human being could dare do this to us.
How would our injured victims respond? Within days, the answer was clear. They would remain resilient. Adrianne Haslet-Davis would dance again, now with a prosthetic limb. Never a runner before, Celeste Corcoran pledged to run a marathon, now on her two prosthetic limbs. And, shaken by the tragedy, Amanda North would quit her job and launch the dream of her own artisan business.
Everywhere we turn, someone or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost, to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?
From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the footsteps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.
Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances, and denominational commitments (among other things), as if these things take precedence over following Jesus.
There was a time when calling someone “salt of the earth” was a compliment. It suggested a strong work ethic, moral integrity, and someone whose priorities were in proper order. Today, it seems like more of an insult than anything else.
When surveyed about what they wanted to be when they grow up, the most common response from a cohort of school-age children was “famous.” The response revealed nothing about personal passion or ambition, let alone anything about a greater need to be addressed within the larger community. It points to the fact that one of the most revered qualities in our culture is to be known. What you’re known for is less important than simply having people know who you are.
It would be easy to speak critically of a younger group of people who seem to be losing their orientation to a greater social moral compass, but this is a bellwether for where we seem to be headed. Shine brightly, get noticed and make a place for yourself.
But the thing is, the kind of light Jesus talked about is different.