Posted on June 23, 2016
Last week I wrote about how we are caught between the tension of equipping people to step out of poverty but not wanting to agree with the values of an economy that strips culture and language from people for the purpose of economic gain.
This is potentially where our life as the Church can come in, to at least be the type of place where we can exist in tension together. The Church, as has been popularly troped many times before, is to be in the world (so not to simply dis-engage) but not of the world (so not to assume the values and ‘goods’) of the culture.
The Church is meant to have it’s own narration of ‘the good life’ and is meant to equip the lives of disciples to be marked by that. So, the Church is supposed to be the place where resident aliens are reminded to live for home. We are meant to be a prophetic witness to a surrounding community that there are deeper things in life than economic prosperity, pragmatism and things that are commonly defined as successful. At the same time we are to equip the saints to live this prophetic witness while operating as participants in the surrounding society.
So, how should the church live in order to be a prophetic witness to the surrounding culture?
Because our life together is the very witness through which the surrounding culture can see a living alternative, we need to be reflecting on the assumptions, shape and honour that exist within our life together as the Church;
In capitalist economies, the economy excludes or resents the existence of those who do not contribute to the economy. How are those who are unemployed treated amongst you? Are they tolerated as needy in the ways they are in society? How about those who may never contribute to the economy such as the disabled, mentally ill, ex-offender and elderly? Are they ushered to the edges of what is happening in your community life? Why is that? Often we have not taken on and represented the vision of the kingdom that the beatitudes offers us.
Those who the surrounding society see as weak often reflect to us our own insecurities and fears about powerlessness and so we’d frankly just prefer not to have to be reminded of this part of the human condition. Why are we so afraid of these people who image a humanity we would prefer not to be? I don’t think it can simply be that we are afraid of the pain they experience. It could also be that our identities are formed more by what our surrounding societies say about success than God’s pinnacle of desire for humans; to know Him and enjoy Him forever.
Do the predominant demographics that hold the positions of power in your society also hold the positions of leadership and influence in your faith community? Could it be that the most qualified and spiritually mature people in your community are all male and white? I doubt it. Suffering and marginalisation teaches people a great deal about the Spiritual life and the kingdom that is both here and not yet.
Leadership appointment is not as considered and honestly reflected upon as you would think. I have been so aware that in the few moments when I have had the opportunity to appoint a leader or work with someone I have wanted to make the decision at a gut level. This is commonly known as ‘confirmation bias’; the idea that we want ourselves reflected back to us. People who are the same as us reflect to us our own sense of assuredness about how the world really is, and that makes the world a more confortable, safe and reassuring place.
Difference is inherently painful, but although diverse leadership teams experience more conflict, they also end up healthier than homogenous teams. I am not proposing an affirmative action policy or an empty tokenism, but instead a reflecting on bias’ that exist in our guts more than our heads and making hard but right decisions. We all want to work with people we enjoy, but sometimes we have to make decisions to work with people whose emphasis on certain values might be different than you, but they will fulfill your very present weaknesses.
I once heard someone say, “What you celebrate, is what you multiply’ – this must be why insecure leaders create environments where only people like them can flourish. We have to learn to celebrate the ‘other’. As I mentioned in my previous blog post on culture, we often read our own bias’ for values into bias’ that simply aren’t in scripture. Westerners will be infuriated by non-westerners seeming lack of value for plain-spokenness (particularly around the issue of time), and non-westerner will be infuriated for westerner’s consistent disregard for the people and relationships in the midst of a task.
There is no biblical basis for one of these values trumping the other, but each side often insists their culture is the one that should be honoured in a given circumstance. As ever, Jesus leads the way for us as he counts his equality with God as something to be set aside in humility for the sake of the other (Phil 2:7).
The role of reversing the tide of our culture’s assumptions of what is good, useful and worthy is not an easy vocation. But the Church and the vision of God’s coming kingdom are the only places with the resources to provide true living alternatives to the injustices of our culture and economies.
