Category: Ethics and Social Justice

All in Pieces: My Journey toward Integration after Childhood Sexual Abuse

I was sexually assaulted by my father, paternal uncles and paternal grandfather as a child. My mother was aware of the abuse by my father and participated on one occasion. It started when I was a toddler, before the core of who I was had fully coalesced. I grew up in pieces, segmented and regimented into the Girl Who Goes to School and the One at Night and such. The level of dissociation I experienced was total and sustained. I spent my formative years attending a Lancaster Mennonite Conference church (now known as LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches). All I knew consciously, based on the church’s teachings, was that I was bad and that there was something broken at my core. Nothing I did, including choosing to be baptized, took away the shame which had been transmuted to me through the sadistic acts to which I’d been subjected. My relationship with my body was that of hatred and derision. The self-abuse and starvation in which I engaged were insufficient in ridding me of the soiling. The way I treated myself, coupled with my social awkwardness and the unattractive quality of “smarts” I possessed, alienated me from my peers. I did […]
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Syndicated from Our Stories Untold


I Don’t Want to Be My Own God

Most Christians I know have a complicated relationship with the doctrine of hell. Many have grown up with a caricature, with gruesome images of an eternal fiery torture chamber with a horns-and-pitchfork devil presiding over the conflagration. This is deemed intolerable by most. Indeed, I am highly suspicious of those who retain this view. They often seem a bit too eager, not to mention selective, in their appreciation of God’s judgment. The rest of us struggle with hell in various ways. Those who accept the possibility of hell wonder how a merciful God can allow it. Those who reject hell outright often still implicitly long for, even demand, some kind of a final justice for those who have done great evil. We hate the idea of hell but we can’t quite let it go. It’s complicated.
My own views of hell have certainly changed over time. I grew up imbibing a pretty severe view of hell—not as terrifying as the caricature described above, perhaps, but still enough to send a shiver down my youthful spine. The older I got, the more I found this view intolerable. I meandered through various approaches to hell before settling, as many do, upon a view most famously articulated by C.S. Lewis in his allegory, The Great Divorce. In it, Lewis portrays hell not as a medieval torture chamber but a grey town where people slowly, but surely are extinguished by losing interest in heaven and isolating themselves from each other and God through their own choices.
Hell, for Lewis, was God’s final ratification of human freedom. I liked this view very much. It made sense of much of the biblical narrative which places great emphasis upon human choice. More importantly, it distanced God from the torture chamber. I had always struggled enormously with how a good God could allow something like hell, whatever it looked like, to exist. How could any eternal punishment be morally commensurate with a finite amount of sin? There’s only so much mischief one can get up to in a handful of decades, right? And how could anyone enjoy the delights of heaven knowing there was a place like hell around to foul up eternity? Conceiving of hell as God’s grudging acquiescence to human obstinance and faithlessness seemed, if not ideal, then certainly a better option than Dante’s Inferno.
But is it really? I’ve been reading Dale Allison’s fine book Night Comes over the past few weeks. In a chapter called “Hell and Sympathy” he’s been poking a few holes in what he calls “the modern view of hell” popularized by Lewis and embraced by so many. Perhaps surprisingly, Allison doesn’t think nearly as highly of human freedom as I have for most of my life:

Yet when human freedom is front and center, God moves to the wings. In the modern myth, our names are on the marquee, and our destiny is up to us. What we make of ourselves here determines what we are to become there.
Should we, however, desire starring roles and such Pelagian freedom? Although not an old-fashioned Calvinist, I think it’s obvious that all of us are broken creatures, that we are selfish and self-deluded, and that we constantly abuse our freedom, which is so often illusory. Because of this, I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate. I don’t want to be my own God. Nor do I want the Supreme Being to respect my alleged autonomy no matter what, just as I don’t want the police to respect the autonomy of the despondent guy threatening to jump off the top of the high-rise. I rather desire, for myself and for everyone else, rescue. Our decisions need to be undone, not confirmed. We need to be saved despite ourselves. Even if we’re allowed, in our freedom, to kindle the fires of hell and to forge its chains, isn’t it God’s part to break our chains and put out the fire?

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this, to be honest. I still think that human freedom is a massive part of the biblical narrative. I still think that the things that we choose to do and believe matter immensely. I can’t make sense out of so much of Scripture without a framework in place that asserts a deeply meaningful human freedom. And yet, I find Allison’s reflections here compelling. I don’t want my name on the marquee. I often think that freedom is too great a burden to entrust to creatures as fragile and stupid as us. We abuse and misuse it so terribly. We are, as Allison says, all over the place:

Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde. And everyone is in between. We advance toward God one moment and sound retreat the next, and most of the time we’re stuck in the middle…
The modern hell, however, posits that in the world to come, we keep moving in the direction we’re already headed. Our momentum, so to speak, carries us up to heaven or down to hell. Yet what if, like me, you keep moving in circles?

What if, indeed?
At the end of it all, my misgivings here may simply reflect a pretty typical biographical trajectory. Freedom was attractive to me when I was younger because, well, young people think a great deal of freedom. The world stood before me, a blank slate, ready to be imprinted with all of my blessed uniqueness and autonomy. But then I lived a few years. And I recognized how prone I am to wander, to misuse the freedom I so treasured in my youth. Now I’m not quite so eager for my choices to be ratified by God for all eternity. I need some undoing, some rescue, someone to refuse to respect my miserable autonomy. Someone for whom mercy triumphs over judgement. Someone who said, with his dying breath, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Someone whose momentum overrides and overrules my own.

Syndicated from Rumblings

It’s All Your Fault!

There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery.
The season of Advent offers up an annual set of stark contradictions, at least in the West, and at least for those who go to church. On the one hand, we are surrounded by all kinds of Christmas-y kitsch and market-driven feel-good-ishness. There are lights and shopping and specialty coffees and all manner of other things designed to get us into the spirit of the season (and to loosen our grips on our wallets). On the other hand, for those who darken the door of a church during the first few Sundays of Advent, there are scripture readings that bring us face to face with wild prophets and ominous scenes of judgment and woe. There is talk of refining fires and an axe ready to fell an unfruitful tree and people shaking with foreboding for what will come on the earth when Son of Man comes in glory. There are also messages of comfort and hope, to be sure. But the season Advent thrusts us headlong into a narrative of judgment which isn’t always pleasant and certainly isn’t marketable.
The prophets are kind of a frustrating bunch. On the one hand, they offer some of Scripture’s most beautiful words of hope. They speak of the Righteous Branch who will usher in justice and righteousness. They promise a restoration of fortunes and point to the One who will gather up his people and rejoice over them with gladness. The herald a coming day when human beings will draw water from the wells of salvation with joy. They proclaim the Advent of the Prince of Peace who comes to meet the hopes and fears of all the years. They very often speak these words to people who are suffering in exile, far from home, seemingly abandoned by God, and without hope. And yet on the other hand, the prophets speak harsh language of condemnation and blame. They rant and they rave, wild-eyed, to anyone who will listen, screaming, in a sense, It’s all your fault! Your sins have caused or will cause your suffering. God is punishing you! You should know better! It’s all your fault!
There could scarcely be a less welcome message in our cultural context. This is surely victim-blaming of the very highest and most reprehensible order. This is kicking people while they are down. This is piling guilt and shame upon suffering. This is crushing the vulnerable and the weak with the intolerable burden of divine punishment as the “explanation” for their plight.  Who can tolerate such a message? Can you imagine the psychological and sociological damage that such a narrative would inflict upon a people? This is surely nothing less than unnecessarily traumatizing an already traumatized community.
It wasn’t an appealing approach for its first hearers either. The prophets were not a particularly esteemed lot. They were ridiculed and ignored, at best. At worst, they were nailed to a cross. Nobody much likes being told that it’s all their fault and we will go to great lengths to silence voices that tell us it is. And yet, the people of Israel (and, later, the church) have insisted upon preserving these words in their Scriptures. They have, retroactively at the very least, insisted upon interpreting their suffering theologically. There are socio-political explanations for why people find themselves in exile (literal or metaphorical), of course. The people of Israel knew this and we know it, too. It’s far easier to explain the Assyrians and Babylonians as the temporary fillers of a political power vacuum than as God’s chosen instrument of moral reproach for his people. But Israel and the church have scandalously insisted upon the latter approach. The judgment of God has been deemed preferable to the absence of God. It’s all your fault! has been deemed preferable to There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this.
As it happens, I’m not particularly into blaming and shaming as a pedagogical strategy.  I don’t like the image of God it implies. The prophets make me uncomfortable with all of their annoying bleating about sin and judgment and injustice and idolatry and God knows what else. I much prefer their words of hope and consolation to the rest of it. The prophets offend me, at times. And this is probably as it should be. I need the prophets. We all do, whether we realize it or not. We, who will blame almost anyone but ourselves for our trials need to be forced to entertain the possibility that some things might actually be our fault. We for whom judgment is deemed offensive—perhaps the last remaining sin—need to hear voices of a coming reckoning and refining.
The prophets hold before us a God and a coming that isn’t what we would prefer but is absolutely what we need. A God of mind- and faith-stretching paradoxes. A God who speaks both judgment and hope. A God who inflicts both a wound and a healing. A God who binds in order to set free. A God who says, “Who will comfort you at the wrath and rebuke of your God?” and “See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering.” A God who both lays the blame and takes the blame.
The image above was created by Patrick Foster and taken from this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a wild-eyed prophet named John the Baptist who saw something beautiful and ominious coming and offended plenty of people in preparing the way. 


