Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.

Legalism vs Purpose

In this post I wanted to consider what I believe to be one of most critical lessons in the Bible on how to actually interpret the Bible itself: we must look for the purpose as we read scriptures. I intend to do some other posts that will build on this principle, so I wanted to layout this post as a foundation for later posts.

One of the key narratives from the gospels is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and their legalism. Traditionally, when we speak of legalism in the church, it is contrasted with grace. And Paul clearly teaches us to leave behind legalism and accept grace. Paul’s challenge to legalism addresses the issue of attribution of righteousness. His main focus was on helping us to see that we would not attain righteousness on our own, but only through the grace of Christ.

However, Jesus addresses a distinctly different issue, as he confronts the Pharisees. A substantial portion of the gospels is devoted to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (and Sadducees). This rebuke perhaps reaches a climax in Matthew 23, which is entirely devoted to this subject. Interestingly though, this chapter (and most other passages) never says that the problem with Pharisees is that they aren’t relying on grace for righteousness. Jesus never tells the pharisees that their righteousness is insufficient, and that they need to lean on faith in Christ instead. As far as I can tell, he never tells them anything remotely close to this. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of many things, including pride and hypocrisy, but one of the biggest issue addressed in this chapter is how they’ve been following the law. Jesus accuses them of observing the law legalistically without any concern for the purpose of the law. This is less of an issue of attributing righteousness to one-self (although their pride does indicate that is an problem), and more to do with purpose, and looking below the surface to see what God was revealing through the law. This is more than an issue of attitude, but Jesus is actually saying that they aren’t even interpreting and obeying the law correctly.

Jesus demonstrates a correct interpretation and obedience to the law, in contrast to the Pharisees, in the beginning of Matthew 12. Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. According to the shallow interpretation of the Pharisees, this was a clear violation of the 4th (or 3rd, depending on your tradition) commandment. But Jesus says that they are not understanding the law properly, they need to look deeper, to understand the *purpose* of the 4th commandment. He corrects them, saying that the purpose of this law is that the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). Note again, Jesus doesn’t make any suggestion of eliminating the law, that grace will replace the law, or any such thing. His point is very clear: we must look to the purpose that is being revealed by ordinances, and not just at the surface statement of behavior.

Going back to Matthew 23, there are a number of examples of how Jesus criticizes legalistic shallowness and points to deeper purpose. He condemns a legalistic approach to tithing, where even herbs are tithed (Matt 23:23), and points to the deeper purpose of tithing: to pursue justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He condemns the legalistic obsession with cleanliness (Matt 23:24-26), while pointing to the deeper purpose of being cleansed from greed and self-indulgence.

To reiterate this point, according to Jesus’ teachings, we are and will fail to obediently submit to God if we only mechanically follow the surface readings of ordinances and rules without seeking to understand the purpose of these rules, and the deeper concepts and truths that they are seeking to reveal about God and His Kingdom. This is true regardless of whether these rules are found in the Old or New Testament. Jesus’ teaching on obedience holds true for the whole of scriptures.

It is worth pointing out that Jesus’ different angle of condemnation of legalism than Paul’s is not contradictory, but instead is a foundation. Demonstrating how our mechanical legalism falls far short of true obedience to the deeper concepts that these laws reveal, provides foundational proof of how desperately we need the grace that counters attributive legalism. Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees gives us an important lesson on legalism.

As we read the Bible, let us not treat the Bible like the Pharisees, who viewed it as instructions to mechanically follow for divine favor, but rather see every law, story, parable, and exhortation as a revelation of who God is and what His purpose is, and how we can join in that. We must constantly be seeking to understand what scriptures is telling us about God, for this its purpose. If we simply go through the motions of obeying Biblical rules, without regard for understand the purpose behind these rules, we have come no closer to God’s intent for scriptures than if we were to ignore them altogether.

More to come…

Assessing Belief Importance

Inevitably in our interaction with other Christians, we will encounter differences in beliefs on different questions and issues. Some of the differences may be minor, and some may be more significant. But how do we assess how important a given difference really is?

This has been a particularly interesting question for me lately, we have been reviewing applicants for the position of pastor at our church. With this process, we have been reviewing many statements of doctrine, philosophy of ministry, sermons, and other communications that express a variety of beliefs. With the large number of different beliefs that can be covered, we naturally occasionally encounter some that we perhaps disagree with to some extent. But how important is that?

