Category: Ethics and Social Justice

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019
I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.
It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.
The lure of writing
For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.
I have moved forward on several projects, but not at anything close to the rate I had hoped to and with as yet no publishable fruit. I still have hopes. I may be a couple of years older, but other than some arthritic discomfort that ironically first emerged about a week after I turned in my final set of grades, I feel that I have as much potential for productivity as ever.
For a variety of reasons, some clear, some inchoate, I have decided that some self-conscious blogging might help move me forward. Part of what I hope to address in the days to come is some more reflections on the process of (and difficulty in) writing in our present context, with least some autobiographical reflection. At this moment, though, I simply want to note what I hope to do more than why. I imagine most days sitting down and typing for an hour, and then calling that blog post done. I imagine cranking out about a thousand words or so each time. One of the main emphases will be current affairs. But I expect to do some deeper theological reflection, to report on some of my bigger writing projects, to think about timeless kinds of issues, and who knows what else.
One of the reasons I have always wanted to write is simply because I have had things I want to think about and writing seems to help. It’s a way to think through something big—such as the process of writing books about how to interpret the book of Revelation, about how to think of salvation, and about how to respond to World War II. But it’s also a way to think about more immediate issues and concerns—articles, sermons, lectures, and magazine columns.
I’ve enjoyed writing blog posts over recent years. Occasionally, these have gained a bit of an audience—though only for brief times—and have stimulated some engaging conversations. But even when they didn’t seem to get any attention, I always felt good about writing them. So, I guess one way to frame what I hope to do with this “Looking West” series is that I hope to get into a habit of regular posting in order to give myself pleasure.
I know that blogging has seemingly lost a bit of its cache by now. I’m not trying to catch any waves of trendiness by investing energy into what now may be a passé medium. But I know that I will feel better each time I post something. And I also hope that having the regular discipline of setting fingers to the keyboard and letting my thoughts find their way on to the computer screen might grease the skids a bit to make it easier for some more large scale writing to happen.
“Looking West”
By “Looking West” I guess I have in mind looking out my window through the trees to the mountains and imagining what’s beyond as a mode of reflection, even imagination. There are some thoughts out there just beyond the horizon waiting to be found and wrestled with and articulated. And it is also true that something of my sense of self and of having something to say links with the world of my first forty years of life out West.
Last night, before I went to sleep I decided to try this form of writing. Then I started thinking of possible themes and made a list. I don’t expect to address each of these and I, of course, expect many new ideas to bubble up if I do get some momentum going. But these are the kinds of random (and presently often cryptic) possibilities of what might be coming: squirrels, anti-semitism, Trump, Mennonitism, Tom Waits, cooking, losing weight, John Howard Yoder, grandchildren, road food, the Civil War, abortion, Ralph Northam, pacifism, New York City, freeways, electricity, big box stores, fatherhood, feminism, retribution, death, white supremacy, and rivers.
One of my more satisfying writing experiences came a number of years ago when I was asked to write a monthly column for a denominational magazine devoted, I guess, to spirituality (broadly defined). I was asked to write some reflections on peace each month related to the general theme for that issue of the magazine. I never got much feedback, but I thought it went pretty well. It was a creativity-enhancing experience to be told in a quite general way what I should write about but then having freedom about how to do that. So I thought about peace in relation to a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I envision this blog series to be a bit like that. Almost everything I can imagine writing about will be oriented toward my peace convictions. But I don’t know what all of those topics might be nor do I know exactly how they will relate to my core convictions. It should be fun to find out.
 

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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Unveiled and Unfettered

  I am seminary trained and have spent my entire adult life working with the biblical text in my preaching. And yet, life has also taught me that God’s image and God’s Word is bigger than the Bible (or any of our other ancient scriptures from other faith traditions) alone. Many of our ancient narratives … Continue reading Unveiled and Unfettered
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna

Perhaps We Will Have to Suffer

A few days ago, I was invited with a handful of other “clergypersons” to lunch at a local seniors home. I accepted the invitation—I thought it would be a chance to meet a few seniors, perhaps hear a few interesting stories, make a few connections, etc. Turns out, we were not invited to eat with the seniors at all. We were sequestered off in a private room for a kind sales pitch for the home. I was, I confess, a little disappointed by this. I don’t particularly need more semi-awkward social situations with middle-aged-ish, white-ish, Protestant-ish pastor-ish types.

There was one point where we were politely munching on our salads and listening to our host talk about lawn bowling and cribbage, where I could almost feel my soul shriveling. This is what it’s come to? I despaired. This is why I devoted all those years to the study of theology? To sit with a bunch of polite, well-groomed clergypersons pretending to be interested in bingo night for a free lunch? The experience was right up there with seeing Richard Marx’s Greatest Hits in Apple Music’s “Suggested For You” section when I opened iTunes this morning (I pondered what prior musical sins I could possibly have committed, what perverse algorithm could possibly have produced such a suggestion?!). This is what existential entropy must feel like, I melodramatically grumbled as I gazed longingly at the bottle of wine on the table that I knew none of us would dare touch.
Between the main course and dessert, the conversation turned, predictably, to the decline of the church. There were half-hearted diagnoses of the problem and the odd limp solution offered. There was talk of the good old days when churches were full and the culture was Christian and people dressed up on Sundays. There was a recognition that the structures we’ve inherited aren’t working anymore. People aren’t buying what the church is selling, alas. There was longing and lament, however guardedly it was expressed. Who wants to ruin a nice lunch, after all?
I wasn’t entirely telling the truth about the room being full of middle-aged white Protestants. There was an older Buddhist priest there, too, and I made sure to sit beside him. My wife is Japanese and so I’ve had the opportunity to get to know him at various family and church events over the years. He even showed up at the Bible study I lead a few times a few years ago (he calls me his “Bible teacher”; I call him sensei). He’s a delightful guy and I was glad to have him close by to break the awkward silences. I had observed him listening politely to all of this nostalgic memorializing of our “Christian” past, all this talk of how even though we came from different denominations we all worshiped the “same God,” all this thin sociological analysis of the state of the church in the post-Christian West. I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t going to make much of a fuss about having his religion referred to as a “denomination” (you know, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Buddhists). I sighed and imagined that he was having very tranquil and centred thoughts while I was sliding into angst-ridden entropy.
Near the end of our lunch, sensei leaned over to me and asked me why I thought that the Christian church was having such trouble in this culture. I gestured toward the usual suspects—postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, pluralism, etc. But then I had the good sense to stop talking and ask him what he thought. “What about you? Do you see similar trends in your context?” He smiled in a very tranquil way. “Oh yes,” he said. “Not many people come on Sundays. We have people who attend cultural events at the temple [my wife would be in this category—she started Japanese dancing this year] and who are interested in Japanese celebrations and rituals. But not many are interested in the Buddhist teachings. Mostly the older people… ” His concerns were identical to what I hear in church circles. What will happen when the carriers of this tradition and culture die? Who will pick up the baton? Will anything survive beyond cultural curiosity and highly selective practice? 
We sat together with this for a bit. I looked out into the dining area where the seniors were finishing their lunch. I thought about what some of them had seen over their many decades, what many of them had suffered. Some had seen war, some had known poverty, some had endured backbreaking labour that I struggle to imagine. I turned to sensei and said, “Perhaps we will have to suffer for our communities to grow and thrive again.” He smiled. “I think so,” he said. “The Japanese community was strongest here when we first arrived during the war. We needed each other to survive. We were a community with a shared purpose.” I nodded along as I thought about the history of my own Mennonite community and about the church around the world. There certainly does seem to be a correlation between suffering and the strength of the church. And, of course, between comfort and weakness.
Nobody wants to suffer, of course. I certainly don’t. But there is an existential urgency that suffering often produces that easily withers and dies in contexts of comfort. Religion that was once understood as a response to the gaping wound at the heart of existence degenerates into a smattering of spiritual accoutrements to pretty up our private narratives. What was once a lifeline now becomes a product to consume. What once bound us to our neighbour in shared narratives of meaning and hope now becomes a status update. Ours is a context of comfort, certainly, but also a context quite conducive to the shriveling of souls. God help us. Literally.

Syndicated from Rumblings

In Search of a Soul

It’s a rare thing indeed to observe members of the media from across the left-right spectrum offering something like a collective mea culpa in response to how they reported something. But this is, incredibly, what is happening in the aftermath of the storm generated by the already infamous video of the encounter between the Covington Catholic boys, the Native American elder, and the Black Hebrew Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial last week.
A relatively ordinary dustup at a protest that probably wouldn’t even have been news before the dawn of the smartphone touched off a quite predictable conflagration of outrage and virtue signalling and the reinforcing of moral and political narratives. When the story turned out to be a bit more complex, a bit more resistant to tidy narratives of obvious good vs obvious evil, some journalists did a peculiar (and commendable) thing. They said, effectively, “We should have resisted the hot take. We were too quick to judge in ways that served our preferred version of the story.” In some cases, there were even calls to withhold judgment (can you imagine?!) going forward. To take a step back. To ask inconvenient questions. To be the adult instead of the reactionary child.
Of course, these sober pleas probably won’t live long in our collective memory. Like everything else on the internet, they will disappear after their few hours on the online shelf, to be replaced by the next shiny digital object. “Cold takes” don’t sell, obviously, and as long as there is money to be made on online outrage, people will continue to be shepherded toward snap judgments and the stoking of inquisitional flames. Our dopamine-hungry brains will continue to obediently trawl the internet for vindication of our views. These calls for more measured responses to the news of the day (or what passes for it) will bounce around for a while in the aftermath of the Covington fiasco, but I doubt we will learn much from them. The next viral video of the next outrage-worthy offense will offer us the next opportunity to perform and parade our righteousness online. And we will, I suspect, gladly seize it.
This is the point where I often pivot to a plea for a lowering of our collective anthropology. We are all self-interested, all biased, all stupid and sinful. We should be more suspicious of our virtue and our rightness, etc., etc. But today, I find myself inclined in a different direction. It’s not that I don’t have a low anthropology. I do, certainly. I think it’s vitally necessary to make sense of ourselves and of the world, and to act with the humility appropriate to our station. But I also think we have lost something vital when it comes the inherent value and worth of each human being. This is evident in how we speak about our enemies, how quickly we leap to hammer their every transgression (real or imagined), how eagerly we shame and mock them, particularly online. Very often we don’t think nearly as highly of one another as we ought to.
I sometimes take pictures of quotes in books when I have nothing to write with. I found a note on my phone today with a snapshot of the following quote. I had no idea where it came from, initially, but I sleuthed out the source as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The quote itself is from the nineteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle and is approvingly cited by one of the characters in the novel:

Does it ever give thee pause, that men used to have a soul—not by hearsay alone, or as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew, and acted upon! Verily it was another world then… but yet it is a pity we have lost the tidings of our souls… we shall have to go in search of them again, or worse in all ways shall befall us.

I don’t know the specific context of the quote. On one level, I imagine it is probably a religious argument for the eternal destiny of human beings. We’re not just the accidental products of biology and sociology, little more than a quiver in the dirt destined to eat and breed, make a bit of noise for a few decades and return to the dirt. We have souls, damnit! We are more than that! It’s probably a plea for an exalted view of human uniqueness that many in our day are quite keen to (inconsistently) leave behind.
But today, I’m also wondering what it might be like for us to, as Carlyle alludes to, act upon the idea that we are en-souled creatures. We might cast a thought toward God now and again, certainly, but we might also pay more attention to our fellow en-souled human beings. If we really believed that our neighbours, whether insolent teenagers in MAGA hats or Native American war veterans or Black Hebrew Israelites or whoever else, really had souls that could be shaped toward goodness, truth, beauty, eternity, even… That they weren’t just object lessons in the reinforcement of our worldviews. That they were particular and precious, not just placeholders in some irredeemable category in our brains. How would that change our discourse? Our behaviours? Our judgments? What if we actually believed this? It is indeed a pity that we have lost the tidings of our souls.
I’m not naïve. I know that people have always behaved in beastly ways toward each other, even when most people were convinced that they had a soul. But I’m with Carlyle. I think we shall have to go in search of them again. Bad things are befalling us and we need healthier and more life-giving ways of understanding ourselves and our neighbours if we’re ever going to find a way out of all the ugliness, both of the news of the day and of our reactions to it.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Writing for My Liberation

For me, writing is about sharing the stories that I want to tell. It is about finding a sense of purpose, of liberation even, in communicating my truth with the rest of the world. Through writing, I attempt to make sense of my experiences in the past and also begin to speak into existence the … Continue reading Writing for My Liberation
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna

On Fallibility

This week, I started watching the Polish Netflix original series 1983 which imagines a future where the Iron Curtain is still standing and Poland is a police state. I’m only a few episodes in, so the jury’s still out, but there was an interesting scene in the first episode where Katejan Skowron, a young law student, is being grilled in an exam by his mentor and professor, Janusz Zurawski. Young Katejan has been well-drilled in propaganda: Law and Party are all, and both exist for the sake of justice. “Ah,” says Zurawski, “but you’ve forgotten to take one thing into account: human fallibility. It’s human beings who create laws and human beings who form political parties. And human beings are fallible.”
The fallibility of human beings and the political systems and structures they create is not likely news to anyone with a pulse these days. The current US president is a daily, blustering, contradicting, tweeting reminder of this, but he is only the most obvious example. Political dissatisfaction and anger are the norm in many parts of Europe these days. 2019 will be the year that both my home province of Alberta and the nation of Canada go to the polls and neither the provincial NDP or the Federal liberals are terribly popular at the moment. Human fallibility, both in leaders and in those who elect them, has never really lacked for evidence.
I was consequently intrigued to read David Bentley Hart’s somewhat-tongue-in-cheek (maybe?) essay called “Anarcho-Monarchism” in A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays. He’d prefer a benevolent monarch, it seems, to a democratically elected marketer/liar-in-chief. So would I, many days. But monarchs are so rarely benevolent. Safer, probably, to stick with democracy even if, as DBH notes, “tragically—tragically—we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another.”
At any rate, I chuckled out loud as I read these few paragraphs from DBH’s essay. They seem a rather depressing mirror and indictment of our political moment:

If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it…
Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.

Syndicated from Rumblings

I Am Not Sin

It’s been a while since I blogged. This is not because I haven’t been writing, because I have journals and manuscripts full of solid content. But it is because my focus in blogging online has drastically shifted. At one time, I was most concerned with the intersection of faith and justice, and trying to convince … Continue reading I Am Not Sin
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna

2018 in Review

Another year has nearly come and gone and this liminal space between Christmas Day and the start of a new year seems inevitably to provide opportunity to reflect back on the year that was on this blog. Blogs are, I am told, becoming something of a relic. Not many people are writing on or reading blogs anymore. Not many people are reading period anymore if the stats are to be believed. Who has or wants to make the time? People’s clicking and sharing seems to have migrated over to less wordy platforms.
I’ve been writing here for nearly twelve years now. Sometimes I feel like that’s about enough. I think back to some of the blogs I was reading back when I began and very few are left anymore. Perhaps I’ve overstayed the internet’s welcome. Other times I feel like I’m simply running out of things to say. I’ll start writing a post and then halfway through discover that I’ve almost literally written something identical three years ago. But there are other times—fewer than in the past, I grant, but they still come around now and then—when the conversation around things I write here is stimulating, generative, corrective, even rewarding. Which is good.
At any rate, if I haven’t discouraged you from reading on by now, here are the five most viewed posts I wrote in 2018 along with a brief description of each.
For Those Who Want to Grieve in a Religious Way
I wrote this after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash back in April. Few things capture Canada’s collective attention like hockey, and the deaths of junior hockey players in their prime on the way to a game was national news for weeks. It was all anyone could seem to talk about across the Canadian prairies and beyond. This piece about the language and categories we use around collective grief in a post-Christian context seemed to resonate.
Why Appreciate a Pastor?
This was a bit of a personal reflection on the experience of being a pastor in a cultural context where the news for the church is more often discouraging than encouraging. In hindsight, it seems a bit more woe-is-me than it ought to be, but it does give a sense of what it sometimes feels like to inhabit this strange role during these strange times.
Believe in Something
Nike’s advertising campaign featuring outspoken former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick raised temperatures (and revenue for Nike) when it came out and it highlighted how deep our cultural divide is when it comes to issues of racial violence. This piece wasn’t really about race or identity politics—it was about the slogan itself (“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”), whether or not it was coherent, and what it says about our cultural moment—but it quite quickly and predictably became about these things in conversations online.
The Disconnect
Another post on the state of the church in the post-Christian west and the disconnect between a culture that claims to be almost literally dying for lack of community and meaning and a church that claims to be offering these very things.
Somewhere to Be
I broke a self-imposed blogging sabbatical in spring to reflect on ten days spent in Palestinian territory. This post was a juxtaposition of the experience of walking through an Israeli checkpoint with Palestinians and listening to a Zionist Christian tour guide sketch the geography and the theology of the end of all things.
——
So, there are the “top fives” from 2018. As I’ve said before, though, the main benefit of compiling these year-end posts is to provide an opportunity to thank you for actually reading what I write here. I am grateful for the engagement and connections that take place in this space. I wish you all the best in 2019.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Wednesday Miscellany

A few unfinished scraps and fragments are cluttering up my “drafts” folder, so it’s time for another “Miscellany” post. There’s a common thread that runs through what follows—something like “the truth and how we tell it”—but nothing cohesive enough for a single post, evidently. 
***
Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s impossible for human beings not to have a religion, “even in our secularized husk of a society.” I happen to agree with him—both about humans being irreducibly religious and about our society being a “secularized husk.” What a great description of a society that claims not to have left religion behind but is morally zealous in ways that rival the most enthusiastic evangelists from days long past.
According to Sullivan, our religious impulses have not disappeared, they have simply migrated to other domains. In America, the right’s religious fervour is concentrated in the attaining and securing of power. Salvation comes via the levers of politics. The left embraces an activistic narrative of social and moral progress. Here, too, salvation often comes via politics. Both views function as religions for their adherents.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in this paragraph where Sullivan compares the “Great Awakening” with the “Great Awokening”:

And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke.

The article has me thinking that whatever else the old religions may or may not have going for them, at least they were explicit about what they were. Few things get as tiresome as politics and irreligion masquerading as religion.
***
Those I work with on the preaching schedule for our church regularly hear me say something like, “We need to have a guest speaker soon. I’m getting sick of hearing my own voice.” I usually say this with a bit of a grin on my face. Sometimes I’d just like a break from sermon prep. But there’s a deeper reason. I really do believe that people benefit from encountering Jesus through a different set of theological goggles than my own.
The other day, I heard a preacher I respect talk about a mid-life/mid-faith course correction he had undergone. He finally encountered the “unvarnished Jesus,” he said. I wonder about that. I know what he’s trying to say. He came to a truer, deeper understanding of Jesus, one more faithful to the gospels, one less encumbered by the trappings of his own culture and the theological biases in which he was raised. I get all that. But do we ever encounter an “unvarnished Jesus?”
I don’t think so. This is one of my worries as someone who preaches 40+ times a year—that my congregation gets a Jesus that is heavily refracted through what I think is important, through what I prefer to ignore, through my agenda for the church, through my constellation of existential anxieties. It’s not that I think my Jesus is wrong or deficient. But I’m just barely smart enough to know that he’s incomplete.
Thank God for other voices. And thank God that preaching is only one way that the risen Christ encounters people on the road.
***
One of the albums that’s been getting regular play in the headphones these days is Muse’s new one, “Simulation Theory.” I’m a sucker for anthemic rock full of grandiose lyrics, and Muse has always supplied both of these in abundance. Usually, after a few songs I’m just about ready to march out to protest something or stick it to the man. Just about.
There’s a song on their most recent album called “Thought Contagion” that takes direct aim at our post-truth, fake news times with megalomaniacal leaders spurred on by populist mobs.

You’ve been bitten by a true believer
You’ve been bitten by someone who’s hungrier than you
You’ve been bitten by a true believer
You’ve been bitten by someone’s false beliefs
Thought contagion
Thought contagion

It’s an understandable response to a truly odious cultural phenomenon. But the language is interesting, isn’t it? Nasty beliefs that we disagree with are described in the language of predation and disease. It’s “true believers” that are the problem. They spread their ugliness like a virus and if we’re lucky (or smart/virtuous) enough, we’ll stave off the infection. Our beliefs (i.e., right-thinking people’s beliefs) are the result of rational reflection and general decency. We are not “true believers” but “free thinkers.” At least so we are pleased to tell ourselves.
My skepticism of human nature and how we form/maintain our beliefs has a broader application than Muse’s, I think. “Thought contagions” seem to me come in all kinds of different strains, and we’re all more vulnerable to them that we might want to admit.
***
I was recently invited to speak on a panel next year about evolution and faith. One of my co-panelists evidently comes from an apologetics organization and wanted each of us to articulate our “positions” on evolution beforehand to aid in his preparation. I’ll confess that I groaned inwardly when the email came through.
There are two reasons for my groaning. First, the thought of going into battle in the Christian apologetics wars holds pretty much zero appeal to me. There was a time when this might have excited me, but that time has evidently passed. Haggling over the age of the earth and the one correct interpretation of a handful of bible passages isn’t something that exactly sets my pulse a-racing these days.
Second, I really dislike this assumption that we ought to be able to produce a “position” on an “issue” on demand. “Positions” on “issues” very often end up relegating more important things (like people) to the sidelines. I’d much rather talk about what’s going on behind the positions about issues. What views of God are operating? What existential hungers are being fed or starved?  What unspoken hopes and fears are lingering around the periphery? And so on.
I’ll likely lose the battle over the age of the earth. My “position” probably isn’t as well-fortified as it ought to be. But who knows, maybe an interesting conversation or two will materialize once the swords are set aside and truth is treated less as an artifact to protect than a puzzle to explore.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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 […]
The post All in Pieces: My Journey toward Integration after Childhood Sexual Abuse appeared first on Our Stories Untold.

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

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