Syndicated from Rumblings

Welcome to the Jungle

Among the many interesting experiences of parenting teenagers is to listen to the same arguments one once used against one’s own parents turned back against oneself. When I was a kid, I remember trying to justify my music choices to my parents (or myself) with the argument, “Well, I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just like the music.” This was sorta true in that I wasn’t drawn to bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Motley Crüe for their, ahem, lyrical profundity. It was the crunching guitars, wailing vocals, and pounding rhythms that attracted my teenage heart. But of course, I knew full well that the lyrics were profane and raunchy, at best, offensive at worst. I doubt my parents found the “I just listen for the music” argument convincing then. I certainly don’t have much use for it when struggling through some of what passes for music in my kids’ minds these days. So it goes. Nothing new under the sun and all that.
Speaking of Guns N’ Roses, The Globe and Mail ran an article this week called “Hearts can change: The fragile redemption of Axl Rose.” It seems Mr. Rose is turning himself into a bit of a puzzle to the intelligentsia. On the one hand, he has a decidedly unsavoury past. Aside from the usual sordid tales of drugs, sex, and violence that fuelled the prime decades of Guns N’ Roses’ career, there are lyrics in their catalogue that spew hatred toward immigrants and homosexuals and celebrate violence against women. There’s also a history of actual violence against actual women (his ex-wife, for example). The man would seem a walking advertisement for the necessity of the #metoo movement, a “deplorable” of the very worst kind.
Ah, but on the other hand, Axl has been busy rehabilitating his image. Chief among his virtues, it seems, is his growing antipathy toward Donald Trump, specifically Trump’s denial of climate change in the wake of the California forest fires. Deciding to speak the president’s native tongue, Axl took to Twitter to scold Trump for his ignorance and cynical manipulation of tragedy for political gain. Axl also flew a Latin American waitress who received a note saying “we only tip citizens” instead of a tip to one of his recent concerts. And he’s in therapy. An impressive combination, no doubt, but one might be forgiven for wondering if it’s enough to counteract all the awfulness the man has produced over the years. Is this what penance looks like these days? A few socially approved tweets and a handful of good intentions? Perhaps Jian Ghomeshi’s quickest path to public absolution would be to limber up his tweeting fingers and start bashing Trump.
This is among the dilemmas of the digital age, with all of the moral policing, shaming, and self-righteous preening that saturate our public discourse. How many skeletons is it permissible to have in one’s closet? What kind? What displays of remorse are up to the task of transferring someone from the category of “pariah” to “hero?” How does one rid oneself of labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” or “abuser.” How does a leper become clean? Is it as simple as lining up behind the right causes or demonstrating that one has the right enemies? How does a heart change? How would we ever know that it had?
Speaking of slimy dudes, King David could also have been a walking advertisement for the necessity of the #metoo movement. Casual with women and violence, manipulative, deceitful, hungry for power. He had his redeeming qualities, too, of course. And, yes, he was certainly a product of his social location. But still. There’s some pretty appalling stuff in his story. But whatever else might be said about David, the man understood where a heart that wanted to change had to start:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge
David may have regretted how his behaviour affected his social standing, but he knew that, first and foremost, his transgressions were against God, that his deeds had torn at the very moral fabric of creation. He knew that blotting out transgressions was a task that only God could responsibly be trusted with. Only God can love and forgive in such a way as to do justly by victims and at the same time to respond to the deeply human desire for redemption, to not be defined by our worst moments, our stupidest words, our most violence and selfish acts. Only God can truly wash away an iniquity. Only God can step into the thickets of pain that we cause for ourselves and others and speak the healing word. Only God is truly justified in judgment over whether or not a heart has changed.
I went to a concert earlier this week. We were given the tickets and we had no other plans, so off we went to rock and roll on a Tuesday night. I had never heard of The Glorious Sons before, but a quick search on iTunes gave me a reasonable idea of what to expect, which is to say not much. The long-haired lead singer manically swayed and pranced and screamed around the stage for a few hours. He reminded me of Axl Rose back in the day. He looked the part and seemed to want to. There were crunching guitars and pounding rhythms. It was loud and proud and not half-bad. I tapped my feet and hummed along, thankful that I couldn’t understand the words.

Syndicated from Rumblings

If We Want to Love Well, We Must Love Long

“We discovered your blog post that includes a range of prayers related to mental illness. Is there one of these that you would see as particularly appropriate for a hymnal and worship book? If not, would you be open to selecting or writing something else? Although space limits us to one short prayer on this subject, we hope that it can serve as … Continue reading If We Want to Love Well, We Must Love Long
Syndicated from April Yamasaki

“Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to say it!”

I was raised in a family of four noisy boys. As we grew up, we became quite opinionated, and often argued, quite amicably but noisily, about religious, political, ethical and a thousand more trivial issues that interested us. When each of us found girlfriends and eventually wives, they didn’t always find our loud and rambunctious … Continue reading “Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to say it!”
Syndicated from the Way?

