Sunday, January 30, 2011

But I Don't Wanna Be a Princess...

I come from a line of strong women. On the maternal side of the family, we are direct descendants of Marie-Anne Lagimodiere. She was a French Canadian woman who bucked the tradition of her day by venturing west with her voyageur husband rather than staying back in the more "civilized" regions of Canada waiting for his return, as most wives did at that time. Due to this, they played a crucial role in establishing many cities and their children were some of the first of European heritage to be born in the western provinces. But I imagine that at the time her decision to go along for the journey was scoffed at and heavily judged because "that's just not what women do." But I think she's pretty amazing for it. When all was said and done her defiance still holds a place in her nation's history, helping it grow into what it is today.

The more I look around, I see so much of that same attitude within certain Christian circles. There is this idea that there's an entire category of things reserved for men, because they are just "not what women do" or that God doesn't want women to do them. As a woman, this has a big impact on me because it boils down to what positions, identities, and societal roles I'm allowed and/or expected to take on.

I know that people can be very defensive on this matter and I'm well aware of the arguments on both sides of the issue. But I can't help but wonder why we are so willing to accept this view that the New Testament verse that instructs women to always cover their head in prayer or worship is a cultural concept that no longer applies, but those that instruct women not teach men and to quietly submit to them are seen as completely valid in this day and age.  (Is it because if the head covering instructions were still valid, then the instructions in the same section for men not to have long hair would infringe on the hipster style of a lot of young Evangelical leaders?)

I know this may sound controversial, but I truly believe that the way in which American Evangelical Culture tries to teach gender roles is very capable of creating a sort of identity crisis for females. In many circles, the identities they are allowed to assume are extremely limited. I never knew these sorts of view were still being taught to the degree that they are in some circles until I started encountering them more frequently at Conservative Christian College. (Although I will say that I think there are many others like myself who refuse to abide by these narrow definitions, which is what helped me survive surrounded by them.)

Here are some identities that were consider acceptable and/or actively promoted:

1. Princess

This was a play off the idea that God is king and we are all his sons and daughters. Therefore, all girls are princesses. It was a spiritual way to buy into the Disney hype many of this generation already have in their psyche without having to step on the toes of any Southern Baptists who may still be boycotting Disney. This was a great option for girls who were raised with strict ideas of what roles were allowed to each gender and to those who were anxiously awaiting their prince. The problem is apart from being a "daughter of the King" this role isn't defined. I can't imagine the most godly way to live would be under what our society knows/has known of the role of princesses which didn't amount to much more than a self-indulgent life of idleness and luxury that is often completely dependent upon men. On the flip side, I have never heard any Evangelical leader try to get young men to embrace their identity as a prince. If someone has (especially if you have a link to sermon audio/video/text) I would love to know.

2. Wife in Waiting

This actually closely ties into princess in many ways. I'm not in any way trying to put down the institution of marriage or families. I have nothing against either and in fact support both. But I can't help but think that if you rest the vast majority of your identity in your marital status or children, it's going to create some problems. I saw many girls in college who, with the best of intentions, seemed to constantly be trying to prove what a great wife and/or mother they would be. Some would do so to the point where they were cooking, cleaning, and even doing laundry for guys. When a friend who was going to be an Resident Assistant the following year asked me what advice I would give to her freshman girls, I replied, "No laundry before marriage." We both laughed. But my point was that it creates a very unhealthy relationship that can often lead to girls constantly seeking a boy's approval while he is in a position that easily allows him to take advantage of her. I even knew a guy in college who used to walk around during visitation hours (we'll get to that later) and write on the girls' message boards "Bake me a cake" along with his name and phone number. I was appalled and asked him why he did that. He replied "Because a lot of the time it works. I've gotten a lot of cakes." Some of these girls really thought he would be impressed with them. In actuality, he wasn't even really paying attention. He just wanted some cake.
Apart from that, we should probably consider whether it's worth the tens of thousands of dollars a year that private Christian colleges cost just to try to learn how to be a good wife and/or to find a husband.

