Category Archives: evil

Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon
Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.*  The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it.   The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising.  I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents.  Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:

“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”

In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation –  is theodicy.

Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism.  We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will.  One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil.   That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.

That leaves us in a difficult spot, though.  Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent.  God can do anything.  That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain.  Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church.  Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship.  But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them?  Yes.  And we will, and should, wrestle with that.

But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important.  In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices.  In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion.  Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No.  It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.

I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast.  But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential.   It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.

At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together.  Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults.  We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.

And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!

_____

*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal.  His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement.  One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement.  Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial.  Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.

Tornadoes, Theodicy, and Calvinism

David Bentley Hart is like Barth to me.  That is, my claims to appreciate his work are far too grand compared to the amount of his work I’ve actually read.  Nevertheless, what I have read of his I have greatly enjoyed.  With the usual Calvinist claptrap being thrown around once more in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, Hart offers the kind of strong medicine we need.  The following was taken from a Christian Century interview about his book on theodicy in the light of the tsunami, The Doors of the Sea.

On the Calvinist Anxiety Over God’s Sovereignty:

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

What Pastors Should and Should Not Say in Times of Tragedy:

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t a pastoral bone in my body. But I would implore pastors never to utter banal consolations concerning God’s “greater plan” or the mystery of his will. The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So Where Was God?

“Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

“When There is No Peace”

Libya Alhurra TV posted images on Facebook of Pro-American supporters taking to the streets in Libya today to distance themselves from the rocket attack which killed Chris Stevens

I’ve been having a back and forth with my friend Morgan over his recent blog post reacting against the attack on the Libyan embassy.  Morgan is a deeply committed Christian and an articulate interlocutor.  This exchange raised a question with me: how do Christians respond to the kind of senseless violence that seems to be so prevalent in our world?

Certainly, any reaction that blames all Muslims as a whole is to be vehemently denied.  The above photo, from this story about an anti-extremist rally, is evidence enough that not all of Islam is violent (and it is sad indeed that we must keep reminding folks of this in a post-9/11 world).

It seems to me that a measured, loving, but honest response is warranted.  Many of my liberal and progressive Christian friends were so quick to remind us that not all Muslims are terrorists that they seemed to forget that a tragic few are.  They seemed more interested in offering an apologetic on behalf of moderate Muslims than in grieving the lost or crying out for justice.  This strikes me as a “PC” response but not necessarily a Christian one.

As Christians, we are called to pray and work for and witness to the peace of Christ, the prince of Peace.  How that plays out in the world of international politics, foreign policy, and non-state actors with RPGs is a complex question.  Whatever else we say, we must know that the call for peace must not come at the expense of justice, or vice versa.  The prophet Jeremiah thus excoriated the false prophets of his day:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (6:14, NRSV)

We must not be too quick to cry “peace” in the absence of justice.  There is a time for peace and for war, a time for forgiveness, and a time for the sword of government to do its work.  The time for reconciliation will come.  For now, let us pray for the victims of this attack, for the people of Libya (especially those of the household of faith), and for the perpetrators: may they be brought to justice swiftly, and may the God of all people so draw them to Himself that they repent and are reconciled to God and neighbor.

For now, as the old song goes, let peace begin with me.

Songs for Aurora: The Psalms Versus the Cult of Positivity

I’ve been preaching on the Psalms recently, using Walter Brueggemann’s three-fold typology (orientation, disorientation, new orientation) to order my preaching and teaching of the Bible’s great prayer book.  Little did I know that, unfortunately, the Sunday I had planned to preach about the Psalms of disorientation would be all too close to one of the worst mass killings in recent American history.

I do a double cringe every time a horrific act like the shootings in Aurora takes place.  The first is for the evil act itself, for the victims and their loved ones, for the communities shattered, for families torn apart.  The second cringe follows closely, though: the gut feeling in my stomach that all around the country (and the world) Christians are going to start saying stupid things in the face of cruelty and grief.  Case[s] in point here and here.

Too much popular Christianity is so inoculated by the cult of positivity, so intent on existing only in easy victory, on the mountaintop, that such actions literally do not compute with their comfortable, simple worldview.  So they result to familiar yet ultimately grotesque platitudes: God has a plan; every cloud has a silver lining; only the good die young, etc.  The most common refrain in these – often Reformed, whether acknowledged or not – churches is that somehow this (any and every this) fits into God’s purpose and will for the world.  Ugh.

Brueggemann, in his masterpiece The Message of the Psalms, points out the problem with churches that preach and sing nothing but a well-ordered, rational universe:

Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time – perhaps any time – that needs no argument or documentation.

Certainly, in the face of the Aurora massacre, no one can doubt life’s “incoherence.”  Denial won’t cut it.  The Bible does not deny agony and distress, and we see this most acutely in the Psalms.  Nowhere does the Bible say, as evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe wrote, “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” (emphasis added)

Some might suggest that going on as if the world is well ordered and sensible in the face of counterfactuals is an act of gospel rebellion, of faith unmixed with doubt, just as Jesus would have us exhibit.  Bruggemann is suspicious:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more  frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg 1984], 51-52.)