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018
Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.
Starting with God’s nonviolence
Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?
Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.
And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.
Jesus’s nonviolence?
After these agreements with Boyd, my differences begin to emerge in the discussion of how we best understand Jesus’s nonviolence. Boyd centers his emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus, following Protestant theology by understanding the cross as a sacrificial act necessary for the effecting of salvation—though he does differ from most other Protestants in drawing pacifist conclusions from this affirmation. He does not deny that the meaning of the cross extends to understanding Jesus’s life as exemplary. However, in his rhetoric, the cross is almost always mentioned all by itself and not spoken of in relation to Jesus’s life and teaching or in relation to the cross being the Empire’s method of executing political offenders.
I focus more on Jesus’s life than his death. I see the meaning of Jesus’s death having most to do with the hostile reaction of the powers-that-be of empire and temple to his subversive way of living. When God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, God vindicates Jesus’s entire way of life and declares it as the model for all people of good will. So, I would say that we know that God is nonviolent because we confess that Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus’s life and teaching were thoroughly and consistently nonviolent. The cross is the consequence of that life, not itself actually a core revelatory moment. In itself, the cross is simply an act of terrible violence where the powers-that-be once more simply crush dissenters. The cross only becomes meaningful when God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating his killers, and vindicating his life. Such an act by God shows that Jesus reveals the true God. The self-important leaders of empire and institutional religion do not serve God but usually are in rebellion against God. They should not be given loyalty due to God.
So, for me it is not the cross as the central truth about Jesus and God. The meaning of the cross is mainly that it demonstrates what happens when political and religious institutions seek to silent the message of God’s rejection of domination and violence. They try desperately and ruthlessly to silence that message. The resurrection shows that they fail in their efforts. Jesus’s life and teaching are vindicated and proven to witness to God’s healing and reconciling love that cannot be defeated by the powers-that-be.
I believe a key element of the NT’s portrayal of God as revealed in Jesus is that Jesus’s witness, in his life and teaching, is in full continuity with the witness of the Old Testament (properly interpreted). Boyd tends to portray the OT as deficient and in many ways in tension with Jesus’s message of God’s nonviolence. I disagree. The revelation of God we see in Jesus is not a new revelation that relativizes Torah and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, he confirms the law and prophets.
Jesus’s message may be summarized by his central affirmation—that what matters most is to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart. He insists these words summarize the message of Torah and the prophets. When we recognize this connection, we will see that Jesus provides a lens for reading the OT on its own terms. Read in light of Jesus’s core command, the OT is not mainly a source of predictions or foreshadowings of a future messianic figure whose death would move things in a different direction—where the death is the central revelation.
I believe Jesus helps us see that the main message of the OT is the same as his message—the call to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. As Jesus does, so does the OT place love and compassion at the center both of the human vocation and of the self-revelation of God. As well, Jesus and the OT both teach us that the flip side of the coin that tells us to love is the call to critique and resist domination and oppression. Jesus’s message clarifies and continues the OT message that affirms God’s mercy and rejects domination and violence. Jesus himself does not so much offer a new or distinct message centered on his identity as God Incarnate revealed in his death, but more a message that God’s kingdom is distinctively present in his life and teaching.
The Big Story
I believe that affirming the Bible’s truthfulness and inspiration is important for Christian theology. However, I understand the meaning of that affirmation quite a bit differently than Boyd seems to. Boyd cites 2 Timothy 3:16 without discussion as his proof text for insisting that the Bible is inspired (or, “God-breathed”, CV, pp. 4, 7). He implies that “God-breathed” means each verse, maybe even each word, is from God. This view leads him to pit texts against texts and to understand differences between specific texts to be a problem. He constructs an ingenious argument to resolve those problems—his “something else must be going on” approach. As I discussed in the second post of this series, I have some problems with that approach.
Ironically, the main evidence Boyd cites to justify his approach—2 Tim 3:16 and the idea that Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of the Bible—need not necessarily lead to this kind of “verbal plenary” (that is, individual word-based) sense of inspiration (here Boyd seems simply to echo standard evangelical theology). Both 2 Tim 3:16 and Jesus actually take a more practice-centered view of the Bible. The 2 Tim text emphasizes the practical significance of inspiration—that the Bible seems inspired because it is useful for guiding us to live faithfully—not some kind of more formal definition of inspiration. Likewise, Jesus emphasizes in his use of the Bible that it is useful for helping people of faith to embody his message of shalom.
I believe, consistently with 2 Tim and Jesus, that the best way to appropriate the Bible as useful for faithful living is to read it in terms of its overall message when read as a whole—what I call its “Big Story” of “God’s healing strategy” (articulated in my book with that name). God is a God of healing and wholeness whose character as such is the central theme of the Bible. The way the Bible’s inspiration works is on the level of the truthfulness of the Big Story—not on the level of each particular text being equally authoritative or truthful nor on the level of the historical facticity or the accuracy of each text. Rather, the inspiration is to be seen in how the story as a whole provides life-shaping guidance into key themes such as God’s character, the human predicament, the path we are offered for faithful living, and the critical insights the Bible provides for understanding the world we live in.
The key move for understanding the Bible, then, is to orient each part of the Bible toward the Big Story. We read the parts in light of the whole, and recognize that some times we will encounter tensions in that reading where some specific parts do not seem to be in harmony with the Big Story. Those tensions are important and deserve careful attention. However, they do not lesson the truthfulness of the Big Story when we consider all the pieces together.
The centrality of peace
I will acknowledge that it’s not totally accurate to say that the Bible obviously has a single Big Story. Or, at least, not everyone will agree precisely about the content of the Big Story. Identifying this story is a bit of a subjective exercise. And I agree that we shouldn’t want to insist on a single interpretation of the Bible’s storyline. Part of what it means to be part of the community that respects the message of the Bible is that we engage in conversations with different versions of what that message actually is. We are not given an objectively provable interpretation of the Bible. What we should do is engage the Bible as an exercise in discernment for how it speaks to our lives in our world, expecting that it will offer guidance and encouragement.
At the same time, though, I think that most serious readers of the Bible over the ages do share a general sense of what the Big Story is about—a story of creation, fall, peoplehood, and ultimate healing. My version of the Big Story emphasizes what I call “God’s healing strategy” (see Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy, 2nd edition). God creates the world out of love; humans exercise their freedom in ways that disrupt their relationships with God, each other, and the natural world; God initiates a long process to bring healing to all those relationships centered on communities of faith that culminates in the ministry of Jesus; and story ends with hope of completed healing in New Jerusalem.
To say that this Big Story is where the inspiration of the Bible finds its central expression is to say that the reader of the Bible should consider each discrete part of the Bible in light of this Big Story. The Big Story is about God’s commitment to peace, to wholeness, to healing. Along the way it tells of many human acts, beliefs, and commitments that violate peace and lead to brokenness. The ways of healing only ever find partial expression—often characterized by mixed motives on the part of the human players in the story. But there is a direction, a trajectory, a hope that understands the plot in terms of growing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s healing strategy.
So, the Bible as a whole is a book of peace. The God of the Bible is a God of peace. The clearest manifestation of God’s will to peace comes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one called “the Prince of Peace.” A reading strategy for the Bible that places the Big Story at the center will not see the presence of violent portraits of God as contradicting or threatening the message of peace and of God as the nonviolent author of peace. The discordant bits are to be expected in an ancient human document. They provide context, creative tension, and a counter-narrative that must be overcome for the story to be resolved. It is altogether possible that at times specific biblical authors intend to present a violent God, a God who approves of human violence. However, the intention that matters more, the intention of the Big Story, is to illumine how God is a God of peace. The various bits, including the discordant ones, do together give a peaceable portrait of God.
So, when we read the violent portraits we ask how they serve the Big Story, not how to understand them as autonomous accounts that contradict the centrality of the overall message of peace. We privilege the parts that reinforce the message of peace and subordinate the parts that challenge that part—recognizing, though, that the violent parts are necessary parts of the peaceable whole and should not be simply ignored and discarded.
We recognize that the Story finds its culmination in Jesus. With Jesus as the outcome, we read the OT with special attention to its elements that Jesus makes clear are the center of the Story. We don’t pit Jesus over against the OT (something Boyd at times comes precariously close to doing), but we look for how Jesus catches up the core aspects of the Big Story, especially the aspects that portray God as merciful, healing, just, and peaceable. Jesus’s message confirms that from the start the Bible presents a vision of peace—which includes a sense of perspective about the non-peaceable elements. These non-peaceable elements are a genuine part of the Story, but are subordinate to and interpreted by God’s healing work.
Israel and the land
Perhaps the most difficult text in the OT for the reading strategy I advocate is the Conquest story in the book of Joshua. This well-known account of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan, the takeover the Promised Land, celebrates extreme violence both by God and by God’s people. Taken as a straightforward account of how Israel gained the land, the Conquest creates many difficulties, not only for pacifists but for any believer who does not believe that their God is the author of genocide.
A Big Story reading strategy does not provide a magic resolution for the difficulties. But it does allow for a more peaceable interpretation. A key point is that we should read the Conquest story in the context of the rest of the Big Story, asking how this particular story contributes to the peaceable message of the overall story. When so read, we may recognize that the takeover of the land actually was the first move in what proved to be a failed strategy for sustaining the community of the Promise. This community was established in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abraham to found a people that would ultimately bless all the families of the earth. With the takeover of the land, the community entered into an era of territoriality.
The community in the land required boundaries that required violent protection, fostered a sense of possessiveness, and ultimately led to efforts to expand the territory. Before long, the community desired to be like the other nations and its elders requested and received a human king—who, among other things, gathered weapons of war. The story that follows is largely a story of the failure of this kingdom to embody the main directives of Torah. Prophets rose to challenge Israel’s leadership for its injustices. Before long, the prophetic warnings of the ending of the territorial kingdom were fulfilled.
Dramatically, the story tells how shortly before the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, servants of King Josiah found an old law book that triggered a reform movement that sought to reinstate observance of Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did provide the key element that allowed the community to sustain its identity—which from then on was to be a people centered around Torah that would be scattered widely, not a people in a particular territorial kingdom.
So, the meaning of the Conquest became not a story of the permanent founding of a territorial kingdom requiring profound violence at the start and on-going violence to sustain its existence. Rather, the Conquest is the beginning of the story of a path that proved to be a dead end. The promise remained in effect, but its sustenance became non-territorial, centered around the practice of Torah in communities where the people of faith were often a relatively powerless minority in relation to the wider society. So the peaceable meaning of the Conquest story is that territorial conquest and a territorial kingdom are not ever again going to be part of God’s healing strategy.
Jesus seems to have embraced this change of focus when he proclaimed as his central message the presence of God’s kingdom as a decidedly non-territorial kingdom—that would be constituted of scattered communities of faith that did not require violence for their sustenance. A kingdom of peace. Jesus, the new “Joshua,” rejected violent conquest when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry. Instead, he offered a vision echoing the call that Jeremiah made to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city where they lived (Jer 29:7)—to embody nonviolence. Jesus was not apolitical and only concerned about getting people to heaven. But his politics were the flexible, resilient politics of witness to God’s will for humanity through local communities of faith in nations that they did not govern.
The Bible and peace
What I have all too briefly sketched above is a reading strategy that takes as its starting point the conviction that the Bible as a whole presents God as a loving and healing God whose justice seeks to restore wholeness in human relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. The coherence of this understanding of God and the Bible does not depend upon a perfect harmony where each part of the Bible directly supports the whole. We may accept the presence of counter-images and seek to learn from those “problematic” texts.
However, the plot is clear, and from the very beginning we find testimony to God’s peaceable character and intentions for humanity. The Bible presents the life of faith as being a process of choosing among various options for understanding what’s most important in life—some options contribute to the healing project of God and some do not. The process of choosing appropriately requires wisdom, collaboration with other people of faith, and the willingness to turn away from paths that lead to brokenness—even when turning is difficult.
The choices also involve discernment into the teachings and stories of the Bible. How might we use the Bible as a resource for peace and not for brokenness? That God’s people have made wrong choices about how to read the Bible is shown within the Big Story itself—and certainly is visible in the past 2,000 years. Simply saying that we believe in the authority of Bible is not enough to assure that we choose the healing path over the path of brokenness. I believe, though, that when we read the Bible in light of the message of Jesus and with confidence that the Bible indeed does guide us toward wholeness when we let it, we will perceive the Bible’s Big Story and be empowered to move toward peace.
The first two parts to this three part series responding to Boyd’s Cross Vision:
Part One: Boyd’s Argument
Part Two: An Assessment