3. The Proverbs 31 Woman

This is a often pointed to passage as to what a woman should be. And this is one of the few identities that I actually like, a lot. But I seem to interpret these verses much differently than most I met at CCC. When I hear people talk about this passage, they seem to say it supports the idea of a woman isn't obsessed with outward appearance and takes care of her household and family (i.e. cooks, cleans, and raises kids). But look at these verses. They also talk of an industrious, creative, and hardworking woman. These passages clearly talk of a women who looks into land investments and buys one (no mention of her husband being involved in that deal). They speak of a woman who works on that same land (aka outside of the home) and uses what it produces to make a profit (once again, husband not mentioned in this work). It speaks of a woman who not only makes goods for use in her house, but also makes goods which she in turn goes out into the city to sell. This isn't your happy homemaker who is just waiting for her husband to get home. She sees what needs to be done and does it rather than waiting for her husband to take charge in every single matter. While he is conducting his business, she conducts hers. In the end it says she deserves honor and praise. Why? Because of the work her hands have done. Enough said.

 Those are the main ones that come to mind, although I'm sure there are others. Tomorrow I'll discuss some of the negative identities I saw given to women at CCC. This isn't an attempt to vilify men or those who believe strongly in established gender roles. It's just to say that some of us don't and we still seek to follow God. I wanted to talk about the expectations of women in American Evangelical Culture, because they really can put a lot of strain on some women or make others feel like they don't belong in the church at all. How sad.

I'll probably talk some more about this topic as I keep writing, because established gender roles and in some cases indulgence in sexist language/behavior were one major thing that made me feel like a misfit in the Evangelical world. I was always taught growing up that I should never assume I couldn't do something just because I was a girl. (Thank you, Mom and Dad!) Suddenly I was in a world where people were telling me precisely that. Based on some of the articles and videos I've seen being passed around lately on the internet, this idea that we need to put men back in their "rightful role" seems to be gaining some traction with well known church leaders and organizations. (I'll discuss that later as well.) If we believe that women are created in the image of God, with a worth and value all their own, is that reflected in our churches? Do we treat them as such? If you're a woman, do you feel valued as such? I think those are questions worth considering.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Why Would Jesus Say That To Me? Edition

If you've spent any time in American Evangelical Culture, you've seen a lot of odd, amusing, or groan inducing t-shirts. Which is why today I'm kicking off Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday.

From c28

The basis for this design is part of Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) 8:3, which is printed in small type in the corner of the shirt and reads "love is as strong as death. its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame."

It's unclear where the hurricane metaphor came from or whether this would be a big seller on the Gulf Coast. But by far, the biggest problem I have with this t-shirt is that I can't see it without immediately thinking of this:


Sometimes Answers Aren't Necessary

On Friday, I was called and asked if I was available to come in that evening and cover the front desk at church during a visitation. They wanted to make sure that someone was there to answer the phone, give directions, or answer questions. This was especially important because a large number of people were expected to attend and most were not members of our church. Whose funeral could bring so many people from outside our congregation? That of an 18 year old girl who took her own life.

Funerals are always hard. But when the victim is so young and the cause was so preventable, it's even worse. At the same time, I was thankful that the family was there. We have a head pastor who has also had a child who took her own life. They truly do have someone who can say "I know how you feel." I'm also thankful that we have a congregation that recognizes and tries to remove the stigma of mental illness. This is not always the case in many American Evangelical circles, which is a topic I will address in a later post.

Being in that environment was surreal. As I sat at the front desk, I decided to open the Book of Job. It only seemed appropriate to revisit the story of a man who loses virtually everything. And as I read those words and looked at the gathering of people around me, I realized that the biggest mistake some Christians make during times of loss and grief is trying to provide people with answers.

It really struck me as I was reading the exchanges between Job and his friends after they came to comfort him. The text indicates that when they initially came to support their friend, they sat with him saying nothing. Many of us can relate to that experience and in times of fresh grief I think that's really the only thing you can do. There's a scene in the movie "Lars and the Real Girl" where the main character is facing loss. He comes downstairs to find a bunch of women from his church sitting in his  living room they have the following exchange:
Hazel: Well, that's how life is, Lars.
Mrs. Gruner: Everything at once.
Sally: We brought casseroles.
Lars: Thank you. [looks around the sewing circle. The three ladies are knitting and doing needlepoint] Um, is there something I should be doing right now?
Mrs. Gruner: No, dear. You eat.
Sally: We came over to sit.
Hazel: That's what people do when tragedy strikes.
Sally: They come over, and sit.
I think that's true. When tragedy strikes, people come and sit. They provide food. They listen. They tell you how sorry they are, but what they usually don't (and shouldn't) do is provide explanations. That was where Job's friends went wrong.

