Assumptions of the Heart

I was reading Adam S. McHugh’s book Introverts in the Church and ran across this paragraph:

“An introverted college student I worked with, Trevor, encountered several reactions when he chose to step outside of his community after two years of consistent participation. Extroverted leaders chided him for his lack of commitment and were convinced his pulling back was indicative of a larger spiritual problem infecting his heart. The pastor of the community arranged meetings with him to understand what was happening and what was the source of his dissatisfaction with the group. These efforts, as well intentioned as the were, only pushed him further away instead of drawing him back into his previous level of commitment.”

This paragraph struck me because of how often people would rather make assumptions about others rather than actually asking what the issue was. It is so easy to do this. After all, getting to know people and know the issues that underlie the decisions people make takes time and effort. It doesn’t take much time to make an assumption and roll with it.

While it may not take much time to make these assumptions, it can be rather damaging. As the example from above points out. The people who assumed the stepping back was a spiritual problem infecting his heart or dissatisfaction with the group were actually doing more damage than good. It could even be that this reaction to these assumptions just served to fuel the idea that these assumptions were true.

It’s not enjoyable being in a situation where people make assumptions about your spiritual life or your emotional life without any idea of who you are. There may have been other times this has happened to me, but the experience I remember most clearly happened while I was trying to get accredited with the denomination I had been affiliated with since becoming a Christian.

I was hoping to a be a pastor in this particular denomination, I had finished seminary and now needed to be accredited. To do this I needed to go through an interview, and from what I had heard it wasn’t going to be a particularly difficult experience. It wound up going rather terribly. Mainly due to views on end times and alcohol.

We spent about half of the interview talking about views on the end times. My view is that I don’t really have a horse in the race. I’m not big on the idea of a rapture, but beyond that I’m not really one hundred percent sold on amillennialism, pre-millennialism, or whatever other millennialism you want to adhere to.

In my many years in the denomination it had never been a big point in sermons or in terms of membership, and I talked with pastors who weren’t entirely sure how it was all going to turn out in that regards. However, there seemed to be some agitation that I wasn’t fully committed to pre-millennialism. I was okay with that view, but wasn’t okay with trying to make it as the one true way.

The other issue was alcohol. The denomination I was trying to get into doesn’t allow their pastors to drink alcohol. While I was okay with doing this, and even somewhat understood their position, I also wanted to note that I didn’t really agree with it entirely. I would follow it, but I didn’t think it had a whole lot of support from the Bible itself. A view like this that wouldn’t allow Jesus to be a pastor of that denomination appeared a bit problematic to me. This view didn’t go over that well either.

Now as you can expect, I didn’t get accredited from that interview. Now if they came back and simply said that your views just don’t really line up with the denomination’s views that would have stung, but I think I would have understood. It would have been honest and wouldn’t have had to resort to any kind of assumptions about me.

No, instead the three men came into the room and made up some idea that they think I’ve been hurt by authority or have some kind of issue with authority in general. It wasn’t entirely clear to me which it was, maybe it was even both. The only thing was, this wasn’t really true, at least until this incident.

I tend to be a rule follower, almost to a detriment. I was always liked by teachers and other parents because I was a good or nice or whatever. I don’t really remember being hurt by authority, even by authority figures that I didn’t particularly like or respect. I wasn’t exactly one who would have been considered a rebel or anti-authority figure, at least by anyone who knew me.

I didn’t like questioning things, and it took a lot out of me to just be honest with these men and talk to them about issues that I didn’t necessarily agree with. To be honest I didn’t really expect the disagreement over the end times to be so significant, but the alcohol issue didn’t surprise me. Even with that though I was still willing to abstain from alcohol, which wouldn’t really be too much different than what I normally do anyhow. I just wanted to be honest with where I was coming from.

Yet what came back was this assumption that didn’t have much of a foothold on reality. To be honest it was this exchange with authority that has hurt and scarred me the most in all of my years. The incorrect assumption hurt more than a simple admitting that our views didn’t line up ever would have.

Incorrect assumptions can push people away, hurt people, and even scar them for some time. I know that we’ll all make assumptions. I’ve probably made assumptions about others around me and hurt them. However, be willing to be wrong in those assumptions, particularly if we have little to base them off of. Be willing to change your mind and not just double down ignoring any signs that our assumptions are incorrect. I don’t know the motivations and intricacies of my own heart most of the time, why should I or anyone else assume that we can understand the motives in the heart of another?

Placing Ourselves Through the Narrow Door

A couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon on Luke 13:22-30. The story seems to be about how many people will seek to be saved, but only a few will actually make it through the narrow door. Now I’m not going to go into the passage too much, but something struck me as I was listening to this sermon. The one preaching usually always places themselves as one who has made it through said narrow door.

It’s strange that we can preach on a passage that says, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to,” and still come from a place from certainty that we are one of those who have entered. Everyone else may be questioned, and in this particular sermon it seemed that everyone else was, but the speaker is exempt. Is it not possible that we are mistaken?