The questions that come at times like this are all legitimate.  In the Psalms, everything is on the table: God is asked to show up, to be the God of deliverance, the God of hope; God is accused of silence and abandonment; God’s own holiness and righteousness is invoked against what looks like his insufficiency in the face of evil.  Jesus cries one such Psalm on the cross in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

The legitimacy of the questions does not equate to easy answers, though.  The Bible doesn’t give us those.  Job learned that the hard way.  The Psalms are no better.  “There is no rhetorical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005], 170.)

This is how the Bible deals with the disorientation, the darkness, the madness of life: by addressing it all to God, the good and bad, the gore and the glory:

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Psalm 74:18-23

Bin Laden’s Death: A Variety of Reactions

bin laden deadThese last few days have been a study in contrasts.  Many are overjoyed (emphasis on the ‘over’) at the announcement that Bin Laden was recently killed in a firefight with US forces.  Others have been horrified at such reactions.  I sat with a group of pastor friends this morning and we wrestled with it together.  Scriptures such as Ezekiel 33:11 were invoked: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says the Lord.  We wondered at the intersections of state and church, of faith and citizenship.  This is one of those issues where there may well be a collision between the two.

Yes, Paul is clear is Romans 13 that the ‘sword’ of government is God’s instrument to punish the wicked.  But Jesus is also clear that we are to pray for enemies and bless our persecutors.  There is a clear role for the government – I am not one of those neo-Anabaptists that thinks Christians should have nothing to do with the government – but the necessary confrontation with evil ought not make us triumphalistic or compromise Christian charity.  I’m not a pacifist, nor am I against the death penalty; I do, however, believe that deaths resulting from just wars or proper executions ought to be mourned.  Each person – even a Hitler, Pol Pot, or Bin Laden – is a person made in the image of God (however corrupted), a person that Jesus went to the cross for, and a life that ultimately was designed for fellowship with God.  Even with a ‘good’ death, such as when a love one has been suffering greatly and death comes as a relief, remains something that ought to be saddening.

Sam Wells, a protege of Stanley Hauerwas, fellow faculty member at Duke Divinity and Dean of the Chapel at Duke released a statement (why?) about the reaction to Bin Laden’s death that reads in part:

This is not a day for celebration.   A celebration would be due if the perpetrators of those crimes had expressed remorse, regret, and repentance. They have not. A celebration would be due if there had been a conversion of Bin Laden or his followers to a truer practice of Islam. There has been none. A celebration would be due if the overwhelming response from Christians in America had been one that embodied the commandments to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. There has been no such overwhelming response. A celebration would be due if there had been a proper process of justice, involving arrest, gathering of evidence, trial, defense, and prosecution. There has been no such process… [i]f we assume that killing a suspect without trial, without persuading him of the justice of our cause, and without bringing him to a true expression of his own tradition – let alone our own – is a victory, then it is a sign of how far we have allowed this war to distort the values of our civilization.

I think he’s right to to point out what would have been real reasons to celebrate.  I think he’s naive to sugggest that a preferred outcome would have been some kind of criminal proceeding.  Bin Laden was not a criminal.  He was an enemy; not just an enemy soldier, but the equivalent of a general (a figurehead and a commander of forces hostile to the US, whose tactics were repugnant to the conventions of war).  Arrest may have been preferable, for the potential intelligence that could have resulted, but odds are someone so radicalized did not wish to be taken alive by US forces.  Furthermore, unlike his victims, Bin Laden knew he was a target.  He had a better chance than the victims of 9/11 and other attacks ever had.

Then there is another reaction worth note, this time from pro MMA fighter and active Green Beret (Army Special Forces) Tim Kennedy.  Having served in the War on Terror (I’m not going to put it in quotes, as I think it is disrespectful to the soldiers serving in this conflict) in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kennedy speaks to both his elation at hearing the news of Bin Laden’s death and his disappointment in not being a part of the action:

“So there was a little sense of disappointment that I wasn’t part of it… I’m just totally excited and thrilled to see a really dark, sad chapter of our country’s history — it’s not coming to a close, but that’s definitely a chapter that’s pending…[i]f I was going to design a version of hell for me, that would be it. Where I’m sitting there reading about special operations going in to do a hit on a HVT, on a high-value target, and just having to not be there. It’s absolutely excruciating.”

As Gene Hackman says in one of my favorite films, “A winner always wants the ball when the game is on the line.”  We shouldn’t be horrified that Kennedy wanted to take part in this action.  I’m sure many elite warfighters would want to as well.  Not out of blood lust or uber-testosterone, but because that is what such people are trained for, and, however dangerous or unpleasant it may be, that’s their job.

I think both responses are reasonable given the various vocations of these two men.  A professor of Christian ethics and preacher ought to be the conscience of a community, even when it is unpopular.  And we ought to expect our cloistered academics to have a degree of unreality to their views.  Nothing new there.  The gospel calls us into conflict with the culture around us (and any culture), as well as with our own passions.  He has done the church a service by reminding us of this.