We often tend expend to a large amount of energy in establishing and defending our beliefs, with the main focus on whether something is right or wrong. But how do we know how important each of these beliefs are? How do we determine which ones are critical, and which ones aren’t?

Typically, these decisions seem to be prone to be a very subjective and vague determination, directed by pretty unhelpful measures, like how strange I think someone’s view is. Those seeking to be more objective, may choose to apply a more verifiable standard. We can divide issues into essential and non-essential, with the essential beliefs typically being something along the lines of a statement of faith, or orthodox creed.

While this is a helpful step, and a great and simple way to describe the variation that exists, a simple binary division still does not address the fact that our beliefs exist on a wide spectrum of importance. Many beliefs might be considered non-essential, but still could have a very large impact on our perspective and behavior. Beliefs can range from totally shaping our lives, to being very important, to somewhat important, to slightly important, to completely irrelevant. Placing beliefs on this spectrum requires a closer look than just determining if it is part of a statement of faith.

For a more objective assessment, I would suggest three measures:

  • Epistemic: This is an assessment of how confident we can really be in our position. Some beliefs can be easily corroborated, having been upheld by centuries of orthodoxy, and we may hold these beliefs with greater confidence. Other beliefs may be more esoteric, or have been hotly contested, with many brilliant people evenly divided on both sides of a belief. It is sometimes foolish and arrogant to claim a strong confidence in the latter beliefs.
  • Theological: The theological measure is an assessment of how a belief affects our perspective of God. How much does this belief shape our image of God? However, we must be very careful with this measure, often this can easily turn into a circular logic fallacy attempt to defend a belief, with both sides thinking their perspective is most God glorifying because they think it is true.
  • Empirical: The empirical measure is an assessment of how much we can actually measure a real distinction in behavior due to a belief. Does a particular belief cause truly distinct behavior? We must exercise caution here as well. We frequently tend to expect a certain behavior, based on our own understanding of someone’s belief. We can easily fail to look no further than our expectation, or even allow our expectation to bias our interpretation of behavior. However, to properly assess a belief by this measure, we must make an honest look at if behavior is really affected by the belief.

Hopefully these measures might provide a little more objectivity as you consider which beliefs are important and really how important they are. There are certainly beliefs that are indeed are very important, and others that are not worth much energy. Are there any other measures that you would apply?

Systemic Injustice

When someone harms someone else, they should be punished.

This is perhaps the most basic and instinctive description of justice, and virtually everyone, every culture, every religion would agree with this notion. As Christians we are called to pursue justice, but we face the common trap of simply allowing our definition of justice to be defined by our culture. The Bible calls us to a much deeper and nuanced understanding of justice.

To put it in simple logical terms, justice is a battle against injustice. When see injustice in the world, it is our natural instinct to try to find the perpetrator and punish him. And indeed, this is extremely valuable. But, we must not think this is the end of the battle against injustice. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul makes one of the profound and powerful statements about the real source of evil and injustice:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Paul clearly articulates our natural instinct, that our fight against injustice is against specific individuals, and then directly refutes it. Quite simply, Paul says, fighting injustice by merely fighting against specific individuals is misguided. There is someone else to blame.

This by no means easy or natural. Our instinctive appeal to justice is naturally drawn toward finding blame with someone, some individual that we can point a finger at, accuse, and punish. When the Bible refutes this instinct, it goes against our instincts. And it is always hard to go beyond our intuitions, and look deeper. While it is certainly true that restraining individuals is critical part of pursuing justice, it is important to understand, from scriptures, that the primary forces of evil aren’t originated in individuals schemes, but the systemic and pervasive strategies and schemes of powers and principalities.

Not only does the human tendency towards blame-based injustice point the blame in the wrong direction, it can also lead to wrongly dismissing injustice. As many voice the frustrations and pain of pervasive and systemic injustice that has been sown, a frequent response is to distill this down to individuals. When others look for individual perpetrators and their intentional acts of evil and can’t find them, then they can easily and wrongly assume that injustice must not exist. This, according to scriptures, is a false conclusion. The vindication or condemnation of individuals and their acts of injustice can neither verify nor confirm the much more widespread and insidious reality of systemic injustice.