I realize that functionally we all move forward in life with the knowledge and beliefs that we have the best that we can. I don’t think having a continual crisis of belief is healthy, but I wonder that always being certain that we’re “in” is any healthier. It seems to me that this is usually held on to and used as license to dictate who is in and who isn’t.

The ironic thing is that often people who think they’re in, will be excluded by someone else who also thinks they’re in. In a very real sense it doesn’t matter what we think. We can think we’re in and be wrong. We can think other people are out and have them be in. Our perspectives are so limited, only God is able to truly evaluate who is in and out. While we may be able to make educated estimates, there is nothing binding in our proclamations of who is in and who is out.

So where does this leave us? I find myself again drawn to the answer of humility. Humility in our own walk with God as we seek to follow him as best as we are able to. Humility in our interactions with other that displays the grace and love of God to those we may disagree with.

This sounds easy, but can be a very difficult thing to practice. Not everyone will respond to our disagreements, even rooted in humility, with that same grace. We may even be placed outside of the door by our stance. We can also not always do the best in displaying love to those who disagree with us and seek to ostracize them as well.

I guess I have just found myself more skeptical of those who want to set themselves up as the bastion of truth. While some like to point fingers towards conservatives or the religious in general, it seems to be something that many people regardless of their particular label do. We always want to set ourselves up as right and anyone who disagrees as wrong.

This isn’t to say that I have no views on what is right, or what is wrong. It is simply the willingness to admit that my perspective is limited, and that I could very well be wrong. In terms of my faith, I certainly hope I am through that narrow door. I believe in God and rely on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, yet I also know my failings and sin. Even if I am through that narrow door, it does not make me the gatekeeper of that door. There is only one who that door belongs to, and it is not us. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we remembered that.

The Sin of Sodom

Dealing with times of God’s judgment relayed in the Bible is difficult business. There seem to be some who want to interpret these stories as having the potential to happen anytime for even the slightest infractions. Some want to dismiss them as being too disconnected from the message of Jesus to be too useful. Most of the time though, I feel that we just ignore them and hope they go away or that someone doesn’t shed any light on these passages.

A lot of the issue, at least in my understanding, stems from a conflict between the ideas of God as love and God as judge. If God is love and loves human beings, how does that not conflict with God’s judgment that sometimes takes human lives? This kind of conflict is what makes passages like the one I’m going to look at today so difficult. The passage we’ll be looking at is Genesis 19 which is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Last week we saw God speaking with Abraham about the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this story we see the details of what goes on before its destruction. We see Lot sitting at the gate of the city when two of the angels/men who were with Abraham last chapter enter the city. Lot insists they stay at his house instead of spending the night in the town square as they planned.

However, all the men of the city come out and surround Lot’s house. They call for him to give up the two men to them, so they may “know” them, which is often a way to refer to sexual acts. Now it’s at this point where I think we need to step back and ask, what is the nature of Sodom’s sin?

A popular view is that the sin that led to Sodom’s destruction is homosexuality. While that makes for a convenient weapon to fight with in the wars going on around that issue, the truth is that the sins of Sodom might be broader than that. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “…the Bible gives considerable evidence that the sin of Sodom was not specifically sexual, but a general disorder of a society organized against God.” While I agree with Brueggemann that, “It may be that sexual disorder is one aspect of a general disorder,” to isolate any specific issue out of this is sloppy work.

I think this can be seen just by looking at the context of this chapter. When God spoke to Abraham of the judgment on Sodom, it was due to hearing an outcry against the city, as well as Gomorrah. In other words Sodom and Gomorrah seem to have been creating victims on a consistent enough basis to warrant judgment because of the outcry against them.

While Genesis 19 may have been an example of how that victimization looked, it may not have been the only way.  To reduce this down to homosexuality, seems to be ignoring the mob’s intention to victimize those who they should be hospitable and welcoming to, like Lot is exemplifying. Would the mob’s actions be perfectly fine if the angels had taken the form of women? If you answer no to that, then the problems are something much broader than the way some would like to treat this passage.

The idea that this victimization of travelers (if it is even only contained to travelers) has been recurring may have been evident in the actions of Lot himself. He is sitting at the gate of the city. Maybe this is simply due to chance, but I wonder if it could have been intentional.

Could this have been his way to save people from the victimization that has been going on? He seems rather adamant to have the men stay at his house instead of the town square. This could just be his desire to be hospitable, but it could also be due to a knowledge of what may happen to these men if they stay out in public. There isn’t any way to know this for certain, but it certainly doesn’t seem too far-fetched to consider this possible.

Now it doesn’t really seem that Lot’s efforts here are going to work. If it weren’t for the actions of the men/angels he would have simply added himself to the victim list, and seemed quite willing to add his daughters to it as well. It is this kind of attitude and environment that is bringing the judgment of God upon these people. Even when stopped before doing something wicked, they do not flinch from it in the least but continue in it and scoff against anyone who would judge them.