For us to embody a living alternative to the surrounding culture our churches are going to have to take a difficult look at themselves. We are going to have to discern whether our assumptions, our shape and what we speak honour for enable us to look more like God’s diverse bride pictured in revelation or simply our own reflections looking down a dark well of sameness.
What do you see as the greatest barriers for us to become this image bearing community? Can you suggest some practical ways we could enact a new prophetic witness?
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Posted on June 16, 2016
Even 5-10 years ago I remember a common optimism that we lived in a progressive and tolerant society, that the intolerances and systemic injustices of slavery, gender and culture were issues overcome in our recent past. In history classes we would read about the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, women’s right to vote and the abolishment of slavery with a sense of optimism that these ills has been conquered and overcome.
In the last 5-10 years though increased awareness has been raised there are more people bought and sold today than ever before in history, that women continue to feel excluded from competing for positions of power and people of colour experience themselves marginalised and discriminated against. In light of these awarenesses the romantic idea of progress has faded.
The reality today is that if you are white, male and educated (like I am) in most parts of the world, you have more opportunity and freedom than the majority of the population experience. Ironically because of these opportunities and freedoms we are also the least aware of the invisible boundary lines and glass ceilings the rest of the world’s population encounter on a daily basis.
On top of this, because of the radically individualistic lens our culture operates with, we are sure that if we don’t feel we have discrimination or bias, and no one we meet admits to having it, then it can’t exist. This blinds us to seeing how our collective unspoken and unreflected-on bias’ create the cultural conditions for there to be great levels of injustice and at the same time a society-wide denial of the causes of this injustice.
My role and motivation for being in South Africa connects me in friendship with many people and communities that were on the receiving end of the apartheid system of segregation and oppression. As a white european male it has been an enriching and often horrifying eye opener to both the subtle and overt oppressions that exist both here in South Africa and globally on the basis of race and gender.
One of the hangovers of South Africa’s history and the impact of colonialism more globally means that speaking english is a basic requirement to enter into participation in the economy and to find employment. This creates a tension for us, as Christians we believe that there are aspect of all cultures which represent the beauty and glory of God, even aspects that are crucial to be retained for the benefit and witness of the global body of Christ.
At the same time, for people to become upwardly mobile in an economy and relieve the impact of poverty, they must become skilled in ways that help them participate in the surrounding economy. The economy as a system has little respect for the background of it’s participants and it’s rules and whims are created by those who hold power. For better or worse, those who hold power, or at least those who set the game up in history valued a homogeny or sameness to exist to create a well-oiled system.
While we are motivated to see people be liberated from the oppressive bonds of poverty, it can often seem like they are exchanging one bondage for another when systems of education and economic participation encourage them to be stripped of cultural and linguistic heritages simply in order to progress.
As I have written before on this blog, the goal of homogenising culture is the pride of babel and God’s envisioned future is one where all gather in unity but in their diversity at the end of time, praising God in their tongues and tribes. So this creates a tension; we have a kingdom impulse to help see people economically uplifted from poverty, but also a kingdom impulse to see culture and language honoured and redeemed.
Many studies have shown that humans have an innate lack of ability to live in tension and will resolve and simplify if at all possible, but the cost of resolving this tension is great. On one hand the kingdom impulse adopts the economy’s pragmatic value to become a good economic worker bee, the other option is to value the distinctness of culture and opt-out of the surrounding systems of society. It can feel like we either have to assume the economy’s values wholesale or opt out from society more generally. Neither of which seems like a solidly kingdom option for the here and now.
Part II will be posted here next week.
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I was whisked through my theology undergraduate work at such a pace and such an accelerated specialisation I never got to properly engage the atonement. It was like taking a coach tour of London by driving the ring road (M25) and never getting off the bus!
Atonement is basically the theology of what Jesus Christ has done for us, how he has taken on and defeated our sin and made a way for us to be reconcilled to God. It can often become fairly technical, so not being an technician myself I will try to speak about it as clearly as I can muster.