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018
 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.
For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.
Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).
What Boyd gets right
The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path.
Now, certainly the violent portraits of God that are all too common in the Old Testament raise problems for someone with Boyd’s convictions. Surely, part of his motivation for this work is simply to help him strengthen the coherence of his own theology. How does one who believes in nonviolence andin the truthfulness of the Bible understand the Bible’s (occasional) affirmations of violence? However, Boyd is also motivated by a more pragmatic concern that is all too often given short shrift by those who are not troubled by OT violence: What can we do as Christians to counter the pervasive and devastating violence in our culture that embraces the myth that this violence is redemptive?
Those who are sanguine about the Bible’s violence tend to be sanguine about violence in our world and, as a consequence, contribute to an enormous problem. Part of this problem is the way that accepting violence undermines the witness of Christianity and leads even Christians themselves to misunderstand and contradict the testimony of Jesus that our world so needs in order to find healing. So, this is not mainly an intellectual project for Boyd. Much more so, it is—we could say—a kind of evangelistic project. It has to do with the practical expression of the good news (the “evangel”) of God’s healing love. To embrace and embody that healing love, we have to be clear about its reality, clarity that affirming the ugly images of God that are contained at times in the Bible renders unavailable.
The centrality of the cross
Boyd powerfully affirms the centrality of what he calls the “cruciform motif” for understanding Jesus, God, the Bible, and life in the world. The heart of everything is the love that led Jesus to a life of compassionate service and resolute nonviolent resistance. Such a life inevitably put Jesus in conflict with the powers that be, human and demonic, and led to his terrible death on the cross. God, though, did not desert Jesus but instead raised him from the dead, turning terrible defeat into victory. The love of God that conquers sin and death found its defining expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Everything about God and God’s revelation in the Bible must be understood in light of the cross (by which Boyd means all the events leading up to and following Jesus’s crucifixion). God is not and has never has been different than the God revealed in the cross. We may take that as a certainty. Sure, we may struggle with understanding how best to understand this notion of God in relation to what other parts of the Bible teach. But the issue is never, for Boyd, whether or not God is always the cruciform God of the cross. It is always only an issue of understanding how to affirm God’s love and nonviolence in relation to various portraits.
Now, as I will discuss when I get to my critique of Boyd, I want to apply the centrality of Jesus for understanding God and the Bible differently than Boyd does. However, my differences with him on these issues arise within a much more profound agreement—that God has always been nonviolent and that we understand God’s character, always, in light of the revelation of God in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Implications of cruciform theology
A key part of Boyd’s application of his cruciform theology is his affirmation that God relates to human beings through loving influence rather than through coercion. He reads the texts that seem to imply otherwise as God’s accommodation to human weakness. The people who wrote those texts indeed were writing inspired scripture, Boyd says, but God allowed them to record their distorted views of the story shaped by cultural values that were contrary to God’s values. I do not find this approach particularly persuasive in the end (as will discuss below), but I do affirm Boyd’s sense of God’s non-coercive approach to relating to humanity. And I also affirm that the biblical texts that conflict with God’s nonviolence are not to be understood as accurate historical accounts—and, in fact, are to be rejected as truthful portrayals of what God truly is like.
Boyd discusses God’s judgment at length. I find his acceptance of the motif of “punishment” to be troubling (again, to be discussed below). However, his sense of God’s judgment as Aikido-like seems pretty attractive to me as is his distinction between “judicial” and “organic” punishment. These insights follow from the notion of God as non-coercive, a notion that leads to a careful (and attractive) description of God’s “wrath” not a active, interventionist anger but as God’s willingness to let human beings experience natural consequences for their moral failures.
Boyd suggests that God’s willingness, out of non-coercive love, to allow Jesus to suffer the consequences of human sin at the cross serves as a paradigm for God’s general approach. I’m not totally convinced by this comparison, but I do like that the way the story of Jesus portrays God as non-coercive shapes how Boyd reads everything else. To reject the common notion of God as an angry and punitive judge seems essential for an authentic peace theology.
Boyd helpfully discusses a number of examples in the OT of where the judgment that is described is of an organic and not judicial variety. And he points out, in fact, that scholars argue that the OT actually does not even have a word that directly means “punishment.” The entire Bible supports the idea that God’s judgment tends to be non-interventionist. So, though Boyd is willing to apply his “something else is going on” to the texts where the intervention seems to be direct, he also makes the case that as a rule the texts themselves do support his approach once one is sensitized to look for this.
The cosmic powers
I found Boyd’s discussion of the presence of evil cosmic powers in OT stories such as the Flood and the Exodus to be helpful. Even if I don’t want to take this insight as far as he does, it does make sense to me that we should recognize the reality of other forces at work in the world than only human beings and God. I don’t think of Satan and the Powers as malevolent personal beings so much as personifications of the more impersonal social and cultural dynamics at work in our world where human choices for evil take on a social dimension.
However, that the world can be an unfriendly place, that idols do seek to separate human beings from God, and that when we do not trust in the healing love of God we suffer consequences all seem true. Boyd’s point, as I understand it, that much of the organic judgment described in the OT can be seen in terms of malevolent forces taking advantage of human vulnerability when people separate themselves from God seems true. The destructive consequences are not the result of direct punitive actions by God but rather the result of the malevolence exploiting human vulnerability when people have separated themselves from God.
Peace and God
Boyd’s conclusion, while stated a bit more frankly than one might expect in book such as CV, seems accurate to me. “The depth of your passion for God and of your transformation into his likeness will never outrun the beauty of your mental representation of God…. To the extent that you entertain lingering suspicions that OT authors might be right when they ascribe atrocious behavior and attitudes to God, it can’t help but compromise your passion for God and, therefore, the beauty of the person you’re becoming” (p. 248).
And yet…
Perhaps it is because of my appreciation for Boyd’s effort to apply his unapologetic commitment to nonviolence to his way of interpreting the Bible that I nonetheless finish with strong ambivalence about CV. In the end, I do not think he actually does read the Bible with as much of a consistently nonviolent hermeneutic as he could (and should). And because of this lack of consistency, I wonder about how well CVwill actually effect the nonviolent transformation Boyd seeks.
Biblical inspiration
I think Boyd offers his readers a worthy challenge when he sets up the problem as the tension between both affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible as a whole and believing that God is definitively revealed in the thoroughly nonviolent Jesus. However, in working at that challenge, I think he gets us off track with his understanding of “inspiration” in terms of “infallibility” (that is, the sense that each detail in the Bible is in some sense approved by God and to be understood as truthful).
At the same time, Boyd seems throughout CVto treat the violent portraits as if they are not actually truthful, at least when read in the most direct and straightforward ways. To deal with this confusing dynamic, he develops what he calls the “divine accommodation” approach where the most straightforward readings of the OT violent text show us that God accommodates to human sinfulness by allowing the writers to tell us things that are untrue (e.g., that God commanded the Hebrews to massacre every man, woman, and child in the story of Joshua). I fear that this approach is a kind of mystification—where in order to hold on to what he calls a high view of biblical inspiration he makes incoherent moves. I doubt that very many readers with a typically evangelical view of biblical authority would agree that Boyd does in fact demonstrate a “high view” of the Bible (I have seen a few responses that support this point).
I will admit that the issues Boyd addresses are indeed challenging and do not lend themselves to easy resolution (I will outline my alternative approach to affirming both an inspired Bible and confessing of God as nonviolent in the third part of this series of posts). But the idea that God “steps back” and allows untruths to be present in inspired scripture (untruths that Boyd himself acknowledges have had quite a destructive impact on Christian behavior these past 2,000 years in wars, crusades, and the like) seems unacceptable.
That “something else is going on” in such texts at times is a helpful thought (Boyd does provide some persuasive readings where he points to details in the texts we have often missed—e.g., the likelihood of the presence of a demonic “sea monster” in Exodus’s Red Sea). But often it seems that the claim that the text doesn’t mean what it clearly states is simply special pleading. I think part of the problem is Boyd’s claim to affirm an evangelical understanding of biblical inspiration rather than admit his approach does allow for seeing that the Bible is not inspired in the details of the text. It seems okay (I’d say, necessary) to admit that the Bible is fundamentally a human book (with many inaccurate portrayals), and that “divine inspiration,” however it works, does not mean that the Bible transcends its humanness.
How do we think of the Old Testament?
Another element of Boyd’s approach to the Old Testament that I see as problematic is his characterizing it as only a “shadow” revelation in relation to the New Testament. He denigrates the Law as presented in the OT. In general, though he hints at some positive elements in that part of the Bible, he presents the Old Testament as mainly a problem. He tends to treat the violent parts as self-contained stories rather than as part of a bigger story.
This leads to him giving the sense that in his understanding, Christ and the cross and Christian revelation replace the teaching of the OT. Such an emphasis on discontinuities between the OT and NT actually makes the OT violence seem worse and more definitive of the message of the OT than it actually is. And, ironically given Boyd’s own pacifism, it unhelpfully narrows the meaning of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection to being more religious and doctrinal (in line with later Christendom) rather than more social and political (in line with the OT story).
The reader of CV gets little sense of the peace vision of the OT and its powerful critique of empires, injustice, and militarism. For Boyd, the problem of the violence in the OT can only be resolved, we could say, Christologically—that is, by reference to the cross of Christ understood as a uniquely salvific event. I will suggest in my next post that a much better approach to the violent texts is to read them in the context of the bigger OT presentation of God’s shalom (peace, justice, and loving kindness). Seeing much more continuity between Jesus and the OT also, I will explain, leads to a quite different understanding of the cross than we get in CV.
The “cross”?
For Boyd, the cross is at the center of everything else he addresses in CV. The cross reveals what Jesus (and therefore God) is about more than anything else. All of his main arguments go back to this revelation. While I strongly affirm making Jesus the center of how we read the Bible (and of our theology; see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters), I am uncomfortable with how Boyd seems to reduce Jesus to the cross—and to construe the cross in an overly narrow sense.
Boyd certainly intends to include Jesus life, teaching, and resurrection in his sense of what the cross means, but in practice throughout CV (and also throughout the much longer Crucifixion of the Warrior God) he abbreviates things to “the cross.” And I don’t think this is simply for convenience sake. The actual crucifixion of Jesus is where it all comes together for Boyd. Something happens in the cross itself that matters more than anything else before or after.
That Boyd makes the cross so central, though, makes it unfortunate that he does not discuss more clearly how exactly the cross works for his theology. He rejects the penal substitutionary atonement theology so prominent in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. He does not believe that Jesus died as a necessary sacrifice to take the punishment God owes to us onto himself as a means of gaining us salvation otherwise not available. But he still seems to see Jesus’s death as uniquely salvific. Due to his reticence on spelling out the mechanics of the cross, Boyd leaves me with a sense that God is not necessarily free simply to forgive and heal.
How is the cross a revelation of a thoroughly nonviolent and loving God if it is a required element of God’s offer of salvation to humankind? What is the “curse of sin” that the cross is necessary to release humankind from? How is there not an angry and punitive God behind the necessary crucifixion? I am not sure how Boyd would answer these questions.
Boyd does seem to have a pretty negative view of humanity. We are characteristically imbued with “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit” and dominated by an all-powerful Satan who is earth’s ruler in the present. This kind of theological anthropology typically is linked with the idea that for human beings to find salvation we need some intervention from the outside—usually seen as Jesus’s necessary sacrifice on the cross. And the negative anthropology is often linked with a notion of God as punitive. I do not believe that God can be both punitive and nonviolent at the same time since punishment seems by definition to be violent.
God and punishment
Boyd gives us some mixed signals about God and punishment. As mentioned above, I appreciate his discussion of God’s “wrath” not as angry, punitive judgment but more as allowing human beings to experience the natural consequences of their wrongdoing. And he helpfully points out that the OT itself seems to place little emphasis on punishment.
At the same time, Boyd still commonly uses the term “punishment” as if he still wants to see God as in some sense a punitive God. One way this comes up is the common reference to God’s strategy of withdrawing protection when God wants to exercise judgment against human wrongdoing. It’s as if what matters in making a case for a nonviolent God is that God does not directly intervene effecting violent judgment by God’s own hand. But it does not seem consistent with being nonviolent for God to choose to step back and allow violence to fall upon wrongdoers that God could otherwise have prevented—and that in doing so God actually does want this violence to be punitive.
Boyd’s move on this topic seems a bit like casuistry. God’s hands remain clean when God only intentionally allows the judgment bearing violence to occur rather than directly causing it. This distinction seems problematic. Boyd’s God still seems governed by the logic of retribution where wrongdoing must be met by retributive, punitive violence. I believe that in arguing that God does punish by withdrawing protection, Boyd draws the line in the wrong place. Rather than presenting the line of violence/nonviolence being between direct and indirect punishment, I believe that a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible would help us to see that we should draw the line between punishment of all kinds and restorative justice.
The issue with so much of the violence in the world—and at times in the Bible—is that it reflects the myth of redemptive violence and the logic of retribution that tell us that punishment is the necessary response to wrongdoing. The Bible, including parts of the OT, tells us that efforts to restore the relationships violated by wrongdoing do not require punishment. A consistently nonviolent God may been seen in stories such as Esau’s response to Jacob, Joseph’s response to his brothers, and the father’s response to the prodigal son. Boyd’s retention of necessary punishment undermines his hope for a nonviolent understanding of God.
Back to the Bible
In the end, my take on CV is that Boyd has made a useful start in the right direction. His assertion that the best way to read the Bible is to understand it to be presenting us with a thoroughly nonviolent God is precisely what Christians need in our present day—especially Christians in the United States. And, as Boyd insists, the way we get to the nonviolent character of the biblical God is through the story of Jesus. And when we read the Bible in light of Jesus, and hence with a nonviolent God, we will be able properly to understand the violent portraits not as an unresolvable contradiction but as only one non-authoritative part of a bigger picture.
However, I also think the residue of Boyd’s doctrinal evangelicalism has prevented him trusting the Bible enough to resolve his conundrum without his special pleading. His notion of biblical inspiration appears to be a theological construct imposed on the Bible more than an inductive approach that reads the Bible as it comes to us. His notion of the cross also owes more to doctrinal theology than to a straightforward reading of the story told in the gospels that presents Jesus’s crucifixion as the culmination of his life of radical obedience (and disobedience to the ways of empire and establishment religion). When Jesus called on his followers to “take up the cross” he wasn’t talking about a one-off cosmic transaction that deals with the “curse of sin.” Rather he is talking about the social strategy that was to be imitated, in line with the prophets and the embodied Torah.
Indeed, we need a “cross vision” that envisions the way of Jesus and his nonviolent God as the way his followers share in fulfilling the calling for all the children of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. I think Boyd gets us started on that journey. I’ll share in my next post more about how I would suggest reading the Bible as guidance for pursuing the journey further.
[Post one of this series summarizes Boyd’s argument. Post three sketches an alternative approach to the issues of violence in the Bible.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Loving In The Loser’s Club: The Gospel According To Stephen King’s IT

“A frightening possibility suddenly occurred to him: maybe sometimes things didn’t just go wrong and then stop; maybe sometimes they just kept going wronger and wronger until everything was totally fucked up.”
“OH SHIT! I BELIEVE IN ALL OF THOSE THINGS!” he shouted, and it was true: even at eleven he had observed that things turned out right a ridiculous amount of the time.”
“There was power in that music, a power which seemed to most rightfully belong to all the skinny kids, fat kids, ugly kids, shy kids—the world’s losers, in short.”

One of my favorite things about Autumn is October because, well, Halloween. I mean, Hallowen. HALLO-FREAKING-WEEN. As I wrote elsewhere, I believe Halloween can be observed in a very Christocentric manner, all month long.
My main way to observe this sacred time has been to reread through Stephen King’s masterpiece, IT, once again. I cannot rave about this book enough. If you are even vaguely interested in reading it, please for the love of everything holy and uholy, read it. Haha, get it? IT. What’s that? Puns are evil? Nah.. oh.. okay..
If you haven’t read IT and are still interested in reading this post, please check out this brief plot summary so as to make sense of this gibberish I’m conveying. However, if you’ve seen the original film adaptation, that should be sufficient. If you’ve only seen the first part of the recent remake, be aware there are spoilers ahead.
There are many themes I would love to draw out, but for the sake of brevity let’s tie some random threads together and hope we acquire something sensible! Seriously, though, this book conveys many beautiful truths: the Christocentric gospel, mimetic theory, death anxiety,  and the centrality of love (here I mean agape, not eros) in living a satisfactory life. To name a few.
The first thing I’d like to point out about this book is that Stephen King manipulates the ‘haunted house’ horror trope. He expands this common microcosm from haunted house to haunted town (ie: Derry). Pennywise doesn’t live in a house, It lives in Derry.  Pennywise appears to be an almost omnipresent being in Derry. It can appear just about anytime and anywhere. Derry is Its town – one could say It owns Derry. It influences people and events. In this way, Pennywise is symbolic of the zeitgeist of a town. Now, the dictionary definition of zeitgeist reads as such:

the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time

and while I am using it in this way, I’d like to expand a bit. The zeitgeist is not simply covering a particular period of history, although it certainly embodies that. It can also mean the cultural atmosphere of any place, period of time, or group of people . For example, here are some questions that can get at the zeitgeist of one’s workplace: how casual is one permitted to dress, what goals does one’s workplace have and how does it seek to implement them, and what are the policies for showing up early or late? In relatively simple terms, I’m referring to culture. On a smaller scale this means the culture of a house, a workplace, a family, a person (ie: one’s psyche and way of thinking). On a larger scale, this could look like a county, a state, a nation, a non-geographically connected group of people.
The thing about culture is it is very real, and many ways even tangible, but it is often overlooked. People live in it, and often follow its mandates, without consciously thinking, “I’m obeying the rules of my culture.” Those who don’t obey get punished whether most explicitly via prison, mental asylums, or social stigmatization. Most people do not go through life self-examining themselves to choose what they want to consciously absorb and meld into and what they don’t. People just go with the flow.
Some, though, consciously follow the rules for fear of being cast out. They may theoretically disagree with an aspect of their culture, but we live in the postmodern age, and who knows what the hell is right…right? Let’s just do this thing, or go with this motion – why stir the pot and be looked down upon?
This is Pennywise. It manipulates Derry through apathetic ignorance and fear, just like the zeitgeist. Pennywise is simultaneously Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. It is in-your-face evil, but It is also the type of evil that apathetically pushes papers and blindly follows orders, irregardless of compassion and empathy.  It is not mere malice, it is willful ignorance, which, I would argue, is just as heinous.

“I started after him…and the clown looked back. I saw Its eyes, and all at
once I understood who It was.”
“Who was it, Don?” Harold Gardner asked softly.
“It was Derry,” Don Hagarty said. “It was this town.”

See, almost all of the residents of Derry ignore Its presence. It is implied they are all very well aware of It, but they refuse to really acknowledge It, think about It, talk about It. They quite literally just live with It. But they can’t just ignore the mass murder of children. They have to put the blame on someone or something, even if that blame is not directly or consciously related to the initial problem. In other words, the people of Derry conjure up some form of scapegoat.
This sort of thing plays out everyday in a multitude of ways. On a microcosmic scale, imagine a father having a terribly stressful day at work, not dealing with the problem directly and consciously, but instead taking out his frustrations on his unassuming child. The child becomes the scapegoat for something unrelated to him, and the father’s stress may be relieved (sort of…not to speak of the guilt that should come from within). On a macrocosmic scale, one need only look at the current state of American politics – we have two generalized political bodies blaming the other for seemingly every problem in the nation state. It’s scapegoating on a broader scale.
More specifically I am referring to the Mimetic Theory proposed by Rene Girard. If you are unfamiliar, please read here. Briefly, the scapegoat functions as the guilty person/party, whether directly involved with the issue at hand or not. The scapegoat may be a person of blemish, embarrassment, quirkiness, etc… they just have to be an easy target which the larger body of people can unify against. In Christian theology, the scapegoat is Jesus Christ. On a practical, socio-politic-historical level, the political powers of His day (ie: Caesar) and the religious authorities (ie: the Pharisees, Sadducees, etc…) used Jesus’ crucifixion as a means to unify the people in the midst of political and religious crisis. On a theological metanarrative level, the Trinitarian God lets humanity kill Him in order that His love may be known, and the absurdity of violence and vengeance is shown. In other words, Jesus Christ functions as the scapegoat for humanity’s own self-inflicted harm. However, unlike other scapegoats, the victimization of Jesus Christ leads to the eventual end of violence and the absolution of sin, therefore ending the need for a scapegoat mechanism.
Now, in Stephen King It, the scapegoat just happens to be The Loser’s Club. As stated above, this scapegoat process is hardly conscious. There isn’t the clear and coherent thought: “We have to ignore Pennywise, but deal with this problem. Let’s indirectly take out our frustrations and qualms with the inhumane aspects of our zeitgeist (personified in Pennywise) on these weird kids.” I’d like to point out, as well, that The Loser’s Club may not be the only scapegoats. Because the narrative is centralized around this group of people, they are the scapegoats given, but that does not mean they are the only people of blemish in Derry. For example, King writes that Derry is extremely hostile to the LGBTQ+ population. This group of people are also scapegoats in Derry’s zeitgeist.
The Loser’s Club consists of a ragtag band of outcast kids who all have some sort of turmoil or social abnormality that makes them just not quite…right. These social quirks make them easy targets. Many would consider them to be a curse – but it is these very oddities that bring The Loser’s Club together in the first place. They bond over them, gain the strength to face Pennywise, and learn to love themselves and each other in the process. (Blessed are the persecuted.) The Loser’s Club comes together over their own insecurities and abnormalities to form a community. This community is guided by the gentle voice of the Turtle. The Turtle appears to be an omniscient Being of benevolence. The Turtle occasionally steps in to guide and assist The Loser’s Club toward agape love and victory of evil personified. The Turtle represents the Trinity, especially the Holy Spirit.
In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit guides humanity toward truth, holiness, and love. The Turtle in It does the same, and while I think this comparison is the biggest stretch I provide in this analysis, I still think it works. Some Christians may argue it is a bit blasphemous because the emphasis in the narrative is obviously on the power of love as found in The Loser’s Club and the Turtle is only in the background helping out. The kid’s do not explicitly worship the Turtle, and care far more about loving those around them. But that’s just it – Christ himself calls the Church his body, and therefore any true agape love found in the Church is also the love of Christ manifested on Earth.
Which leads me to my next point: The Loser’s Club is the Church. Now, you may be thinking, “hold on a minute. You’re comparing the scapegoat, outcast, loser group with one of the most powerful religions in the history of mankind?” but just bear with me a second. I do not in any way mean the powerful church, lower case c. I mean the Church, capital C.
Okay, that probably doesn’t clear things up all that much. I’m sorry. What I mean is that I believe the Church is always powerless. If the Church has political power or privilege, it is not the Church, just some piece-o-shit sham. In fact, that church is Pennywise. A modern day example: Pennywise embodies many aspects of the American Evangelical Church movement. This movement, culture, zeitgeist, is full of middle/upper class, white privileged, cisgender, powerful men and blindly submissive women that knowingly (or often more common: willfully and blindly) use their power to oppress many groups of people and spit in the face of Christ. Now, I’m not saying that if you or someone you know considers themselves to be an Evangelical in America that they (or you) are equivalent with Pennywise. But I’m definitely saying there is some truth to the claim that, by and large, American Evangelicalism is heinous, blasphemous, and evil.
Before you flip and get pissed at my statement, I’m not saying that other forms of Christianity aren’t evil, either. I’m pinpointing a group of people I myself am a part of. I’m not singling it out to, well.. scapegoat it. I’m using American Evangelicalism as an example because I am well acquainted with it, and feel more comfortable critiquing my own circle than another’s.
But what does this mean for the real Church? The real Church is, according to the precepts of the ‘world,’ powerless. It is all those Christians who consciously attempt non-conformance to the evils found in the institution of Christianity. It is those who refuse to simply go through the motions to make themselves feel better – to numb themselves with the opiate of the masses, as Marx so eloquently put it. Those actively working against the principalities and powers of the zeitgeist – they are Its explicit enemies. But they don’t work against people, they work for people, all people, seeking the reconciliation of everyone.
The real Church is often oppressed, sometimes willfully so. Oppressed not by “happy holidays,” or some non-existent Islamic overlord, but by choosing to live with the oppressed. The real Church works to end the oppression of peoples everywhere, all the while taking residence with them, if the oppressed are so willing to accept them into their community. The real Church gives up its power to become one with the powerless. The real Church is a co-suffering Loser’s Club. And just like the Loser’s Club, the real Church flips the principalities and powers on their head to reveal it holds true Power, thanks to the co-suffering love given by the Trinity.
The Loser’s Club overcomes the evil of Pennywise twice. The first time is while the members are children. During this period they defeat It, but don’t kill It. However, they hope it is over and finished. They promise each other if It ever comes back, they will reunite and fight It again. Almost 30 years pass, and It resurfaces as strong as ever. They reunite and fight It, of course succeeding because, c’mon, all you need is (co-suffering) love.
All this is sweet and thematic, but the thing I’d really like to point out here is the 30 year gap. King tells us that The Loser’s Club almost completely forget about It as they ‘mature’ into adulthood. Only one original member stays in Derry, and while he does his best to remember and stay vigilant, he eventually forgets. The perspectives of all members as adults are shown to us one by one. Some of them appear content while others appear discontent. All of them are comfortable though – even those in abusive relationships. They are comfortable in what they know, or refuse to admit. But none of them remember any of the others, and life has completely moved on.
Until Pennywise’s activity is made aware to Mike by the Turtle. Once Mike remembers he reluctantly phones each of them. The individual club members are forced out of apathy to confront the zeitgeist, to confront the true way the world works. It wrecks one of them, driving him to the point of suicide. He simply couldn’t deal with the difficult journey of non-conformity.  The rest forcibly move out of the comfort of their blind stagnant lives, and decide to face the current.
But for about 30 freaking years they conformed. They grew into the adults society told them they should be. Self-absorbed, afraid, loveless (agape-less). Despite a very explicit face-to-face victory against evil incarnate, they succumbed to blind ignorance. They assumed one battle, one victory was enough. But that’s not how the zeitgeist works. Evil is paradoxically constant and malleable. As soon as it is conquered (if it ever truly is this side of life), it manifests itself anew. This is why political revolutions just never work. The Church always trips up here. It justifiably stops to celebrate a victory, but quickly gets lost in said victory and loses focus. It quickly conforms to the status quo and trots forward.
Herein lies one of the most important lessons of King’s masterpiece: as a unified group, we are able to maintain our focus. We are able to encourage each other to keep moving, to stay the course. Separated, we become weaker, the temptation toward apathy grows stronger, and we lose sight of everything we once strove for. Agape becomes impossible if we are isolated – there is no one to love.
The other important bit we cannot forget lest our undoing ensue is found in a simple quote from It:

“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”

The point is we are all, always, a little bit apathetic, a little bit compassionate. A little bit evil, a little bit good. One may outweigh the other at a given point in time, but we are ever-moving creatures, always growing, always changing. We are nuanced and beautiful, even at our worst. The person you have demonized as evil is still a person, there is still some good in there somewhere. The person you have glorified as divine is still a person, there is still some evil in there somewhere.
In the novel, people are not the problem that must be overcome. The evil is Pennywise. As stated above, Pennywise is the zeitgeist incarnate. Evil manifested. One must work to lovingly change and challenge the cultural zeitgeist of one’s place. One must fight those things, not people. Love people. Our enemies are institutions, principalities, cultures. Our enemy is Pennywise. Not the people It manipulates. People are always precious. No nuance about that.
While King himself may not agree with this interpretation, and while I have taken some liberties, this shows only a fraction of why I love this piece of literature so friggin’ much.  It’s the gospel in horror narrative form. Many Christians I know find it to be abhorrent, find horror and Halloween to be abhorrent. They’re missing out.
Perhaps they’re too blind to see that

“…God favors drunks, small children, and the cataclysmically stoned…”

Peace be unto you this spooky season. May you learn to overcome the ego and the fear of death so as to truly live a life in and for Love.

Syndicated from Interdependently Independent

On Getting Your House in Order

Most people recognize that to be a human being is to be on a lifelong journey in pursuit of two broad goals: to become the best version of ourselves that we can be and to contribute something of worth to the world around us. We don’t all do this very well or very consistently, but we generally realize that the idea is to try to leave the world a better place than we found it and to become a better person along the way.
Of course, as always, the question of how this is done is complicated. Do we start at home and get ourselves in tip-top moral shape before heading out to fix the world? Or do we start “out there” and then assume that personal improvement will be a by-product of all of our heroic good deeds for others? Richard Beck wrote an interesting piece a while back suggesting that it’s more the former than the latter. He anchors his reflection in the order of events in Jesus’ own story. Jesus was baptized first (identifying with sinful humanity) and only then went out to proclaim, embody, and enact the kingdom of God. The personal charge precedes the theo-political agenda, as it were.
Beck reflects thus:

I find this ordering important. First, new human beings, and then the kingdom. Because, can you create and establish the kingdom without new human beings? I don’t think so. We’d reject or hate the kingdom. Thus the need for repentance as a prerequisite for the kingdom. “Repent,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
I’m intrigued by all this because it suggests that the most vital and necessary political work that we can be doing right now is becoming human beings. But given the political chaos in our country we keep trying to bring the kingdom first. And we’re failing miserably. Could it be that we’ve gotten the order wrong? Could it be that you can’t bring a new kingdom unless you have the new human beings in place to create and welcome it?

My first instinct was to enthusiastically agree with Beck’s assessment. In a context where we are so inundated with people screaming their religious, political, and ideological agendas at each other and condemning all who don’t share it, we could surely do with a bit more determination to begin the moralizing at home. Perhaps if more people were willing to analyze their own hearts and minds, to ponder the (in)congruence between their message and their mode of delivering it and living it—to repent, to borrow the language of the New Testament—the kingdom might inch a little closer to coming. God knows we can all think of people who are passionately devoted to some cause or another who are insufferable to talk to or be around. Most of us can think of someone who is so busy trying to implement their vision of the kingdom that their personal lives are an absolute mess. We are perhaps often tempted to say (or at least think), “Maybe you should get your own house in order before you presume to go save the world.”
But the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that reality resists this kind of straightforward linear analysis. It makes a lot of intuitive sense to say that new humans will be better suited to welcome and advance the kingdom. It seems logical that people who have done the hard inner work of repentance and have made at least a bit of progress in maturity, humility, and grace would be a prerequisite for creating meaningful change in the world. It would be really great if the kingdom of God and our role in its coming could be plotted like a formula: First, produce the new humans and then watch those new humans march out and change the world.
But of course, that’s not exactly how things work, at least not all the time. Sometimes people who are a conflicted mess inside end up playing instrumental roles in the advancing of peace and justice in the world. Sometimes people who are all cleaned up, whose own house is in order, never really get around to making much of a difference in the neighbourhood. And, of course, there is the well-populated terrain in between these two poles where most of us live. We all live in this in-between stage where we pray “Thy kingdom come” even while we realize that we sinners are always at times preventing and at times portending this same kingdom’s coming (sometimes in the same day!).
I enthusiastically affirm Richard Beck’s call to start with ourselves before we presume to go out there and save the world. Particularly in our polarized political climate where his trenchant advice could surely be profitably heeded:

Maybe ignoring Washington to focus on becoming a human being is the most subversive and necessary political work we can be doing right now.

Yes, we could surely do with a more disciplined commitment to pay sustained attention to the log in our own eye before we set to the task of rooting out all the specks in the eyes of our foolish, misguided, quite possibly evil neighbours. This work truly is both subversive and necessary.
But I’m actually pretty thankful that new humans aren’t necessary for the kingdom of God to make its way in the world if for the simple reason that this would rule me out of the proceedings. Despite all my my new human-ish efforts thus far, a sinner, regrettably, I remain. For some reason, from his first disciples right down to the present, Jesus saw (and sees) fit to work through human beings who are always in moral and spiritual transit. I’m profoundly thankful for this. A kingdom that depends on human beings for its coming sounds like something less than the kingdom of God which can only be received as a grace and gift.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Survivors Need More Than Good Intentions: Why EMU’s attempt at reconciliation with me failed

My name is Megan Grove. It’s been over two years since I originally posted my story on Our Stories Untold as M.G. Two years this past April. The same month that I tried to take my own life at EMU ten years ago. And as these years roll by, bleeding one into the next, I wonder how many people had and continue to have experiences similar to mine. How many people – survivors of sexual assault and violence and people with mental health issues—feel unsupported, untrusted, disbelieved, unequipped, unsafe? How many people has EMU continued to harm due to its handling of sexual assault accusations? I end nearly every email and phone call with my Into Account advocate, Hilary Scarsella, with the words, “I am so grateful for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Where we left off Let me take a step back, to 2016 when I first wrote my post. While I used my initials in the post and recognized that readers may figure out my identity, I made it clear that if someone wanted to respond to my post they would need to do it through my advocate. I asked that no one attempt to communicate with […]
The post Survivors Need More Than Good Intentions: Why EMU’s attempt at reconciliation with me failed appeared first on Our Stories Untold.

Syndicated from Our Stories Untold


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