But we need the Tim Kennedys of this world too.  We need people who are willing to step up and face demented enemies in hostile territory, willing and able to undergo rigorous training, sacrificing personal needs for the needs of the larger community.  In the face of such bravery we can only be in thankful awe.

I will continue to wrestle with these issues.  I am not proud of my initial reaction.  I wasn’t running into the streets waving the Stars and Bars, but neither was I reverently praying for an enemy whom I am called to bless.  The work of sanctification goes on, and today I realize, once more, that I have a long way to go.

P.S. Who is the “our” when Wells writes of “our civilization”?  I was under the impression that Wells had little interest in the project of the the modern West.  Generally those who speak of a monolithic Western Civilization are something like crusty paleo-cons who are chafing at multiculturalism.  As ecclesiologically focused as Wells’ theology is, I’m just surprised he would use that kind of language.

God and Haiti

The problem with the title of this post, like the vast majority of late-modern attempts to question God’s existence or goodness on the basis of this or that tragedy, is that it assumes God and tragedy ‘x’ are on equal terms.  Somehow we’ve gotten the impression we can rise above our prejudices and theoretically judge God from some neutral or equal vantage point and render a verdict.  Of course, setting up that question that way is to already render a verdict – against God, and in favor of our own bastardized “reason.”  This is called “the problem of evil,” and as posed, it is no wonder why it has baffled so many people.  Of course, few bother to ask whether this is the way that anyone – let alone faithful Christians – can or ought to approach that issue.  [Edit: For a great example of “traditional” theodicy, check out this post]

Scripture nowhere tries to rationalize suffering the way that we are obsessed with.  In fact, in Job, the example of the protagonist’s talkative friends teaches us that it is precisely the rationalizers, those who try to render tragedy intelligble, whose voice is really the voice of the tempter.   Christians ought not to be in the businesses of trying to pay evil the compliment of rationality.  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote the following about the Tsunami, words that are even more true now amidst the horrors of Haiti’s tribulation:

[Ours] is, after all, a religion of salvation; [our] faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death…for while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.  And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we also know it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will be revealed.  Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and in such a world, our portion is charity. (In the Aftermath, p. 116)

Our portion is love.  Not reasoning, not questioning – our response to evil, the way to overcome it, is the way of Jesus – suffering love.  Here is a prayer I used in worship this morning, from the General Board of Discipleship worship website:

A Prayer for Haiti by Dr. Pamela Lightsey

O God, we have been stunned once again by an event
Which seems so unnatural and yet is called “natural disaster.”

We have no words to answer the “why” which we feel,
No wisdom to explain away the unexplainable areas of life.

Keep us from attributing this event as a heavenly reprimand,
Or from a certain haughtiness that tempts the distant soul.

Give us to be compassionate and gentle, servants to those in need.
Remind us of your gracious love in the midst of sorrow,
And your ability to work miracles when hope is faint.

We pray for those who suffer in Haiti even now
And for those who await rescue.
For relatives, for the children,
For mothers and fathers,
Sisters and brothers,
Grandparents, aunts and cousins.
For the survivors who question what more they might have done.
And for those who must keep on keeping on, in spite of.
For the leaders,
For those who bring aid
And those who await news.
Strengthen and encourage them we pray.

Now unto you, O God, we take the burdens of this hour and place them in your divine care.
For all you do and are doing, seen and unseen, we give thee thanks, Eternal God of All Creation.
Amen.

“The Beast in Me”: Johnny Cash on Sin and Human Frailty

The beast in me,
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.
Restless by day and by night,
Rants and rages at the stars.
God help the beast in me.

The beast in me,
Has had to learn to live with pain.
And how to shelter from the rain.
And in the twinkling of an eye,
Might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.

Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it’s just a teddy bear.
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air.
And that is when I must beware,
Of the beast in me.

-Johnny Cash

 

No, I’m not suggesting that Christians are werewolves.  There is something to this concept, though; earlier spiritual writers spoke of “the shadow side” (like St. John of the Cross).  We have the capacity to be angels or beasts.  Judging by everything around us in contemporary North America, most of us are choosing the beast over what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

This sense – a Christian sense – that something in us must be restrained, caged, is profoundly unpopular these days.  We have mistaken license for liberty, and we’ve traded the freedom to be children of God for slavery to our basest whims.  Modern culture, psychology in particular, would deny that this “beast” is real.  They say don’t “repress,” don’t “hold back,” “be real.”  Surely we are spiralling downward so rapidly that we can’t help but soon realize that the world’s definition of “real” is a facade, a complete fraud.

To be who God has called us to be, there is some necessary trimming, some things that must be left behind, rejected, forsaken.  Christians call this freedom.  But, contra many of the evangelicals in our midst, the turn to Christ is not accomplished in one glorious moment.  It’s a daily affair.  Daily we die to self, we live into our baptism and must be born a new.  The beast is caged, but he still roars.  May God help the beast in all of us.

Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.