The title of this view kind of gives it away, Jesus dies in our substitute, in our stead. Different versions of this claim to describe the mechanics of how this takes place, but all of the sub-views basically agree that Jesus is on the cross as an innocent dying for the guilty, those that turned from God, You and me.
Christus Victor View
The title of this one is obscured because it is usually rendered in latin, but essentially it means, Christ is victorious. Victorious over what you ask? Well, over Powers, Principalities, Evil, Death, and the Devil. This view while including the cross obviously includes the ressurection (otherwise it would be hard to argue Jesus’ victored over death you see).
Moral Example View
Not sure what the true title of this view is called. Usually it is the straw-man view of evangelicals because it is seen as the ‘Jesus-wasnt-God-but-a-good-guy’ and we should try to live like him. While I understand why we want to push back on the whole Jesus-wasnt-God thing, we miss alot of the significance of Jesus’ example to us in life and death if we concentrate on solely one or both of the previous views. They leave us with a Christ who dies and rises for us, but not a Jesus we can follow.
The difficulty of the penal substitutionary atonement view
More recently one particular view within the subtitionary atonement view has been out of fashion. Namely the penal substitutionary, this is partly because it has previously been so popular and central that it is almost the only one evangelicals could articulate. The penal substitionary view is basically that we, humans have guilt from our sin which God the Father must judge and so He sends Jesus to take on that sin and punishment in order for us to be set free.
The unfortunate thing about this simplistic explanation of penal substitionary atonement is that God the Father comes out looking like a pretty un-good God who is angry and needs a place to take out his anger, which ends up being on his son. Not the rendering of the Gospel that sits well with most.
Now I knew that smart, sincere and pious people have been involved in formulating, articulating and defending this view, so I knew that there must be a much more articulate and well-reasoned way of unpacking this view of atonement. Well, now I came across one in a quote I happened across from Miroslav Volf;
Let us beware that some accounts of what it means for Christ to have died on behalf of the ungodly—what theologians sometimes call his “substitutionary” death—are deeply problematic. If we view Christ on the cross as a third party being punished for the sins of transgressors, we have widely missed the mark. For unlike a financial debt, moral liability is non-transferable. But Christ is not a third party. On account of his divinity, Christ is one with God to whom the “debt” is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our transgressions against God and frees us from just retribution. But since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt. Christ’s oneness with both creditor and debtors leaves only two categories of “actors” and thus negates the notion of his involvement as a third party. (Miroslav Volf, “The End of Memory”, p.117)
If that left your head spinning, then here is gist; Christ is not the third party and God is the second party who is expressing his anger, God is Himself taking on the debt. Every act of one member of the trinity is an act of them all. Therefore God takes on implication of the wrong that we have done, He does not transfer it to another somehow.
Which view is the right one?
Finally, I’m sometimes asked which view of the atonement I believe in, to which I fustratingly answer, “all of them’. It seems to me you can proof text your way to back them all. This is much like the elephant that three blind men are asked to describe by touch, and then insist the part of the elephant they can feel is that inherent defining aspect of the elephant.
We read and experience aspects of the overwhelming size of Christ’s atoning work and then get stuck arguing for our perceptions. Instead of an either/or dilemma I think to many atonement theories we can say both/and.
Something of a wordplay occurred to me today. I think I have heard it somewhere before1, but maybe you haven’t and so, I’ll share it with you.
Making it right before taking communion
I’ve been thinking about the practice of communion/Eucharist/Lord’s supper and the common practice of reconciling to others within the body of Christ before engaging in it.
In a world where our Facebook-projections of ourselves can be the only selves we actually know, this practice of asking for forgiveness has fallen by the wayside. We are addicted to seeing and portraying the best version of ourselves to the point that we have become callous towards the impact of the unlovely parts of who we are.
We don’t only have barriers at an individual level but also in our communities too. Rarely is there enough love and common affection found in Christian communities that can allow someone to confess sin to another and not from then on somehow be held at arms length. In fact, confessing sin or offense to one another often seems positively impolite!