I believe that his friends had the best of intentions when they came to sit with him. But as the days went on, they decided it was time to try to find an explanation to such a tragedy. They expressed their belief that God protects his faithful from calamity and that if only Job would look to God, he would be restored. What are the implications of such a claim? That Job hadn't previously been looking to God or that he had somehow betrayed God with his sin. What a hurtful thing to hear from your friends when you've already lost nearly everything.

I've heard similar things happen in some Christian circles. Although "Everything happens for a reason" or "God uses everything for good" may be spoken with the best of intentions, it can come across extremely callous to a parent who is placing their child in a coffin and confronting the death of all the dreams they had for his/her future. On a related note, I would advise any Evangelical to NEVER ask a grieving family member if their loved one "was a Christian/saved" unless they are prepared for the possibility that the answer is "no." Even then, I probably wouldn't recommend it. I know that that question is asked with the intent of reassuring someone with the belief that they are in heaven, but the flip side is inflicting even more pain by reminding them in the midst of such fresh and painful grief that you believe their loved one is now experiencing eternal torment. Unless you think it would be a good idea to walk directly up to someone and say "Your loved one is in hell." (I'm looking at you, Westboro Baptist Church) don't ask grief stricken families if they're loved ones were "saved."

All that to say that many who dwell in Evangelical America spend a lot of time pouring over their Bibles and memorizing verses under the idea that what the world needs is answers. I don't think that's necessarily the case, especially in times of pain. Most of the world has heard your answers. What they may not have experienced is a love that puts others ahead of oneself. I believe that is the true love Christ taught and that living it out would have a much greater impact than simply saying the right thing.

Also, if you or someone you know struggles with depression or mental illness. There is no shame in that. There's no shame in seeking help. It's not indicative of a personal weakness. And regardless of what you may think, many people really would be heartbroken if you were no longer around. I saw that first hand Friday night.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What Would Jesus Buy Saturday: My Eternal Future's So Bright I've Gotta Wear Shades Edition

Disciple Shades, that is.

As you can see, each pair features a bible verse printed on the inside.

And don't worry. If you're a little less Palm Beach and a little more Barnes & Noble (or should I say a little less spring break outreach and a little more small group Bible study?), they also make Disciple Readers.

But I must congratulate the company on going for the motto "Live in the Light," rather than taking the route of all the obvious and overused Sun/Son puns.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Problem of Being "Set Apart"

When I attended Conservative Christian College, I heard a lot of talk about how we were set apart. We were called to be holy in such a dark lost world. Theologically, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you're speaking of being set apart to serve others as an example of God's love, I have no problem with that. The real issue is in the way that being "set apart" has become synonymous with being separated from the rest of the world. The problem is that the idea of being set apart in much of American Evangelicalism has translated into the idea of living completely apart from everyone else. It has translated into a world of Christian consumerism that seeks to provide a "Christian" alternative for all that the secular community offers: music, movies, art, books, t-shirts, candy, etc. You name it, you can probably find a holier version of it through a Christian retailer.

There are many aspects of Christian consumer culture that are worth reconsidering and debating. But I don't want to get into a lengthy analysis of that. The main question that's been on my mind as I continue to see all of these Christian products and think of all the Christians I've met who have such little contact with anyone outside of their own belief system (even simply in other Christian denominations) is, "What are you hoping to accomplish through this?" If the core of Christian theology is the tangible representation of God's love to a lost and hurting world, is it really enough to live in your castle of theological superiority only emerging from time to time for street evangelism to remind the world just how lost they are?

I've been reading through the gospels again lately. And though he definitely took time away both with his core disciples and on his own to pray, I just don't see much evidence of a Jesus who tried to remain untainted by the world. I don't see a God that was fearful of getting his hands dirty. I don't see many examples of Jesus hitting the streets and shouting "Listen up! I'm going to tell you why you are all terrible sinners in need of God!" I see a Christ who shared stories and metaphors that invited people to dig deeper to try to discover the truths they contained and reconsider their view of the world. I see a Lord that was willing to not only talk to, but also listen to those that society had cast aside as essentially being worthless. I see a Jesus who did not view the people around him as projects awaiting his salvation, but humans made in the image of God that had great value.