So does this still warrant God’s judgment? To some that may be an illegitimate question. God is above us and who do we think we are to question his judgment, I get that train of thought and honestly, to some degree, believe it myself. However, with so many people who struggle with this kind of thing, it is worth asking the question in honest.

I think my biggest conundrum is this. Could there be times where God withholding judgment could reap more negative consequences than God actually passing judgment? Take this example. It seems that Sodom had been producing victims of some sort and that God heard the outcry against the actions perpetrated by these people. If God did nothing to stop this would that make it better? I’m not really thinking it would.

I still don’t have everything figured out about how God’s judgment works and especially how it works in conjunction with God’s love and mercy. However, what I do know is that love and mercy isn’t just overlooking victims and the real pain that has happened to them. I have to ultimately trust more in God’s ability to know when to judge and show mercy than by my ability to understand it.

In some ways I feel like Lot in this story. I know enough to know what Sodom is doing is wrong, but he’s not untainted by wickedness and his judgment on things aren’t the best. He tries to offer his daughters up to the mob, which to me is just as bad as offering the strangers. He becomes paranoid in Zoar and gets drunk and sleeps with both of his daughters. While I obviously have not done these exact things, the idea is that we can be a mix of both good judgment and poor judgment at the same time. Lot appeared to know that what the city of Sodom was doing was wrong, but had his own blind spots. His judgment was imperfect.

To me the only one capable of perfect judgment, perfect mercy, and perfect love is God. In our blind spots we may not recognize that at times, but that is ultimately what I trust in. I may not have everything worked out and I will act accordingly in that, but I will trust that God does. It’s about all I can do.

Debating Destruction

I know I’ve missed a couple weeks in my progress through Genesis. I’m hoping that I can get back on track and be more consistent on it, but getting this out will at least be progress in the right direction.

I was last going through Genesis 18:1-15, where Sarah is informed of how she will soon have a son. Coming out of this passage, we move away from the story of Abraham and Sarah’s son for a bit. Within Genesis 18:16-33, the focus begins to shift towards the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for a couple chapters.

It’s an interesting passage for sure. We start things off with what appears to God’s inner monologue. The men (who are connected to and referred to as God) are getting ready to leave and God wonders if Abraham should be made known of the plans in store for Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we have a reiteration of how Abraham will be a great nation and how all nations will be blessed through him. All this is because God has chosen him and that because of that Abraham will seek for his children to follow the way of the Lord.

God must convince himself to let Abraham in on the plan. I’m struck though that God puts this whole situation in a very strange manner. God speaks of hearing an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. God is going to investigate this outcry and see if it is deserved or not. This seems strange, because often our idea is that God knows all.

Does God personally verify any claim of wickedness before passing judgment? Is this just an extension of God’s mercy to go and try to experience this wickedness firsthand? What’s going on? I wish I had a solid answer, but I’m fairly sure that God knows whether the claims of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah are accurate or not.

In response to this news, Abraham begins to debate a bit with God. He wants to know if God would still destroy the city if there were fifty righteous people amid the wicked. God says that he would spare the city if there were fifty. Abraham continues all the way down to ten people and God confirms each time that he would spare the city even if there were only ten righteous there.

This whole exchange is just rather interesting. We see Abraham fulfilling, at least partially, what God spoke of at the beginning of this passage. That Abraham would be a blessing to the nations. Abraham is wanting to make sure the righteous are not being punished alongside the wicked, because that would be wrong on God’s part.

I’ve typically taken this passage, and still do, as Abraham’s concern bringing this up to God, but God already being on the same page. God agrees with little hesitation or qualification to Abraham’s hypothetical situations. God agrees that if there is even ten people who are righteous in the city it will not be destroyed. Despite Abraham’s questioning God does not seem taken off guard or indignant at this line of questioning. This back and forth only seems to highlight the justice and mercy of God, how the righteousness of few can protect the many, and as will be seen in chapter 19, the pervasive wickedness of Sodom.

In reading up for this post though I ran across another thought from Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis. While it failed to convince me, I will admit that it was interesting. This position was that Abraham was acting as a teacher to God, and presenting to God, for the first time apparently, that God should not simply destroy the wicked if there were righteous among them. The thing is I’m just not sure that it jives with what comes before and after, even if this is a later story (as Brueggemann believes), I still think we need to take the story as it is in the final form.

Even within Brueggemann’s own framework of God bringing Abraham and Sarah’s barrenness and offering an alternative way of life (in more than one way), it doesn’t seem to fit. God has been the one trying to get Abraham to have faith in the way that God is doing things. This seems to be another one of those times, only with Abraham actually speaking God’s heart a bit more than usual.

Abraham has been so slow to catch on to what God is doing and how God operates, that it seems unlikely that Abraham is getting  a leg up here and instructing God. Abraham seems to understand that if God punished the righteous then He wouldn’t be God, but how does he really know this unless he is basing it off of what he knows about God in the first place? Other religions didn’t always make that claim, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a universal concept of God or anything.