How do I understand when I am truly at fault?
While I’m sure there are many causes in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, another challenge is our inability to understand where accountability or blame lies.
What is my part, what is their part? What is the fault of my nature or my nurture.
It seems like many of the sciences (neuroscience/psychology/sociology/psychiatry) are discovering impacts on our lives that lead us to believe that almost everything in our lives can be tracked back to something in our biology, our nurture and development, or our social conditioning.
All that being accounted for though, there is a clear need to simply take more responsibility for our own actions. This is why I think in the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be kept from temptation (our responsibility) and delivered from evil (a more external influence) and both of these areas need to be accounted for in our lives.
We humans can be ingenious at squirming our way out of simply reflecting on our action or inaction and saying sorry.
Putting Jesus back together again
After considering the lack of interpersonal repentance in our communion times, I reflected on Jesus’ plain and simple words as he taught the disciples to encounter him through the plain and simple breaking of bread and drinking of wine around a plain and simple table.
“As often as you do this, remember me”
Remember me. Of course the most straight forward way to read this would be; ‘make sure you keep me in mind’, but there is also a word play possible that allows us to see another angle of what Jesus is encouraging here. Jesus is saying re-member me, put my members, another word used for all the parts of a body, put them back together.
Are we re-membering Christ when we participate in communion? Are we putting the body of Christ back together when we sit around his table? I wonder if that is part of his desire. That we would re-member, connect his parts so fully that we are mistaken for one body.
The imagery of one body is used often throughout Paul, but our endless fractures which originated far before the reformation certainly make us look like a dismembered corpse of a church at times. On a more local level it often does not look much prettier. Petty disagreements, mountain from molehills acting as arms-length barriers between us. Holding us back from the image we were gathered to create – the body of Christ.
A little while go I spoke about the church acting as the image of the invisible God, in the way that Colossians talks about Jesus. I wonder if we are obscuring the image because of our pride? Our desire to stand haughtily like parliamentarians across benches rather than family around a table. It’s incredible what diversity and disagreement within familys can be melted away by the simple act of a mealtime together.
In the practise of communion we are welcomed into the very presence of God, encouraged to envisage ourselves as caught up in the very dance of triune life. A common act that catches us up in the awareness of divine love. These are the times where we can perceive the love of God in ways that allow us to be hardy and alive enough to love our enemies. When we rarely practise communion and remember our inclusion in God’s inner life through Christ we are left as fragile ego’s reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty who struggle even to forgive our brothers and sisters nevermind our enemies.
Practising practical Re-memebering
Finally rather than a meditation on forgiveness from 30,000 feet I want to make some practical suggestions towards practicing forgiveness.
- Spoken forgiveness should not be a passive-aggresive “just to let you know you wronged me….but don’t worry Im big enough to coldly release from your debt towards me”. You are responsible for your affections towards that person, make sure you are not motivated to communicate anything non-verbally and that you have released the debt2.
- You do not need to tell the whole story to the person or even most of the details. Take responsiblity for the grudge and offense and the broken relationship that ensued and repair it, dont dig it back up again.
- Think of the best of the offending party, normally people have little to no awareness of their offense and are mortified to discover they caused offense. Expect that rather than imagining all the ways in which they intended it from evil intent. It will help your heart to give them the benefit of the doubt and you will approach them with grace rather than fear.
- Make sure you apologise if you have held on to the offense for far too long, rather than justify it and make the person feel like they are to blame for your decision not to have an open conversation with them.
- Forgiveness is a matter of perspective. For the offender it is a one-time thing, once it is dealt with, they feel absolved. For the offended it is only a process of re-building trust. It is not fair to openly process with the offender if you feel like your unforgiveness comes and goes, take responsibility for your own process rather than inflict them with it.
Forgiveness is hard, but it re-builds and restores relational connection which by any measure is the major impactor of quality of life. We are meant to be a people who give and receive forgiveness like breath. Not that the offenses are light or meaningless but that we are captured by our own lostness if all our sins were held against us, and out of the overflow of the grace and inclusion God has given us, who are we to withhold that from other.