So does this mean the battle against injustice is hopeless? Without being able to fully address injustice by tracking down and punishing villains, are we without any real concrete means for bringing greater justice and righteousness into the world? John provides further insight, that points to where we go from here, in 1 John 3:8 (b):

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

To understand this verse, imagine for a bit that there was a developer that was having a new housing development built, but realized it was being built with rotten wood that would not stand. So he hired a demolition crew to come in, and destroy the house. Now imagine the developer shows up to check on the demolition crew and finds them sitting around looking at the building, and so he asks when they are going to start tearing down the building. They respond saying that their approach is to carefully avoid adding any more rotten wood to the construction. The developer might say that is well and good, but he wants it torn down. The crew again responds that they don’t want to actually tear anything down, that the problem was the improper building materials, and so they think the best thing to do is to make sure they don’t add anymore faulty materials to the building. Of course at this point, the developer would naturally fire this crew, and look for someone that would actually destroy the building and not just avoid causing any further problems.

Likewise, let’s consider what John is saying about Jesus’ purpose. He doesn’t say that Jesus came to *avoid* the devil’s work. John’s description of His purpose is completely different than suggesting he came to try to get people to avoid contributing to the devil’s and encouraging people to avoid sinning and harming others. This isn’t even remotely close to what John says. John says that Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. This isn’t just avoiding complicity, it is actively undoing and destroying and tearing down the fruit and consequences of the devil’s labor, work, and efforts.

So what is the devil’s work? To be clear, it is not simply some abstract offense against God. It is the real pain and frustration we experience in our lives and in our world. If we are willing to listen attentively, it is not hard to see the depths of the devil’s work of injustice around us. If we are paying attention at all, we should hear the pain and frustrations of racism, inequality, abuse, and violence.

Combining these two teachings should reorient our perspective on justice, on how we respond to these cries of frustration. The natural instinct to find someone to blame and give up if we can’t find a villain is misguided. Systemic injustice won’t be solved by finding a particular police officer, politician, or other leader to blame. Or even worse, it certainly won’t be addressed by blaming victims of injustice, accusing them of just getting what they deserved.

The reality is that the enemy’s strategy is pervasively and insidiously woven into society. Let’s consider the devil’s work in racism. As John Piper recently said, “Racism is part of the seamless fabric of sin in human life.” The truth is that today, most people are not intentionally engaging in racism or perpetrating inequality. And this is an important distinction to make: we generally are not actively engaging in malicious acts of racism. However, at the same time, as humans we are all prone to making imperfect judgments. We are all prone to having our judgment slightly clouded by stereotypes and fears. Of course we aren’t aware of these tendencies, we aren’t making malicious judgments, but the subtle nature of our racial tendencies is exactly why we can’t see it. We are all racists to some degree, because we are all sinners. I am racist, you are, even the greatest champions of equality have bits of racism. And we have also inherited bits of racism here and there in our society.

These slight bits of racial inequalities may seem so subtle as to be completely innocuous in isolation. But our society consists of innumerable layers. Slight differences in education, culture, family life, geography, civil treatment, inherited wealth, and so on, gradually add up. After the collective impact of dozens of layers of subtle inequality add up, the reality of racism becomes real and substantive. The final impact of these layers can easily be measured and verified and the pain and frustration of that experience are deeply grounded in reality.

Is our ability to recognize and respond to injustice, constrained by our desire to identify the perpetrator of the injustice? Again, our response can be to enter into the blame-game, and find someone to blame that will befit our ideological tendencies. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy the works of the devil. That means undoing and tearing apart the results of racism. The devil has worked to leave many minorities in the state of disadvantage and hardship. We undo and destroy that work when we work to advantage and benefit those that have been on the painful side of these disadvantages. When we defend and lift up those that society has stacked the odds against, we are destroying the devil’s work.

When we see injustice and seek to blame, we are letting powers and principalities continue their strategy. But every time we step beyond this, helping those that we might otherwise accuse, defending those that are victims of the systems and schemes of these powers, we are undermining their work and strategy. Helping those who have the odds against them is an act of destroying the devil’s work.

Adventures in Transition, Part 2

As I wrote previously, our faith family is in a time of major transition. It is both an exciting and scary adventure. It is also very insightful and as we move from one phase of this transition to another I feel like we have grown both individually and collectively. Just like an individual, a faith family should never stop growing or become stagnant. Change itself is uncomfortable and not something we will all voluntarily choose. I also don’t think that most of us voluntarily choose to settle into a rut. It is something that just happens over time. Things that you might have thought more about at one time become common, habitual and once in a while it is good to have things shaken up a little bit. While change isn’t comfortable, if we respond to it in the right way it can lead to healthy growth. And pardon me as rant for a moment, by growth I DO NOT mean people filling seats, which is probably the most common way to measure the growth of a church. What I have seen in our family is growth in spiritual maturity, in relationships, and in serving others. I’d much rather have this kind of growth than be part of a faith family that is big in attendance but shallow when it comes to the essentials of spiritual life. Rant over. 😉
Here are a few of the gems that I’ve observed in our faith family:

1.) A healthy faith family prays, lots. They pray both together and individually.  One of the best results of this transition for us is a campaign called “Take Fifteen” that encourages every person to commit 15 minutes each day to praying for our body. It’s an easy commitment and we were even given specific prayer requests so it was not hard to fill that time. I hope this continues even after this transition. Prayer is powerful! This isn’t rocket science but is always a good reminder.

2.) A healthy faith family communicates properly. Gossip can do terrible, terrible damage more quickly than I think most realize. When a complaint or rumor has come up rather than spread it to neighbors and close friends the party concerned has been encouraged to take these concerns directly to the leadership or individuals involved. It has meant a LOT of meetings but it has also meant a lot of misunderstandings cleared up and further hurt avoided. Again, not a novel idea but it’s so easy to fall into gossip if we aren’t careful.

3.) A healthy faith family is quick to forgive. As I mentioned in my last post people respond to change in different ways. This is bound to cause misunderstand and assumptions to be made. As people are learning to communicate properly they are also learning to be quick to forgive and quick to ask for forgiveness. This has been one of my favorite things to observe.

4.) A healthy faith family respects other points of views. In any group with more than, well, one person you are bound to have disagreements and conflicting points of view. When it comes to the non-deal breaking theological issues we have seen many views expressed in our faith family. I have appreciated the way that we as a group have respected each other. While we might not all agree, we still love and respect each other and really, we will not know the answers to some of these questions until we can ask God directly so why cause strife in a relationship about it?

5.) A healthy faith family encourages each individual to use their gifts to bless the whole. We all have different talents. Not all of us can play the guitar, preach a sermon, say an eloquent prayer, or lead a bible study. However cleaning the upstairs bathrooms, coordinating the speaking schedule, and keeping the driveway from icing over are all just as important and it has been wonderful to see so many step up and say, “I can help out by doing that.”

6.) A healthy faith family remembers who its true leader is. At the end of this transition we will have some new leadership but really, our true leader has never changed and this whole process has been such a good reminder of that. No one individual makes up the whole faith family or should ever be the face of it. We are all members with Christ as our head and he never changes.

What Does Scripture Really Say About Profanity?

Profanity is typically condemned by Christians. However, is this view backed by scriptures? I’ve been interested in considering the verses that speak to this, and apply this to the meaning of profanity to wrestle with what scripture really says about profanity.

There are several verses that are usually quoted in regards to profanity, including Col 3:8, Eph 4:29, and Eph 5:4. So do these verses really condemn profanity? They do indeed speak to the subject. But, what Paul actually condemns isn’t exactly “profanity”, but rather “filthy” or “corrupting” speech. Quite simply, it is just not accurate to precisely equate these concepts with the English tabooed four-letter words. Furthermore, if we were to back-translate our English profanity into Hebrew and Greek, we would find these words actually appear in scripture. Relevant magazine has a great post explaining how profanity is used in scriptures, and particularly even by Paul. The scriptures on this subject, are not concerned with outlawing certain words, but directing the content of what we say.

We have a tendency to interpret these verses as a banned list of words due to our tendency to be attracted to legalism over relationship. Legalism is attractive because it allows us to define a specific set of actions that we avoid or participate in to gain divine favor. Unfortunately legalism always separates us from God, because it is about mechanism to achieve benefits, rather than God Himself. A relational understanding is more difficult, because we have to seek to understand the purpose behind scriptures. As we look at these verses, we must seek to understand the purpose that God is seeking for speech, rather than just trying to simplify into a legalistic definition of acceptable and unacceptable words.

Again, the words used in these verses indicate that we are to avoid corrupting or filthy speech. This points to avoiding communicating a message or ideas that are degrading to other people, or degrading the beauty or purity of situations or moments.

To consider how this intersects with English profanity, and its usage, let’s consider some of the reasons why profanity is typically used:

    • To express intense and strong emotions–It is not uncommon for people to exclaim expletives, that have absolutely nothing to do with the sexual or excretory meaning of the word, but rather to express their extreme emotional experience. The Bible is filled with intense emotional experiences, that are readily expressed, and it would seem rather absurd to suggest that the Bible wants to condemn language that communicates intense emotion. And again, it would appear that Paul even demonstrated the use of expletives to express his intense emotions.
    • As a social cue–Often profanity is used as a signal of association with lower status or classes. Profanity is partly defined by the cultural selection of words that are acceptable for “civilized conversation”. Profanity is sometimes used as a way of indicating affinity with a lower class, as opposed to upper class that wouldn’t use such language. Interestingly, this type of association is actually Biblical. Jesus explicitly identified himself with “the least of these”, and Paul’s word selection may have been, in part, an act of this identification, demonstrating that though he used to be an elite Pharisee, he now identified with the commoner.

While these are some situations where it seems to me that profanity can be used appropriately, there are certainly situations where it is used destructively.

  • Degradation of others–“F*** you” is almost always used for the purpose of degrading or insulting another person. It is not simply an expression of emotion or association. It is used to maximize insult. Also, in general, sexual profanity is frequently employed in ways that degrade women, implicitly or explicitly reducing them to having nothing more than sexual amusement.
  • To degrade conversations–This certainly isn’t specific to profanity; crude humor, and even just careless joking, can often move a conversation from meaningful to meaningless, or from beauty to parody very quickly. Again, this isn’t about specific words, but we should aspire to avoid to being a force that is pushing the conversation towards the meaningless, and there are indeed words that can be more likely to move in that direction. For example, sexually-based profanity often functions to degrade the beauty and value of sex.
  • To be offensive–This is not an absolute intrinsic evil of profanity, plenty of people are not offended by profanity, and we can not condemn profanity for being offensive if no one around us is offended. This is relative to the audience. However, if you are aware that your audience may be offended, a loving approach to your audience demands avoiding needless offense. Now, it is worth remembering that sometimes offense is needed. The Bible has numerous messages that can be offensive and hard to hear. However, in general gratuitous or unnecessary offenses that only become barriers to more important communication, should be avoided. If you prefer to refrain from using profanity (as I do), this might be a good reason.

These are some guidelines that I think could be applied to profanity. Hopefully that might give us some ideas for looking at these scriptures with deeper, more relational understanding. As Solomon said, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens”, and most likely this concept applies to profanity as well.

Adventures in Transition, Part 1

A mentor and very wise woman I know has this phrase as her email signature line:

“From a distance it looks like an adventure … up close it is filled with challenges”

I think she may have even been the one who originally said it. Did I mention that she is very wise (and also doing some awesome things in the country of Uganda)? Anyway, I’ve thought of this saying often in the last three months as our faith family experiences some very big transitions. Typically I think that transition is fun and exciting, especially  when I am anticipating it. However when it’s out of the blue, forced upon me, it’s another story. This transition in our faith family was big and nothing short of a shock that left many people feeling hurt, abandoned and confused. To be honest I am very excited about where this will lead our community. I am excited about  the many opportunities to grow and experience a level of freedom we’ve not know for a very long time. From a distance it looks like a fun adventure….

…but up close, in the day to day interactions, it is filled with challenges. Relationships are messy and church is weird. It doesn’t function quite like a business or workplace nor does is it fully function as a family. Navigating the ins and outs of daily church decisions and relationships can be tricky. I’m sure this is true any time but it is magnified when there is a transition.

I am learning and seeing that people respond to change in different ways. Some people embrace the change and use it as a impetus to change lots of areas. They tend to think, since A is changing we might as well make changes to B and C as well. They may even change things not because they need to be changed but simply because they can be changed.  In this way they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time. Other people respond in pretty much the completely opposite way. Feeling shaken up by the changes they have experienced can lead them to cling tightly to all that is familiar.  Any new changes, even small ones, feel huge and uncomfortable. They resist change because the last change was hard and uncomfortable. They tend to think, why would we want to change anything else right now? By holding tight to everything that remains familiar they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time.

Now take all these people, who really both have the same end goal of feeling secure, and encourage them to be an active participant in this faith family. Ask them to contribute and use their gifts and insights, tell them to “get off the bench and into the game” and imagine what happens. Challenges. Lots of them.

Challenges are not bad. They are great opportunities to grow and learn. What is bad is when people in the first group see the people in the second group as sticks in the mud that they can’t work with. Or when people in the second group see the actions of those in the first group as reckless and disrespectful. What we need to see, what I’m trying desperate to remember during this time, is that we need each other. We balance each other out and together make a fuller, more accurate representation of Christ than we could ever do alone. Isn’t that our goal in the end, to look more like Christ?

So perhaps up close all we can see is a bunch of messy brush strokes that seem too dull and too conservative or too bright and just too much but hopefully from a distance we really are a beautiful and slightly unfocused image of Christ.

Influencing Government: A Resource

In my last post, I looked at how 1 Samuel 8 provides a clear warning against appointing and choosing leaders who pursue greater power through military strength, and through extraction of resources for the benefit of themselves, the elite. Now, I want to consider how the New Testament guides our understanding of how we are to use our resources, which includes influencing the government. First, though, there are certainly no direct explicit statements in the New Testament about how to vote or otherwise appoint leaders. Passages like Romans 13 that most literally talk about the government, are focused on exhorting us to subject ourselves to the government, and spoken to people who basically had little to no influence on the government. However, living in democracy, we do have influence, and by properly understanding influence as a resource, there are indeed passages that can give us important guidance.

Taking a step back, I believe it is worthwhile to consider what political influence really means. In reality, influence is simply another resource that we may have, that can be used to accomplish something. Resources that God may give us include finances, talents, skills, and even influence. These things are not ends themselves, but are all resources we can use to achieve and gain other benefits. Influence should not be treated as fundamentally different than these other resources, as like other resources, it can be used to achieve a variety of goals.

From a historic perspective, living under a democracy is a unique opportunity. This opportunity affords an amazing level of influence, and this has significant value, it is a resource, a privilege that God has blessed us with. And like any valuable resource (or “talent”, as Jesus calls our resources in Matt 25), the paramount question for the Christian is how can we be good stewards of the resources we have been blessed with.

Indeed, the opportunity to live as a citizen of a democracy isn’t just an abstract nicety, it has a real, quantifiable value. The US government administrates about 3 and a half trillion dollars a year (about $3,770,000,000,000 in 2014) in the federal budget alone, which comes out to over $25,000 per registered voter per year. That means that as an American citizen, in a democracy, where power comes from the people, the value or quantity of your influence in the governing process is over 25 grand, and even more if you are more proactive in interacting with law-makers. And that is just for the federal government and their budgetary decisions, our potential influence extends to other government desisions as well as to the state and local governments.

Influence in democracy is a resource, and as you can see, is actually a very large and substantial resource. As an American citizen, this influence is a definite and even large form of wealth. Again, as a follower of Christ, the question is how to be a good steward of our resources or wealth, including this one. And just like the question of how we will spend our money, how will we spend our political influence?

When it comes to money, most people will spend their money on themselves, on what will benefit themselves. The same is true with politics, the majority of people’s political leanings are generally very easy to predict based simply on what candidate or party will benefit them the most. But Christ calls us to something different, and He didn’t shy away from the subject of how to use our resources, our wealth. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how to use what God has given us.

One possible choice for our political wealth is simply to do nothing, to be apolitical. Unlike material wealth, to forgo political wealth and influence, implicitly means that influence is handed over to others, to make decisions and assert their influence (influence is a zero-sum game). While this is deeply anathema to the American ideals of asserting your opinions and desires, to give away our wealth, to submit to the preferences is actually a very Biblical approach. Christ consistently taught us to live self-sacrificially, to be generous with what we have, and to defer to other’s desires instead of our own.

However, if we are to follow the words of Christ closely, I think we can do even better. And this is where we can turn to one of the most pointed and direct statements to one who has great wealth. In Luke 18:18-23, Jesus encounters the “rich young ruler”. This story is powerful and challenging, giving direction towards the wealthy to be incredibly and radically generous. However, we should also not miss the fact that Luke specifically indicates that this man was not only wealthy, but was said to be politically powerful.

What Jesus doesn’t say is just as compelling as what he does say. Certainly, meeting with a high ranking official would be an exciting opportunity for any of us. Jesus has encountered a powerful leader, and not only that, but this leader has basically asked Him what to do. Imagine if a leader wanted such open advice from you. Jesus could have easily responded and asked the leader to provide greater religious liberty for his followers, legislate scriptural commandments and morality, and maybe even offer tax deductions for the religious groups. Jesus certainly knew that great persecution was on the way, a real painful persecution that makes our petty complaints about religious infringements trivial in comparison. But Jesus, even knowing this (and he even foretold this of persecution), sought none of these things. His final command:

You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.

While this statement is unique in how challenging it is, it is quite normal in terms of the common theme of Jesus’ teaching and ways to characterize a Kingdom-oriented lifestyle as living on behalf of those in need (which has many dimensions, spiritual, emotional, relational, economic, and liberty). Here he teaches us to be generous, not living for ourselves, and specifically directs the one with wealth towards using their resources for the benefit of those without.

So how does this principle apply to different types of resources? We are called to use our resources to help those without the same kind of resource. Those with food help the hungry, those with clothing help clothe those without. Financially, the one with accumulations of money, is to help the poor. And applying this teaching to influence, a wealth of influence means power, and the call is to help and defend the powerless, the weak, the oppressed.

It is far too common to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler, claiming that Jesus asks different things of different people. And He does indeed ask for different things. However, there are perhaps few people in scripture that are more similar to most of our socio-economic positions than this rich young ruler. By any global standard, most of us have wealth that puts us in the top few percent of wealthy individuals. And that is just for this time period, if we are to compare ourselves to the rest of history (even adjusted for inflation), the typical wealth of an American is even more uniquely and exceedingly huge. The same is true of our political wealth. As calculated above, our political wealth, as citizens of America is very large (and potentially even larger if we are actively engaged). While we don’t know the exact position of the rich young ruler, if he was merely a municipal official, it is quite possible that simply being an American citizen entitles you to greater political power and wealth than this man. The story of the Jesus and the rich young ruler, is about as close as we can come to a imagining a story of Jesus and the typical American. If this story doesn’t speak directly to us, challenging us, nothing in scripture is relevant to us.

Unfortunately it easy to convince ourselves that we are acting “Christian” in our politics because we support candidates and policies that benefit us and our Christian friends, when in fact, this self-benefiting focus is precisely the opposite of the self-sacrificial ethos, living for those at need, at the core of Jesus teaching.

Therefore let’s recognize that we, in fact, do have great political wealth, like the rich young ruler, and then heed the words of Jesus, follow Jesus. Let us not spend that wealth on ourselves. If we are to spend it at all, let us use our resources rightly, our finances on behalf of the poor and our influence on behalf of the weak, powerless, and marginalized.

When I Want…May I

Friends, as we start a fresh week here is what’s on my mind, in my heart and in my prayers: 

When I  feel like yelling, may I whisper.

When I want to push THAT person away because they are driving me crazy, may I draw them closer (maybe physically, maybe relationally).

When I want to judge, may I try to look at it from their perspective.

When I want to vent (aka gossip), may I keep my mouth closed.

When I want to assume, may I look for the best.

When I want to criticize, may I compliment.

When I want to give advise, may I slow down to listen and empathize.

When I want to compare, may I choose to be thankful.

When I want to respond emotionally, may I consider their emotions first.

When I want to complain, may I consider what I am willing to do to fix the problem.

When I want to indulge, may I consider those who don’t have enough.

When I want to worry, may I instead pray.

I pray that this week is a week of peace, healing, and steadiness for you as well as for myself. 

 

Electing Government: A Caution

With another election approaching, I wanted to write again about Biblical perspectives on elections. In the past, I have written about key Biblical principles that can be applied to discerning how to approach and prioritize different issues. Applying these broad Biblical themes is critical to seeing policy issues properly, rather than just pursuing what we want and calling it “Christian”. This year I would like to take a couple of posts to deal with a some Bible passages that perhaps most directly deal with the question of specifically how Christ followers should approach the action of electing and influencing government leaders. One passage is from the Old Testament, and the second from the New. The first passage is a warning, and the second is an exhortation to positive action.

Probably the most direct and applicable statement in the Old Testament to the question of electing officials is found in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Here, the Israelites have asked for a king (vs 5). God then responds to their request, through Samuel. God’s response begins with a rebuke of the Israelites for rejecting the current theocratical structure (vs 7-8). But God tells Samuel to proceed with their request (vs 9, which may partly be due to the corruption that was occurring in Samuel’s sons, vs 3). However God makes plain the most dangerous pursuits of government leaders, and clearly warns them of what to be wary of in leaders.

The first caution, in verses 11 and 12 warns against leaders who would use their position of authority to invest in military might. It is one of the most common base tendencies of man to hunger for power. After successfully winning a leadership position, the next step in this pursuit is always to extend that power over other countries or regions. This hunger for more power, as sought through military strength, is precisely what God is warning against. And this is warning is against appointing or electing those that would either seek the enlargement of military might in terms of soldier count (“he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots”, vs 11), or those that would seek to expand the economic investment in military might (“to make his implements of war” vs 12).

The clear warning of 1 Samuel 8:11-12 is against establishing leaders who want to expand and grow the military. And there is probably no place on earth (and maybe even in history) where this warning is more pertinent. The US spends around $600 billion dollars a year on the military, more than the next top ten militaries in the world combined. Our obsession and spending on military might is unparalleled. Some have estimated that we spend 50 times as much on war as peace-keeping efforts. God’s warning against this focus on power and war is not just an arbitrary decree of God, this spending has been a huge part (in the trillions) of our federal debt and the tax burden on citizens.

What is the alternative? Support leaders that don’t want to invest so much in the military. As David later writes, in Psalms 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” This may sound naive to many, but this type of radical trust in God is precisely how Christians demonstrate their faith.

The next verses in this passages, from 13 to 18 warn against choosing leaders who would take resources from the people for their own gain, and even enslave people for their own benefit. This type of self-seeking leadership is not only unethical, but has increasingly been identified as one of the greatest hindrances to the growth of a country. One of the most influential books on developing economies in recent years was Why Nations Fail which defined a contrast between extractive and inclusive economies. They showed how throughout history, extractive economies where institutions and laws were established to primarily benefit the elite consistently lead to failed states with corruption, poverty, and violence. On the other hand, inclusive economies, that are structured such that the majority benefit from the resources and efforts of the economy, consistently flourish and enjoy growth and peace. And interestingly, the concept and definition of extractive leadership is very closely described in these verses. The extractive leadership that God warns against in this passage is exactly what leads to failed societies.

So what types of government activity are extractive? Some may simply think that taxation in general is extractive, but this isn’t actually consistent with this passage or others. In fact, Jesus (Mark 12:17) and the epistles (Romans 13:7) both explicitly state that taxation is a legitimate function of the government. Taxes can be quite beneficially used for the common good of society. The warning in verses 13-18 are not against taxation in general, but specifically against taxation (or enslavement) that is for the purpose of benefiting just the leaders or an elite group.

Historically, America has actually done quite well at fostering an inclusive economy. We have boasted of being the land of opportunity, and indeed millions have reaped the benefits of their investments in the American economy. As a democracy, leaders are held accountable, forcing them to take more inclusive approaches to their leadership. However, we must not be complacent. The most objective measure of an extractive economy, where an elite few are receiving the fruits of the economy, is economic inequality. And, unfortunately, America has steadily been growing in economic inequality.

Some of the most significant recent economic research has shown how economic inequality can naturally grow when nothing is done to abate it. It is important to remember extractive economies can be the result of both proactive extraction from people, as well as passive acceptance of economic structures that may increasingly result in an elite few receiving the majority of resources while most people receive less.

The basic warning of verses 13 through 18, is to avoid leaders who want to lead for their own benefit, or the benefit of the elite. The opposite of these leaders are those that seek an inclusive society, who are concerned about inequality. Taken as a whole, 1 Samuel 8 is God’s warning against choosing leaders that want to invest the country’s resources and efforts into power and selfishness, who hunger for more military strength, and hoarding of resources.

This post has primarily been a caution against negative leadership and focus. In the next post, we will look at an affirmation of positive focus in government power.