If anyone from religious circles today that focus so heavily on being set apart were to sit down to dinner with a group of prostitutes, I can assure you that it would likely result in a call from the elders and a listing on the prayer chain with concerns about their backsliding into immorality through association with bad influences. But if you're so concerned with the world being a bad influence on you, how are you hoping to ever be a good influence on them? Which is the greater concern? In our society, has being set apart really been about trying to maintain our holiness? Or is it about avoiding the dirt and filth (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) that comes with building relationships with many of those society has chosen to ignore? Which is the true example of Christ?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Words that Continue to Ring True

In honor of the holiday, I read Martin Luther King, Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail this morning. This was a letter that was written in response to a statement from a group of clergymen that opposed his methods of civil disobedience. As I read, it struck me that his cry for the church to speak up in the face of injustice or basically be seen as obsolete is still very applicable to many congregations today. Here are a few excerpts that caught my eye:

"So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime---the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

"In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."

"Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists."

"So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are."

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom."

"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

Interesting thoughts to consider. You can find the full text of the letter here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Would Jesus Buy Saturday: What's That in My Inbox? Edition

Today's installation is a two for one special that includes both actual products available for purchase and something available free online.

With the popularity of the Jonas Brothers in recent years, the purity ring has become a commonly known trait of American Evangelical Culture. I remember when I was growing up, the whole purity pledge idea was really gaining steam. In that culture, there are a lot of people who wear purity rings as a symbol of their commitment to abstaining from sex until marriage. Although movements like True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing are the most widely recognizable in this field, the push for purity has seen others enter the market looking for ways to keep encouraging teens to just say wait.

For one organization this comes in the form of chastity e-cards. (You read that correctly)

  Yes, has jumped into the fray, providing not only products that advertise one's commitment to abstinence (more on that later), but also e-cards that can be sent to encourage others to maintain that commitment, congratulate them on doing so, or thank a future spouse for waiting. (Although, I think I would be more than a little concerned if I received a secret admirer card congratulating me on choosing abstinence, as one option allows.)

For me, the congratulations cards raised more questions than answers. For example;

So, would you be proud that your friends are proud of you? Or creeped out that they're keeping count? Also, when does this count start? If it just marks years without sex, does that make it appropriate for a ten year old? Does it start at puberty? Or when the actual decision to abstain is made? Or is it like an AA chip, that's awarded to that one girl in youth group who was always known to "make mistakes" but is trying to get her chaste life back on track?

But as I said, they also have products for sale to help you advertise this commitment to the world. Because they may not notice your purity ring or know it's significance, but there's no missing these products:

You can find even more designs at their online store.

I want to make it clear that I'm not attempting to simply badmouth the idea of abstinence. However, for a healthy romantic relationship, I would suggest actually talking honestly with your significant other rather than sending them an email or counting on the fact that they read the message on your clothing. As far as helping teens and young adults make informed decisions, it seems to me that open non-judgemental conversation with caring adults and/or peers will go a lot further than an e-card or a t-shirt.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Identity Crisis of a Former Evangelical

Maybe you read that headline and are nodding your head in agreement. Maybe you think I'm crazy. Who knows. But the more I wrestle though this experience, the more it truly feels like an identity crisis.

When you are in the midst of American Evangelical Culture, it has the potential to create an entire reality for you. They have their own music, their own movies, their own books, their own t-shirts, their own breath mints, etc. Everything is coated with spiritual language and you are continually told to focus on the most important spiritual issues. Your identity is a Christian. That is how you identify yourself. Based on that label, many other assumptions about you are made: your views on gender, how you vote, what social activities you engage in, and many other things. You spend so much time focusing on how to be a Christian that often other aspects of your identity aren't developed as thoroughly. This is not to say that there is any problem with primarily identifying as a Christian. The problem starts when you focus not only on being Christian, but on being what the culture around you tells you is Christian.

When you live for years in an environment like Conservative Christian College, although you recognize that you don't agree with everything around you, it's constant presence can begin to permeate your life. You can find yourself thinking things automatically that surprise you or second guessing yourself. I found this happening to me. But like many people would, I would just shrug it off and assume this would pass. But the biggest problem is that if you are involved in youth group culture all throughout high school followed by Christian college when you leave, that's the environment that you spend all your most formative years in. You are surrounded by constant messages of how you should live your life. I don't just mean general guidelines, but specific societal roles as well that may or may not have anything to do with biblical Christianity. If you choose to continue your life primarily within the confines of American Evangelical Culture, this probably wouldn't be a problem.

The struggle arises the moment you realize that you can't keep living within that culture. It comes when you hear how judgemental the constant evaluation of the habits of others can make a person. It comes when you realize that the constant proclamation of "love the sinner, hate the sin" is not resulting in any love at all. It comes when you realize that you feel somewhat emotionally manipulated by that constant shallow spiritual proclamations. It comes the moment you realize that the reason you feel so out of place is because all of the rules left you so busy trying to live up to what actions make a Christian that you forgot to actually just organically be a Christian. It comes when you realize that there actually is some redemptive value in certain "R" rated movies. It comes when you find yourself more spiritually inspired by transcendent themes in "secular" movies, music, books, and TV shows than the ones that present a heavy handed gospel message. It comes when you realize that you've spent nearly all your time investing in friends that know little about you outside of your faith and have even less in common with those aspects of who you are. It comes when you realize that those same "friends" actually disapprove of many other aspects of your interests and personality and will continually remind you of that. It comes at those times when you realize that when you read your Bible you not only have delve into what the text is actually saying, but also strip away the memories of hearing that text misused to promote various extra-biblical agendas. And it especially comes when you realize that an Evangelical friend who is reading this is likely still caught up in pondering how an "R" rated movie could have any redemptive value.

It's almost as if you've spent so much time being that Christian that you forgot how to be you, Christianity and all. It's hard to weed out the culture and keep the Christianity.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What Would Jesus Buy Saturday: For God So Cherry Lip Glossed the World Edition

I've decided to dedicate Saturday posts to what I consider to be one of the most amusing things about Christian culture in the US:  absurd unnecessarily hyper-spiritualized products.

This first installment comes courtesy of Jesus Needs New PR. (A site I would recommend you check out.) Here we discover the answer for all those Christians who've struggled for years with the moral implications of using that heathen chapstick.

Fruits of the Spirit Lip Gloss

And as you struggle through life's temptations, just remember, self-control smells like apples.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Go In Peace, Keep Warm and Well Fed...

THIS exemplifies one of the biggest problems that I have with American Evangelical Culture. I just came across this announcement today. Let me try to explain.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Lou Engle and The Call, he spearheads prayer movements and rallies geared at solving what he sees as nations' problems through prayer and fasting. They are not involved in humanitarian, financial, or any other type of aid. Their goal is solely spiritual breakthrough, as they believe that toppling perceived demonic strongholds will cause everything else to fall into place. He gained noteriety in the US when he held a massive gathering in San Diego ahead of California's vote on proposition 8. Speaking from my own personal experience having heard him speak live, his presentations are often tinged with political themes. He is an extremely popular among 24/7 prayer movements and new prophetic circles. In those arenas he is essentially treated as an authoritative modern day prophet binding devils and unleashing God's glory. He spends the majority of his time talking about the nation's need to repent, particularily of legalized abortion and homosexuality.

Well, it looks like the show is going on the road. The next "The Call" rally will be held in Haiti. I won't try to sugar coat it. This really upsets me. Haiti is an American Evangelical cause du jour. It's the trendy place to care about for the moment, even before the massive earthquake hit. Evangelical culture doesn't just like missions, they like missions that allow them to play Superman. They like to go to the poorest, most destitute places where even the most minor services and efforts play out like major accomplishments. These trips usully involve some basic skill construction project, holding Vacation Bible School programs, teaching English, singing Christian songs, and/or performing skits (commonly called "human videos") about the salvation message. When they return home, they give a presentation to the congregation filled with pictures of them clinging to small children of other races, at least one member has some sort of wacky hairdo obtained on the trip, a song in another language, and presentations about how the culture was "SO grateful, because they really didn't have anything." They'll usually profess that it changed them so much, perhaps more than the people they ministered to and with that I would be inclined to agree. Short term missions trips can be problematic in that way, but that's a topic I'll tackle another time.

Haiti is perfect in this sense, because when you say "Haiti" the first word that pops into most people's heads is "poor." For the more charismatically inclined, there is also the long perpetuated myth about the country being founded primarily through a pact with the devil. The more charismatic missionaries are inclined to want to go to places they think to be the most "spiritually dark." I'd be willing to bet that that is where Lou Engle's interest in the nation lies.

As stated in the press release:

"Haiti has been recipient of many humanitarian efforts and projects however destruction and despair continues to loom over this great nation. The Lord wants to raise of the church of Haiti as a bright and shining beacon among the nations. Haiti's destiny will be shaped through fasting and prayer. The prophet Joel tells us that response of the people of God after a crisis (Joel 1:13) and before a crisis (Joel 2:15) is solemn assemblies with fasting and prayer."

I believe that God loves and values Haiti? Without a doubt. So why does this bother me? There are a number of reasons.

1. The arrogance that the only way for Haiti to realize its destiny is if Americans come and show them how to claim it.

2. The idea that prayers done outside of the borders of the nation they concern are less effective.

3. Telling people within a nation of such widespread poverty where many are going hungry and even before the earthquake people were resorting to making mud cakes (yes, out of actual mud) just to have something to fill their stomachs that they ought to be fasting.

4. Taking a group of Americans that will need to utilize scarce resources to a nation where infrastructure is still lacking, over a million people are still without homes (leading to a rape epidemic), security is lacking, clean water and sanitation are hard to find, medical facilities are being stretched to their limits, and thousands of people are dying from a normally easily preventable disease.

5. The audacity to leave an entire nation with the impression that their problems are reulting from their own lack of faith.

6. Assuming that Haitians haven't been praying for their own nation. I know of very few people that wouldn't pray as their world literally crumbles around them.

7. Assuming you have the solution for poverty without looking at the root causes or cultural/historical circumstances.

The founding of Haiti wasn't like that of the US. When Haitian slaves gained their freedom from France, they were forced to pay for that freedom. They began with massive debt that only kept growing. Combine that with political corruption, hurricanes, being located on a faultline, massive deforestation, etc and you have the elements that have created the nation we know today. Haiti doesn't need more western nations telling them what to do. They don't need people that have no medical or humanitarian training complaining about cold showers & eating the same food everyday, looking for photo ops and a reason to pat themselves on the back. They need a re-established centralized government lacking in corruption. They need a viable jobs market. They need people will to establish trade with them. NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently had a great piece about this. They need people who value them, their culture, and the potential they have to contribute to the rest of the world. They need people that not only want them to realize that potential, but also to empower them to do so.

If a group like The Call goes to Haiti, knowing of their specific needs but doing nothing to tangibly meet them, I'm not sure what they are bringing, but I'd be willing to argue that it's not the gospel of Christ. I can't help but think of the words of James 2:14-17:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Easier Than Getting to Know People

One of the hardest things for me during my time at Conservative Christian College, was how often I heard people rely on stereotypes. If I had a dollar for every time someone said something to the effect of "Girls are like that," "Well, you know how those people are," or "Boys will be boys," well, let's just say I wouldn't still be paying off my student loans. But by far, the most hurtful one I heard was one directed at me.

My freshman year of college, I was talking with a group of friends and acquaintances. There was a girl there that I had never met before. I didn't even know her name. As we were all talking, I said something that tipped her off to the fact that my parents are divorced. This sad pitiful look filled her eyes as she reached out to tenderly touch my arm and stated " I guess you never really knew your father, huh?" If you know me, you probably understand why such a statement upset me. If looks could kill, the one I shot her would probably do the trick. I curtly replied "Actually, my dad is a great father and I saw him nearly every day growing up." The look in her eyes upon hearing that wasn't just surprise, but also confusion. It was as if the idea that divorce didn't always have to mean that you never saw one parent had never crossed her mind. It seemed that the only picture of divorce she'd heard of included stressed out single moms, delinquent or depressed kids, and dead beat dads.

I guess when you seek to paint the world in harsh strokes of black and white that will ultimately support your own worldview, it's easier to rely on stereotypes. If you believe that homosexuality is a grave sin, it's easier to equate all gay people to pedophiles than acknowledge that many are kind, responsible, loving parents. If you believe that God doesn't want anyone to get divorced, it easier to point to dead beat dads than to families that learned how to love each other and function better without the strain of a failing marriage. If you believe that the only godly way to vote is to vote Republican, it's easier to label all all Democrats as godless heathens than to admit that there is a long history of social justice Democrats within various churches. If you believe God intended for women to be subservient to men, it's easier to claim that they have some sort of genetic disposition to such a role than to wrestle with your wife's/girlfriend's/daughter's/etc dreams and ambitions, as well as the obstacles to achieving them. It's easier to paint the poor as lazy addicts than to admit that God has commanded you to help and care for them. In essence, reliance on stereotypes lets you off the hook when it comes to loving these people, because rather than viewing them as human beings, it allows you to see them as the source of society's problems. It's the easiest way to dehumanize those around us. When we take the chance to get to know people stereotypes usually fade away. I wasn't raised under the assumption that you could easily classify people based on stereotypes. If anything, I was taught that if you relied on stereotypes you were probably missing the mark. In terms of the work most churches set out to do, it's a lot easier to love and care for a person than it is for a stereotype.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Revisited

The season is over. Most people I know have packed up their trees and decorations and I'm sure many kids are getting sick of what was "the best toy EVER" just a week ago. But I can't stop thinking about Christmas. I previously mentioned my frustration with the so-called war on Christmas. But there's something else that keeps my mind spinning.

There's a ministry in the area in which I live that currently has a TV ad out that is a short animation which explains how Jesus is the reason for the season and how he was born into the world for its salvation. (Followed by an invitation to watch their televised services of course.) I've seen people with "Merry CHRISTmas!" on their lapel or facebook status. And I've heard so many lament that no one really seems to get the true meaning of this season.

All that to's what my overly analytical mind has been dwelling on: Isn't over-spiritualized mass consumerism still mass consumerism? What kind of cognitive dissonance has allowed us to joyful profess that the baby Jesus came to the world in the most humble of ways, born into a manger, the Lord of all becoming the least of these for our sake and then dream of a Lexus with a giant bow on top sitting in our driveway? How does our practice of such excess honor His example of humility and charity?

My mind is struggling to reconcile the two. I see all the pageantry and flash in the way in which we celebrate the holiday and I read biblical accounts which seem to suggest that the birth of Christ was largely unnoticed by those around at the time, which the exception of some lowly shepards and the magi bearing gifts. I imagine that families within the city of Bethlehem rose the next morning under a sun that looked just the same as it had the day before. And in spite of the prophecies, the true nature of this child wouldn't really be revealed to most until he was much older.

I'm currently reading "The Man Who Invented Christmas" about the creation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." A chapter that recently caught my eye was one in which the author discusses how the celebration of Christmas had fallen out of fashion in both England and colonial America under Puritan rule in the 1600s. Its celebration was banned entirely. In an effort to make conversion to Christianity more appealing, Christmas Day had been declared to be the same day as the popular Roman Pagan holiday of Saturnalia. That was people wouldn't need to give up their most enjoyable traditions. The Puritans were appalled at the ties to Paganism and immorality that they saw in the celebration of Christmas. They at one point declared December 25th a day of fasting and repentance. That was the original war on Christmas. It wasn't Christians feeling as if everyone else was out to eliminate Christmas celebrations, it was Christians themselves trying to eliminate Christmas celebrations.

Do I think we should ban celebrations? Absolutely not. However, I just can't shake the nagging feeling that when the holiday is more stressful than peaceful, more disappointing than fulfilling, and more gluttonous than charitable, we're not honoring much more than our own self-indulgence. I saw a Southern Baptist preacher on Fox News talking about remembering the true reason for the season. One of the things he said was that in order to honor the gift God gave us in Christ, we should give good gifts to others. Really? That's the true reason for the season? In a time when many are struggling to get by, the best way to honor God is through material gifts? The more time I spend with American Evangelical culture, the more I'm convinced they must have some special translation of the Bible that I don't know about.

If we truly believe that Christmas marks a time when God so loved the world (the whole world-no exceptions) that he sent his son to become a sacrifice for everyone (everyone-no exceptions), shouldn't that be the spirit of the season? One of hope and love towards others (everyone-no exceptions)? Regardless of if they say "Happy Holidays", fast through Ramadan, have a menorah in their window, believe in nothing outside of humanity, believe in millions of gods, or just don't know what to think about it all? If the basis of Christian theology is that God sent His son for everyone, including these people, aren't we endorsing the exact opposite viewpoint when we insist on fighting them or behaving in a generally condescending manner towards all who think/believe differently than ourselves? I don't know if there's any logical way to reconcile what this means in practice, I just know that a lot of what I saw this season, including what I saw from those who defend it the most strongly,  reflected very little of the proclaimed "reason for the season."