Let us re-member Christ, who was broken and disfigured, dislocated and wounded for us to be reconnected to God and one another. One body has been broken so that we can venture into wholeness, and we need one another to be the picture of Christ that we are called to be.
- Maybe through Isaac Aho who has been thinking about communion and will be writing something here about it very soon. ↩
- to the extent to which that is appropriate. I am mostly envisaging small offences here which make up the vast majority of unforgiveness in Christian community. Where there are heavier sinful or legal problems, it is not appropriate to forgive and forget always, other retribution may be necessary. ↩
Posted on May 16, 2016
I’ve been thinking about acts of giving, generosity and the jewish practise (adopted by many christians) of tithing. It’s a complex category of thoughts that often strike directly at the heart of some of the motivating factors of our lives. Safety, security, honour, freedom, identity and of course fear.
Recently I heard someone say that if the bible repeats something then God is trying to make a point. While I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of that, it is certainly extraordinary that the bible has over 2000 references to resources, wealth and money in it, while ‘faith’, a fairly central tenet of our, err…faith, is only mentioned around 200 times.
While the theology of giving has been repeated and debated a million times over in almost as many types of ways, I recently heard and then read about how giving affects us in our brains.
So…to the Neuroscience of Giving
Neuroscientists documented people’s giving, and found that there was a release of the happiness chemicals of the brain including dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is an endorphin that give people a sense of euphoria, while oxytocin produces feelings of tranquility, serenity and inner peace.
This reward system which exists in the brain is the same one that creates the type of joy that comes from eating, friendship and sex. It turns out even thinking about giving begins to produce these affects.
Other research has shown that giving can lessen the risk and symptoms of depression and day-to-day stress.
So is there any reason not give?
Well the short answer is, Yes, If don’t give if you don’t feel like it..here are two of the researchers from this study talking about it;
VEDANTAM: The interesting thing about generosity is that it’s a double-edged sword. Giving up things can be painful. But it can also make people happy. Aknin and other scientists are studying the conditions under which generosity fuels happiness. One thing they found is that being forced to be generous is not a good way to make people happy.
AKNIN: If you force people to act generously you can really undermine those emotional rewards.
I know ‘not-doing-it-because-you-don’t-feel-like-it’ is the opposite ideas that I’ve espoused before (preferring the practise to virtue process I spoke about here), but speaking purely based on the neuroscientific and therefore felt benefits of giving, if you are coerced, give because you feel guilty, giving grudgingly then it will not produce the chemicals mentioned above. So even if you believe the research behind this post and decide to give in order to get rid of stress and feel good it probably won’t work. The reason it works the way it does is because the generosity relieves an incessant focus on self.
Here is what the researcher from this post says;
When giving selflessly, “people say their friendships are deeper, they’re sleeping better and they’re able to handle life’s obstacles better,” Post says. “On a scale of 1 to 10 – and 10’s a really powerful drug like insulin in the treatment of diabetes – this stuff is probably up there around a 7 or 8. And the amazing thing is, you don’t need to go to a drugstore for it.”
So as Science Mike says, “It’s not only God who loves a cheerful giver, but your brain too”
So what does this reveal about how we were made
Giving basically is an act of good-will that connects us in a meaningful way to a person or a group. It seems that in relationships we need some kind of traffic to cross the bridges of our relationships to keep them meaningful. For example, time, communication, service, gifts, something to express our felt-importance in the connection we have made. Giving is one of the ways we can create this, giving by it’s very nature dis-empowers the giver in a physical way but empowers the less tangible aspects of that persons felt-connection to the other.
In an age where independence is rampant and a self-reliance is a highly prized virtue giving reminds us that we are inter-dependent creatures even at a purely biological level. Humans thrive in inter-dependence. When we think of our lives then, we are most fulfilling and renewing our inherent God-image when we become persons in relationship, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit.