The King Who Seeks

Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.
Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.

A couple of years ago, I heard the song “From a Distance” for the first time.  Though made popular by Bette Middler, my introduction was a live performance from a local celebrity during a fundraising breakfast for a community charity.   While many around me seemed to be deeply moved by the lyrics, I was less than impressed.

I did not recognize the deity whose praises were being sung. It certainly was not the God of Israel and the Church, who loves with passion and compassion, whose fierce determination to be with His people is written all over the pages of Scripture.  Our God is no distant monarch, nor, as Al Pacino’s diabolical title character charges in The Devil’s Advocate, an “absentee landlord.”

John Stott suggests as much when he writes,

“Many people visualize a God who sits comfortably on a distant throne, remote, aloof, uninterested, and indifferent to the needs of mortals, until, it may be, they can badger him into taking action on their behalf. Such a view is wholly false.  The Bible reveals a God who, long before it even occurs to man to turn to him, while man is still lost in darkness and sunk in sin, takes the initiative, rises from his throne, lays aside his glory, and stoops to seek until he finds them.” (Basic Christianity, 11.)

Arminians refer to this seeking, initiative-taking love of God as prevenient grace.  Like the father who runs out to greet the prodigal son in Luke 15, our Christ is a king who seeks and saves, who loves with abandon, never content to be at  a distance.  With Christ the King Sunday upon us, let us remember why we have reason to celebrate an incarnate “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Thanks be to the God, who was come near us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

10 Advent Outreach Ideas Better Than Train Communion (@GNJUMC)

train communionDesperate times call for heretical measures.  The Greater New Jersey Conference has announced an Advent outreach event designed to share the love of Christ with commuters at busy train stations throughout the Garden State: give the bread and cup to passers-by.  Building on a a similar practice increasingly embraced on Ash Wednesday – taking liturgical rites to public places – the Greater NJ Conference hopes to meet people where they are:

As a part of the All Aboard for Advent Campaign, pastors and lay leaders who live near train stations throughout the Greater New Jersey area are being called to bring communion to daily commuters at train station platforms.

“I think it ties in with our belief of having a ministry without doors,” said Rev. Frederick Boyle, the senior pastor at Old First UMC in West Long Branch. “To give communion to commuters will come as quite a surprise to them for sure. But I think spreading God’s blessing is important and we need to do that whenever and wherever we can.”

I hate to rain on the Christmas parade, but this kind of practice is implicitly forbidden by the official (General Conference-certified) document expounding the UM theology and practice of Communion, This Holy Mystery.  All throughout, THM presupposes a gathered community for the celebration of the Eucharist.  For reasons I explained at length here during the debate over “online communion,” the gathering of a community is essential to the nature of the act (and visiting the sick and homebound is not so much an exception to this rule as it is an extension of the table in proper pastoral circumstances).  As THM makes clear throughout, Holy Communion is indeed a communion:

Holy Communion is the communion of the church-the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural-we, us, our.

Since train communion (unless done as a full, public worship service, which doesn’t seem to be what is proposed) is a bad idea, I don’t want to leave my NJ colleagues hanging.  Here are ten ideas (in no particular order) for Advent outreach that are better, and far less offensive to UM theology and practice, than train communion.  I owe this idea, in part, to Carol Bloom who proposed several of these alternatives during a recent discussion in the UMC Worship Facebook group – so thanks, Carol!

  1. Prayer Stations: Pray with and for people.  Very few people – even the nonreligious and nominally religious – will punch you in the face if you ask to pray for them.
  2. Blue Christmas: Sometimes called a Longest Night service, these worship services are a great way to offer hope to the many in our communities who are hurting during the holidays.
  3. Free Hot Cocoa/Coffee:  Who doesn’t love a hot beverage in the dead of winter?  Also pairs well with #1.
  4. Gift Wrapping: Many of us (your humble author included) are terrible at wrapping gifts.  Offer a free gift wrapping station at a local shopping center.
  5. Advent Calendars/Devotionals: Advent gets too easily run over by the commercialism of the holiday season.  Hand out Advent calendars or devotionals to help people remember Jesus in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
  6. Parents’ Night Out:  Sponsor a parents’ night out for the community; get some Doritos and board games, throw on Elf, and let the parents drop off their kids so they can have a date night and do their shopping.
  7. Free Bibles:  If you give out whole Bibles you’ll already be doubling the effort of the Gideons.
  8. Christmas Meal: Odds are there are people in your community who either can’t afford a Christmas meal or don’t have family to celebrate it with, or both.  Reach out to them in with Christian love…and mashed potatoes.
  9. Go Caroling: Pick a neighborhood, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter and spread some Christmas cheer.  Against such things there is no law.
  10. Thank the Train Employees: Okay, this one is specific to Jersey, and other places with lots of public transportation.  The idea is very transferable, though. Pick some public servants in thankless jobs and show them some appreciation and holiday cheer.  Take care packages to the local police station.  Send cards to the neighborhood fire house.  Do something for the nurses that will be working while the rest of us celebrate.  You get the idea.

There. Ten ideas for Advent outreach that do not run afoul of This Holy Mystery, many of which could even be done in and around train stations.  How about it, GNJUMC?  Are you #allaboardumc with a slight change in plans?

I close with the words of Brian Wren from one of my favorite Communion hymns, I Come With Joy.  He reminds us that the sacrament, for which we gather and by which we are united, sends us out to fulfill the Missio Dei in a variety of ways – but hopefully none which deny the nature and dignity of the Eucharist itself.

Together met, together bound,
by all that God has done,
we’ll go with joy, to give the world,
the love that makes us one.

Do Pacifist Christians “Love the Sinner, but Hate the Sin”?

Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.
Official Veterans Day 2013 poster, courtesy Wikipedia.

Today is Veterans Day in the United States.  We remember and celebrate women and men who have served in our armed forces, whether in peacetime or war.  I wonder if a pacifist Christian can celebrate today?

Let me explain.  I recently preached a sermon questioning the commonly used phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”  For a number of reasons, many of which are spelled out by my friend and fellow Methoblogger Ben Gosden here, I do not think this is a phrase Christians should be quick to use.  Other good explorations of this phrase, which comes perhaps from Augustine but likely Gandhi (but certainly not Scripture), include reflections from Ken Collins and Micah Murray.  I especially agree with Murray that Christians tend to only use this in talking about sexuality.  For whatever reason, it is largely progressive Christians who have had an issue with this phrase (and in this case I happen to agree with them).  But in some recent reading a question was raised for me: do pacifist Christians display this exact attitude when dealing with the military?  Pacifists, in my experience, will go to great pains to proclaim their love for military personnel, though they disagree with the soldier’s vocation.  They “love the soldier” but “hate the war.”

Andrew Todd, at the conclusion of an excellent volume he edited exploring military chaplaincy, argues that churches who send chaplains should be sure that they can support the (limited) use of force in certain situations.  His rationale is that

“…if chaplains need to be committed to the military mission, as a corollary of their Christian mission, then the same must be true of the churches. That means that in the interests of supporting the moral role of chaplains discussed here, the ‘sending churches’ must also be supportive of the use of lethal force by an appropriately authorized military in support of peace and justice and must believe that serving the military can be a Christian vocation. Otherwise the chaplain is at risk of discovering that in seeking to live out the gospel within the military community they have become isolated from their faith community.” (168)

In other words, for chaplains to exercise their role effectively and legitimately, the ‘sending’ churches need to approve of their vocation, and that of the Christian soldiers under their care.  The chaplain cannot adequately show Christ’s love to the soldier if the church that has endorsed that ministry believes both the soldier and the chaplain to possess fundamentally flawed notions of discipleship.

As analysis of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” has shown, in practice it is very difficult to separate a person from their actions.  I would argue that the soldier’s vocation is about who they are, about identity, rather then simply actions which they are trained to do on the battlefield.  It is not merely another job that can easily be separated from one’s personality; in part, this is because the military is perhaps the most effective contemporary institution when it comes to formation.  Just try and tell someone who is or who has been a soldier, airman, sailor, or Marine that that identity is not especially important to them.  Thus, to condemn the actions of military personnel while claiming to still love and respect them as persons is to divide their identity from their vocation in way that simply does not make sense.

So, can pacifist Christians legitimately claim to love soldiers and veterans while simultaneously declaring their vocation illegitimate in the eyes of God?  And if so, is this not just another form of “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

olkholm book

“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

Barbarians at the Gate: Shock Politics, Civility, and the Demand for Total Surrender #UMC

Hadrian's Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Historically, we build walls to keep out invasive forces.  For all the sentimental claptrap about “walls never stay standing,” the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall still stand as reminders that there is always a need to set limits between civil and uncivil forces.  There is a similar need now in the UMC.  The walls are metaphorical, of course, but no less important.

Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church.  As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed by anonymous minions.  Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic.  In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice.  While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.

But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level.  A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student.  Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident.  Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.

Another problematic feature of the UMC conversation of late is the totalizing politics at play.  One of the great missteps of the 20th century was the Allies’ demand for total and unconditional surrender from Japan.  It is arguable that, had some negotiation been possible, the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been necessary.  When one gives up on conversation and the only outcome one can live with is surrender, tragedy often ensues.

To observe this in the UMC, consider the recent witch hunt for Richard Hays, NT professor and Dean of Duke University Divinity School.  Andy Oliver, a staff member for RMN, posted a profoundly misguided article  calling for Hays’ capitulation on a number of fronts, even recanting parts of one of his most famous books.  Oliver posted this with the kind of totalizing, threatening language that would make Good News proud (promising legions of anonymous supporters ready to strike).  In a political world where everyone who does not fully support your agenda is a contemptible enemy, one need not take the time to make rational arguments or reasonable demands.  If total surrender is your only acceptable outcome, you’ve already decided that no amount of eggs is too great to get the omelette of your dreams.*

The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.
The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.

When the barbarians are near, it’s time to remember that fences make good neighbors.  One need look no further for this than the recent Connectional Table-sponsored panel discussion based on Finding Our Way.  The fruitful dialogue was made possible because a band of insurgents was not allowed in the room, likely because they had already promised to do what they always do: (d)isrupt the stated agenda.  Whether this show of intestinal fortitude was a one-time experiment or a sudden lapse into strong leadership  by the Connectional Table remains to be seen.

We have serious matters before us.  We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing.  Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another.  Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment.  In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.

The barbarians are at the gate, friends.  They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two).  We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender.  The choice is ours.

*An excellent rebuttal from the Indiana RMN affiliate to the atrocious hatchet job about Dean Hays can be found here.

A Graceless Apocalypse: Thoughts on “Slabtown” (The Walking Dead)

Beth in "Slabtown," courtesy IGN's excellent review.
Beth in “Slabtown,” courtesy IGN’s excellent review.

[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]

“Everything costs something, right?”

Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while.  Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross.  In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta.  In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened.   The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately.  Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”

Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital.  Outside is nothing but zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped.  But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened.  Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them.  “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says.  Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.

“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture  of life without grace.  Everything costs.  Nothing is simply given.

Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently.  With God, nothing is earned, all is given.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace.  When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”

Icon of Christ the Sower
Icon of Christ the Sower

My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.

We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge.  “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace.  Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way.  We only recruit new church members with “resources.”  We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals.  We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors.  The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.

But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace.  Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible.  Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.

That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money.  Thanks be to God.

Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.
Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

Feminists’ Favorite Sport Should Be Mixed Martial Arts

UFC Women's Bantamweight champ Ronda "Rowdy" Rousey, courtesy rondamm.com.
UFC Women’s Bantamweight champ Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey, courtesy rondamma.com.

Forget basketball, soccer, softball, and those Olympic sports we all pretend to like every four years.  Mixed martial arts (MMA) should be feminists’ favorite sport.  Derived from a blending of martial arts such as karate, wrestling, kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu, MMA is unique in placing its female fighters and champions on equal footing with their male counterparts.  Feminists should love MMA.

The chief example of this is UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.  It was not long ago that UFC President Dana White promised we’d never see  women in the Octagon.  What changed?

Dana met Ronda Rousey.

Since coming onto the scene, Ronda has rapidly become one of the UFC’s biggest stars, commanding a crossover appeal (doing commercials, late-night TV, and movies) without parallel among her male peers.  And she’s not just a pretty face.  The former Olympic judoka has defended her title multiple times, improving her performance with each outing despite a staggeringly demanding schedule.  Also, she got it honest: her mother was an world-class judoka who later earned a PhD.  Talk about a family of accomplished women!

Compare this to other major sports leagues, where women hardly get the same platform that men do.  The WNBA cannot boast of anyone who rivals the star power of Lebron James; most other major sports don’t have a league for female athletes that even comes close to the WNBA’s exposure or popularity (which isn’t saying much).

Contrast that to MMA, where, in the UFC and other organizations, female fighters headline cards and draw pay-per-view buyers and serious sponsors.  Moreover, Rousey and her main rival, Miesha Tate, coached a season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) where they coached men and women.  How many other sports can boast that, in their first 20 years in existence, women coach men at the highest level?  Building on the success of Rousey and the bantamweight division she spearheads, the new season of TUF features an exclusively female cast introducing the 115-pound women’s division.

So in my view women, and those who care about the advancement of women (in a society that still too often treats them as second-class citizens), should be among the most vocal advocates for MMA.  In no other sport have female athletes come to occupy such a prominent position, equal to and even surpassing many of the male stars, in so short a time frame.

If you want to be in the business of rewarding activities that empower women and treat them equally, then MMA is for you.

Feminists, your sport is here.  As Bruce Buffer would say, “IT’S TIME” to give credit where credit is due.

The Origin of the Term ‘Chaplain’

St. Martin and the Beggar, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
St. Martin and the Beggar, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps this is more well known than I imagined, but I found this fascinating.  The word ‘chaplain’ comes from 8th-century pre-battle liturgical practices:

Cappellani [chaplains] originally came from the cappa [cloak] of blessed Martin; the Frankish kings commonly took it with them in battle because it helped them to victory; because they carried it and cared for it with other saints’ relics, clerics began to be called chaplains.

This means that chaplaincy has a decidedly military origin: both in St. Martin, himself a former soldier turned Bishop, and in the use of his half-cloak, venerated as a relic by medieval kings.  Today, chaplains in many contexts still care in the name of Christ at the service of soldiers, doctors, prisons, and ultimately, the church.

Thank God for them.

 

Source: Andrew Totten, “Moral Soldiering and Soldiers’ Morale,” in Military Chaplaincy in Contention (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), 22.

We Are Not Animals: On Living and Dying With Dignity

Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

-Mark Twain

People are not animals; we have conscience and consciousness, a level of self-awareness and self-agency that gives us greater ability to be both more glorious and diabolical than other living things.  In an increasingly secular age, however, the modern West’s materialism – which recognizes nothing particularly important about the spiritual realm, if at all acknowledged – lends itself to a “blurring of the lines” (pun intended, see below) in regards to the differences between humans and animals.  This has struck me recently for two reasons.

First, we define ourselves as animals with impulses that we cannot and need not control.  I do not get angry at my dog for barking at the UPS man because she’s doing what a protective breed of dog (the boxer) is supposed to do.  Animals have nothing to go on but instinct.  As Chris Rock once said of the unnecessary shock that was expressed when Siegfried and Roy were attacked by one of their tigers, “That tiger didn’t go crazy – that tiger went tiger!”  But a new Maroon 5 song suggests not merely that people are animals, but that predatory behavior should be expected and even glorified:

Baby I’m preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals
Animals
Like animals

When Johnny Cash sang about “The Beast in Me,” he at least knew to cage the beast, not celebrate it.  While Adam Levine has received criticism for the song and the uber-creepy video – in which his own wife is quite literally likened to a piece of meat – not everyone has been so concerned.  PETA suggested Levine’s “art” did not go far enough, and that, since we’re all “animals,” we should be compassionate animals and be vegan.  All in all, it is quite a feat for a song to make Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” sound like a sweet croon.

If one consequence  of the blurred line between human and animal is treating others like beasts to be preyed upon, another is treating ourselves like animals to be put down.  A young woman in Oregon is receiving a lot of attention for her public plan to die with the assistance of state-approved drugs on November 1st.  Brittany Maynard’s story is certainly moving; she essentially has the worst form of brain cancer possible, and wants to choose the time and place of her death rather than endure the extreme suffering that her disease will inevitably entail.

As a pastor, I’ve sat with dying and suffering people more than most.  And we should have compassion for folks who must face such a terrible prognosis.  But I find it difficult to see assisted suicide as it is touted: as a choice for dignity.  It says much about our society, so riven by moral chaos, that the only thing on which we can agree as a moral good is greater and increasing choice – even if that choice is to treat ourselves like animals.

But animals we are not.  We are humans, made in the image of God, flesh and spirit, sinew and soul.  That some Westerners are beginning to take the logic of denying our particular nature and calling to its conclusion is troubling, though not surprising.  But we are humans, and we all should resist the normalization of language and practices that treat us more as animals than people.  This is especially true for Christians, who confess that humans are created “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) in the image of our Creator, with a special vocation to care for creation, including one another, as God’s precious gift.

We are not prey to be hunted or sick dogs to be put down.  We are humans, uniquely equipped to know the good and to do it.  The fastest path away from both of those, however, is to deny who, what, and Whose we are.

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