Even then, Abraham’s questions here could be just as much from the same type of doubt he has displayed regarding God’s promises to him. He has had trouble wrapping his head around God’s promise of an heir. I don’t think it is too far out there to think that he is stuck in a similar conundrum here, He knows the goodness, mercy, and justice of God, but perhaps doubts that Sodom could be that bad and that there is nobody worth saving there (I know those are so often my thoughts on issues like this). So he questions God to make sure he understands God’s heart in the matter.

Yet all of this serves to stress, at least in my opinion, that God is not doing this act of judgment lightly. There has been an outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, which I would assume comes from victims of their wickedness, and God is investigating it using these two men he is sending there. He even agrees that if there were ten people in the city who were righteous that he would spare the city. Then before the judgment we see the messengers of God take Lot and his family out of the city, not based on their own righteousness, but because God remembered Abraham (Gen 19:29).

Now even though that is my conclusion, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have this whole judgment thing figured out. It makes me uncomfortable either way. I’m a bit uncomfortable jettisoning judgment, because there are those out there who are simply out to hurt other people and make victims, some of which wear the label Christian. I think turning a blind eye to that is not good at any level.

Yet, at the same time I’m a bit uncomfortable with judgment too. I rely on grace and mercy because I mess up and hurt people too. I want to be able to extend that love, grace, and mercy to others. So I live in this tension, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Even if it is coming out of some doubts about how God does things, I think we need more people to ask the questions Abraham does here. Instead of delighting in judgment or being quick to proclaim any natural disaster or human attack as God’s judgment, maybe we need hearts that care about the ones who don’t deserve this getting mixed up in it. Hearts that even seek repentance for those who do, all while trusting in the God of the universe as a just judge– which is sometimes the hardest thing of all.

The Degree that Makes People Apologize

It’s no secret that both of my degrees have something to do with theology/Christian ministry. If people ask me what I went to school for, or what I have my degrees in I tell them, and Kristen does as well. What is interesting is how some have reacted to this knowledge over the years.

Most of the time when it comes up in conversation with people I don’t know or don’t spend a lot of time around the reactions aren’t too interesting. They either have no idea of what my degrees are for, and if they do they usually think I’m going to be a priest. That’s fairly close, so we eventually wind up at an understanding.

Kristen has had a more interesting reaction to this information happen over the years. A number of times this has led people to be very concerned about their behavior or language in Kristen’s presence because of what I went to school for. This reaction is probably because Kristen interacts with them enough that they worry, but don’t necessarily know me all that well. Of course, this hasn’t been the reaction of everyone, but it has been a rather consistent reaction that has come up throughout the years.

To be honest this reaction gives me mixed feelings. It somewhat amuses me to think that people really care that much about what I think about them simply because of what I went to school for. I mean it’d be the equivalent of apologizing to me for every poor health decision you make because Kristen has a job in the medical field. It sounds pretty silly right?

As time has gone on though, this reaction has started to make me uncomfortable. It’s a reaction that reveals the impression Christians and that pastors and Christian leaders may give off. That we are highly offended by swearing, certain types of jokes, and maybe even more than that. Now certain types of jokes may be offensive and swearing may not be my favorite way of communicating, but at the same time I’m not sure I need to be apologized to, especially by proxy, for it.

My worry in all this is that this is a reaction to the way Christians and Christian leaders react to the world around them. That we’re quick to be offended and even be upset with others for not upholding our values. That we’d rather have people craft and hide behind masks instead of being honest with where they are right now.

If this is true then we’re encouraging dishonesty simply so that things can appear proper, sanctified, holy, or whatever word you want to fill in there. Isn’t there something profoundly wrong with that? It is this possibility that really troubles me about the reaction to what I studied in school. I mean I’m not even an official pastor at this point and that’s already the reaction?

The funny thing is, there isn’t much I can do to change this in any widespread manner. People have their impressions of Christianity and there is little I can do to change that for people I haven’t met yet. It comes from their experience or what they’ve heard or read about.

The only real solution is to get to know people, this is really the only way to have people know if their fears are validated or not. The only way people may move past the labels we represent, the subject we studied, or the profession we have is to replace it with knowing us. I’m not sure that makes me feel better about the reactions I get to my degree nor does it hinder my discomfort with the title of pastor before my name if that ever happens (but that may be something to talk about another time), but it is really the only way to combat it.

If we want to be viewed as people who are safe and worthy of respect and openness, we have to prove it. The reputations of both safe and unsafe Christians precede all of us. I have to be able to show what type I am, or at least if I’m more one than the other. It may be a rather slow and messy way to go, but it’s really the only one that I can think of.

 

 

 

A Line of Evil and of Good?

Last time I looked at Genesis, I focused on Cain murdering Abel in Genesis 4:1-8. While Cain’s murder of Abel was talked about, I didn’t go too much into what happened after the event. I’ll be doing this here, but I want to think about a concept that comes out of Cain’s murder and subsequent punishment. Does this event cause an evil line of men to come from Cain and a good line of men to come from Seth (who is born at the end of Genesis 4 to replace Abel)?

In Genesis 4:9-15, God comes to Cain after Abel has been murdered and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain plays innocent, but God knows of his sin and uncovers it. God also punishes him with further exile and that he will be unable to grow crops. Cain appears to be remorseful and laments the punishment.

It is interesting that Cain’s punishment is not death, and that God is even willing to place some kind of mark that both reminds Cain of his guilt and protects him against those who might take revenge. Cain, now an exile, leaves and settles in another land. There he builds a family and a city.

Of his descendants we’re told that the originators of animal husbandry, musical arts, and metalworking come from the line of Cain. Now if we view this as an evil line, then it is not too much of a stretch to view these activities as suspicious. However, this seems unlikely. Owning flocks of animals was never viewed as a negative in and of itself, musical instruments appear in the worship of God later, and while metalworking could create weapons of war, these are hardly the only things that could be made out of metal.

This reality challenges the idea that these inventions were negative. So if the line of Cain is to be understood as an evil or ungodly line of men, we’re left with the idea that evil men can still create good and useful human accomplishments.The idea of those who don’t follow God can still contribute to humanity shouldn’t be too hard to swallow. Many advances over time have been accomplished by those who are not followers of God.

This doesn’t really answer the main question though. Were Cain’s descendants this evil line of men who didn’t follow God at all or was the reality a bit more mixed? I’m thinking that our answer to that question will depend on how you look at the figure of Lamech.

Personally, I’ve always viewed this figure as negative. He takes two wives, which is not a detail I would view as being positive. We also have the somewhat odd speech in Genesis 4:23-24 where it certainly seems that Lamech is making a pronouncement that seems more natural coming from the lips of God and could be another example of mankind trying to be like God.

However, John H. Sailhamer in his Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis again presents an idea that challenges my perception of this passage. He presents the idea that Lamech may be the originator of human law. Sailhamer puts it this way, “When read in the context of the Mosiac law and in the context of the teaching regarding cities of refuge, however, Lamech’s words appear to be an appeal to a system of legal justice.”

So “If Cain, who killed his brother with malice, could be avenged, then Lamech would surely be avenged for killing in self-defense, that is, for “wounding” him.” This makes some sense to me (although it may be stretch to call Lamech the father of law), but I like the way that Sailhamer concludes this section. He says, “The point of this narrative is not so much to show that Lamech’s sense of justice is correct or even exemplary. Rather, it is to show that Cain’s city and descendants had a system of law and justice representative of an ordered society.”

So where does this leave Cain and his descendents on the good-evil scale? Beats me, as they seem awfully human, or at least as human as you can get in such a short telling. Is Lamech usurping God’s authority in his declaration, or acknowledging God’s justice and mercy by appealing to what happened with Cain (He admittedly, doesn’t speak of God directly, but who else would be doing the avenging?)? It could be either or a combination of both honestly. Still doesn’t make the whole line wicked or good.

To further explore this, let’s briefly look at Seth’s line. Seth’s birth is presented in Genesis 4:25-26. Now, we’re not told much about him other than that he was considered a “replacement” of Abel and that he had a son named Enosh.

Then we have the rather cryptic phrase, “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” Was this because of Seth and Enosh? Is this phrase more indicating the completion of the introduction to humans here in Genesis 3-4? I mean Adam and Eve called on the name of the Lord right? We have them doing that in this passage, as well as earlier in the chapter. So if it is an indicator beyond just Seth and Enosh, does that mean that Cain’s line could potentially have called on the Lord’s name as well? Is that what Lamech was doing by reiterating and expanding the promise of God to Cain?

Then we have the genealogy presented in Genesis 5. There is little indication that this line is godly or for that matter ungodly. Most of it is just a rather specific line, even within the line of Seth, followed. The only two that get any kind of further note are Enoch and Noah. Enoch is recorded as “walking with God,” and that “God took him away” and he didn’t experience death because of his faithfulness to God.

Noah’s significance seems more like an element of foreshadowing his purpose in the flood. Nothing about his following of God is displayed here, but he is presented as a positive figure. So really Seth’s line isn’t really marked out as overwhelmingly positive or negative. After all when we get to the flood we see that only Noah and his immediate family are saved from the flood. The rest of the unnamed line of Seth is just as destroyed as the even more unnamed line of Cain.

So all this to say that I have a hard time labeling one line as wicked and ungodly and one line as being pristine and godly. That’s not the way that the Bible honestly handles people. The ones who follow God can be sinful and wicked, the chosen line can disregard God and chase after other gods.The “pagans” can sometimes be ones who are faithful, I’m thinking of Rahab and Ruth as two examples of this. So it would seem a bit strange to put this in terms of a godly line and an evil line. It seems that all of humanity was wicked at the time of the flood so what do we do with that?

In some ways, I feel that presenting the idea of a good and evil lineage here potentially causes us to do that in our own lives and relationships. We feel that we are the true godly line and that those who are outside of the line are wicked and ungodly. The line could be our literal families, our denominations, our local church, or whatever kind of group we’d like to present as the good, Godly, choice. We can fail to see the evil that lurks in our own hearts and take actions and attitudes that may not be in line with following God at all. Then we fail to see the “wicked” as those made in the image of God and human just like us.

So we wind up setting up barriers rather than erecting bridges of love, mercy, and hope. In the story of Cain,  God still seemed to care for Cain, protecting him despite his sin, and Cain seemed to care for God in his lament that he would be hidden from his presence. I’m not sure I’m willing to sit in the judgment seat for Cain, Seth, their descendents or anybody else for that matter. Doesn’t mean that I can’t see what Cain did was wrong, just means I don’t know the final result of his life to say his line was therefore evil.

Justice for the Poor and the Rich

I don’t know about you but when I hear the phrase social justice I tend to think of defending the plight of the poor and the unfortunate. Helping those who have been exploited, marginalized, and have very little to no power or influence in society at large. With this image it is easy to create the enemy out of the wealthy and powerful.

In creating such an enemy it is then easy to  assume that the one holding wealth and power is always wrong. They’re the enemy, the bad guy, the one holding down others. I know I think like that sometimes.

A couple years ago when I was leading a study on Leviticus (yes, that Leviticus) I ran across an interesting verse that made me pause. It was Leviticus 19:15 which says, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” As I write this out it doesn’t seem like it should have been that unusual, but for some reason it was.

That justice should be impartial is something that I think we know is the ideal of justice, after all justice is blind. When it comes to our own reactions about issues of justice I wonder if we’re really that impartial. It often seems like we’re split in how we treat this subject.

For some the rich always seem to be an object of admiration and the example for everyone to follow. The mantra of this group is that people are rich because they’ve worked hard and earned it. This also sends either implicitly or explicitly that poor people just aren’t working hard enough, are lazy, or wanting everything handed to them.

Others focus on the reverse. Rich people are the enemy. They have wealth, power, and privilege, but only use it for their own gain and often at the expense of anyone less fortunate than them. This message indicates that the poor are victims of a system where they can be taken advantage of.

Now I know I can vacillate between both of these positions pretty easy. I think the reason is that both can be true. Some people are rich due to hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance. However, there are people who are rich by dishonest means, by not paying the people who work for them very much, or other negative ways of gaining wealth. Then there are the people who are simply wealthy because of the family they grew up in.

The same goes with those who are poor. Some are poor because they make bad decisions in life. Addictions, poor money management skills, living beyond our means, and other poor decisions can make people struggle financially. However, there are those who are poor even though they work hard, are dependable, and maybe are struggling  due to circumstances that have little to do with their direct choices.

Now while Leviticus 19:15 does talk about not favoring either, in other places in the Bible the emphasis is on not giving favor to the rich and powerful. The exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful is more often the case even in other places in the Bible. That’s part of the indictment brought by many of the prophets later in the Old Testament.

I still think that’s true today. People who have more power and money can take advantage of people a lot easier. When you’re the one in control it’s not too hard to try to gain as much money for yourself while your employees struggle to make ends meet. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone who is rich does this. We must judge fairly in these circumstances and not be skewed in favor or against those with wealth and power.

At the same time we must do this as well with those who are less fortunate. It is all too easy to label someone as lazy or entitled because they are struggling financially. In a country that has seen income inequality grow fairly substantially in the last forty years, this seems to be a rather hasty judgment. Does this mean that there aren’t people out there who are lazy or entitled? No, I’m sure there  are. However, just like with the wealthy, those who are poor must be judged fairly.

Ultimately, life is just not as neat an organized as we would like. Neither the wealthy or the poor are always heroes or villains, however they are always human. This often means there will be a tangled web of selfish and selfless intentions. That is what Leviticus 19:15 reminded me. That one side isn’t always right or always wrong, but that we’re to judge fairly and not show partiality to either the rich or the poor. To treat them as equals which is so difficult in a world that is often so full of inequality.

Searching for the Tropes, but Losing What Matters

Have you ever seen a review of a movie or television show that basically brushes it off due to it being a certain genre or because it includes certain tropes? What is a trope you may ask? Well, if you look at dictionary.com they have the main definition being “a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect.”

That doesn’t sound too bad right? The issue with this is that another definition is “a common or overused theme or device” or in other words a cliché. Now a trope doesn’t have to be a cliche, as seems to be the standpoint of the website tvtropes.com. As they say that, “On the whole, tropes are not clichés.” The definition seems a bit like it could go either way.

So how about we give an example? Hitting random on tvtropes.com sent me to “Never Grew Up” it’s basically about the characters in popular media that never age on the outside, and potentially even the inside. A prime example of this trope is Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Now on that page are other TV shows, movies, etc that use this particular type of character.

Now, when tropes are used in the manner that tvtropes.com uses them, or at least wants people to use them, I don’t have too much of a problem with the idea of tropes. They can be fun to explore and see what tropes are in the movies, TV shows, books, or video games that you’ve experienced. At the same time though, I’ve seen a number of people use tropes interchangeably with clichés and presenting it as a negative thing which is used to dismiss whatever they’re talking about. This usage frustrates me a bit.

I feel that when we start paring down media to tropes, clichés, and stereotypes that we begin to lose stories as a whole. That they are dismissed not by the story they tell, but more by the tropes they use. It’s the outward labels and character archetypes they use that defines worth and not the actual story and characters.

Now I don’t think that everyone has to like every single genre or trope out there. I also know that all works are not created equal. Some are more cliché riddled than others or fail in creating a memorable world or story no matter what clichés they use or don’t use. However, I get a bit tired of people dismissing anything based on a genre, a certain type of character, or another trope.

I mean ultimately one could say this doesn’t matter too much because it is just about movies or television shows, but I guess part of my frustration in all this is that all too often it seems to be how we treat other people too. We either try to find a particular label to slap on ourselves or others are all too ready to slap one on us. We look for the “tropes” evident in that person and make all kinds of assumptions while missing the person underneath.

In both I feel that we reduce complicated matters down to easily understood labels and categories, but miss the wider story. We may think we have the story all figured out, but may miss other things or simply make ourselves unable to enjoy the story. We may label others based on a few of their opinions, but completely miss out on who they are, what they’re about, and why they think the way they do.

Tropes, clichés, stereotypes, and labels exist. There is little to be done about that. They can be used in fun, informative, and interesting ways. We can also tend to conflate these labels and clichés, in some cases, to such a point that we begin to identify works or people by that and that alone. It is at this point that I think we are trading in what’s really important for what is easily managed and categorized, but incomplete.

So feel free to use tropes and clichés, but remember that there may be more to the stories we’re reading, watching, or playing than the tropes. Feel free to use labels for yourself and for others, but remember that we are all more than the labels, and that we could be labeled in many different ways that fail to encapsulate who we are entirely. We never know when we’ll miss out on an engaging story or an great person if we just look at the parts we think easy to categorize and pass them by.

What do you think? Do you think we use tropes and clichés too much when engaging media? Do you think we use labels too much with others? Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

Remembering That We Are All People

I remember studying my Bible one day and coming to a realization that I hadn’t really had before. It was one of those realizations that is profoundly simple, yet can change the way you approach the events that take place in the Bible. This realization was that the stories and events of the Bible contained real people.  You might be staring at your monitor saying, “Wait, that was your big realization? How dense are you?” I realize that this is a pretty simple idea, but let me explain why I think this is significant.

I’ve found personally that it is so easy to look at the events in the Bible from a distance, trying to ascertain whether the actions of a particular person are good or bad. I’m not saying that this is fully a bad thing, but it felt like I was losing something. It felt like I was reducing the story to some equivalent to Aesop’s Fables instead of getting glimpses of the lives people led while trying to follow God, successfully or not. I felt like I was simply trying to stamp their behaviors as an example to follow or an example to avoid. This process often led me to look down on those who didn’t do the right thing, or to idealize those who made good decisions, at least most of the time.

I think that this can lead us to bad places. We can forget that people who are often put into positive light (like Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, or Paul) were human and sinful even though they took following God very seriously. On the same token we can look down at some of the less exemplary individuals (like Jacob, Samson, Gideon, or Peter) and forget that God still used these flawed individuals to accomplish significant things. We can easily be tempted to idealize certain people in the Bible and dismiss or cast a negative gaze upon certain other characters without thinking of the fact they are human, and that sometimes God still used them despite or because of their flaws. Does this justify their flaws and sins or reduce the impact of their faith and actions? No, but we can easily resort to shallow characterizations rather than looking at them as full human beings seeking to follow God or rejecting God.

This use of shallow characterizations can leak into our interactions with the people around us. We can idolize those who put on masks and appear to be flawless, and ostracize those who aren’t able to put on masks and appear with all their roughness, sin, and flaws out for the world to see. In both cases we reduce these people to caricatures. We forget that those who put on masks have flaws, and become surprised and maybe even aghast when we learn how serious they may be. We also become surprised as we learn that those who may appear more flawed have good qualities and maybe even look a little more like us than we thought possible at first.

I’ve had this as a post I wanted to do for a long time, but with current events this seems to be something that is relevant. We’re coming off of the week where George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Treyvon Martin. Everyone and their brother has been giving their thoughts and opinions about the verdict, but I wonder if this kind of attitude isn’t part of the problem in the whole situation. It’s a problem when Zimmerman profiled Martin as “suspicious.” Was it race, age, build, clothing, being out while raining? We may never know, but something caused Zimmerman to make a shallow characterization of Martin. As we all know this led to the death of Martin and the nation has been divided on what happened and whether justice has truly been done ever since.

However, the media has done a good amount of shallow characterizations too. It seemed that Martin was portrayed early as this innocent kid (including use of an earlier photo of Martin). The narrative became more conflicted as another narrative was Martin the thug. In both these cases it seemed that the point was trying to get some sort of idealized (either good or bad) portrayal of Martin. It seemed neglected that he was a person both with flaws and positives. Zimmerman got this same treatment, and he was presented as a racist. Could this be true? Sure, it could be and as I said something must have made Zimmerman be suspicious of and follow Martin. But it doesn’t seem like people really cared about the truth of this claim. It was more about shallow characterization. It was almost like we had to have a label to give Zimmerman in order to distance his actions from the actions that any one of us could do.

Now I’d like to say that this kind of shallow characterization only happens in divisive court cases, but sadly I see it all over the place. You can see it when people attack others for their views, like those who hold them aren’t people, but simply something to be argued against. Labels are tossed around and summarily dismissed. These labels take different forms depending on who is using them. Maybe they’ll look like “fundamentalist”, “feminist”, “evangelical”, “heretic”, “atheist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “bigot”, or any other label that may be tossed around these days (these labels can be used positively too, but it just depends on who is using them). We don’t look at each person as a person, rather we want to label them, characterize them, and then classify them as friend or enemy with as little interaction as possible.

This is tough not to do. I know I do this at times, and I’m pretty sure we all will. It’s just too easy sometimes to look at people as labels or caricatures. We want to get to what we disagree with or what we think they did wrong. The reality is that we’re all people, we can’t forget that. As I said it doesn’t negate our responsibility when we do thing wrong, but it should give us a deeper insight as we look at others as a complex individual instead of just the label of the day. I think that remembering that people are people will help us when we open our Bibles and look at the stories of men and women who lived long ago, and will help us look at those around us today with eyes that are ready to see a person there, in all the mess and beauty that brings.

Negativity and Impatience

I am concerned about a climate that seems to have gripped our country. Perhaps it is an attitude that is beyond the borders of our nation and extends further than this time frame, but it seems as though the attitudes of negativity and impatience have become fixtures in our daily lives.

Perhaps the most public display of this is in political realm. Politicians work harder it seems to discredit and undermine each other rather than attempting to work together and compromise. It is easy to only blame the politicians, but often we on the other side of things are just as bad. It is easy to read the comments section of any political news article and see Republicans blaming Democrats, Democrats blaming the Republicans, people blaming the poor or the rich, these “discussions” often just become cesspools of negativity. Then add to the mix that we want results at the snap of a finger and fail to realize that change and perhaps particularly good change takes time. In the end it seems like all this does is create a cycle of negativity and impatience, we may go into things with high hopes, as many did with Obama, but when things are rushed so as to not make the impatient people angry all it does is create a lot of negativity for those who view a situation differently. Sadly it appears to wind up creating people who are elected not because of their views or experience, but rather on who they are not.

Let us depart from politics though. This attitude also seems to follow us to our workplaces. How do I know this since I am not currently working, well for one I’ve worked before and for another my wife does work. It is easy to see people in the same workplace make snap judgments about one another rather than even attempt to understand that person or why they may have acted a certain way in that situation. It is also not uncommon for people to act as though they were in a competing workplace instead of a workplace that is all working together for a similar goal. They talk about one another behind people’s backs, make snap judgments, complain, or just don’t do their job well because of their dissatisfaction. This doesn’t mean that there are not places for some of these things in certain circumstances, but all too often in these circumstances positives steps are ignored in favor of negativity and a desire not to have to go to all the work of having to understand a person or a situation.

Perhaps most sadly, is that this attitude is alive and healthy in the church as well. It is perhaps easy to think about the reaction to Rob Bell’s Love Wins here, but I’m not necessarily talking about that, even though it is an example. What about our reactions to changes that are happening in church or perhaps changes that are not happening that we want to see? How do we react to those changes? Sadly it seems that too many times we react with negativity, a complaining spirit, trying to undermine leadership or one another, and a desire to ramrod our change through simply because of our preferences or idea of what we should do. It can be seen in people who only ever speak up to say something negative that they think should be done a certain way, rather than being a voice of encouragement and someone you can count on when things are going well.

As I said perhaps this isn’t anything new, but it just seems to be that it is a prevailing thing in our day. I’m not even presenting this as a negative diatribe to everyone out there. I even feel the pull to react negatively or impatiently with things I see, but what good does that do? With all these cases it is so easy to criticize, make snap judgments, and be impatient. We need to be willing to work together for positive change, putting ourselves out there beside those working for change instead of being armchair commentators, perhaps most of all we need to realize that change does and should take time. It is the harder path for certain and there will be people who bring you down because of that, but I firmly believe that it is a path we need to and should take. You can’t stop all the negativity that others do around you, but it can start with us.