Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (C)–Sloth, Disobedience, and Listening

Dear James,

It is true, as you say, that Pride is traditionally thought to be the sin of the Garden. That doesn’t mean that Lust wasn’t part of it as well. But please note that I was very careful in my last letter to avoid suggesting that Adam and Eve’s sin was some form of sexual consummation. Rather, I focused on how their sin elevated an appetite above their obedience to God. It was carnal, therefore, in the sense that it was rooted in the body, in that it was a sin of the flesh. Claiming that their sin was a sin of Lust does not eliminate Pride, but perhaps merely augments it. (And for what it’s worth, I still believe Pride was central in that moment, but we’ll have to discuss that another week.) What this does illuminate for us clearly—and what you note as well—is that there seems to be a blurring between these sins as we’ve dealt with them so far. As far as I’m concerned, this blurring is to be expected, if only because (as Jeremiah says) the heart is deceitful above all else. Its deceit is surely manifested in the manifold ugliness of our invention for sin, and in the festering motives which sit rooted in the heart. It is the heart that is sinful, and the Seven Deadly Sins are useful inasmuch as they can bring me into fresh insight about my own, corrupted heart. In that sense, Gluttony or Lust or Pride aren’t the problem—they are symptoms. The problem is deeper—it is sin itself, rebellion against God—and all our acts of meditation and personal reflection upon sin are ineffective if they don’t target the real problem.

When you think about it, it seems that a great deal of Christian spirituality is geared toward addressing symptoms. We’re a very ad hoc people—always addressing the problem of the present moment. Part of the reason for this, surely, is that we’ve become so bad at simply listening. We hold one-way conversations with God. We abhor silence. We privilege activism over reflection, tangible service over prayerful contemplation. If you set aside time for silent reflection, however, it won’t take long for God to begin to show you your deep need for Him, and to do this by bringing to your awareness your misdeeds and failures. At least that’s what He does for me!

Ironically, this failure to listen generates our widespread subservience to Sloth, which is, I imagine, the sin we most commit out of simple negligence. The irony, of course, is that for many people silent reflection looks like laziness—it is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while there are things to be done. But true contemplation is never laziness, and nor, for that matter, is laziness quite the same thing as Sloth. Sloth is the business of ignoring our duty, or, of seeing it, and then neglecting to do it. It is an indolence in the face of a call, a turning away of our attentions from what God is asking us to do toward our own preferences, a disposition of disobedience, and it is deadly. Consider how the Rich Man in Jesus’ story reveals his Sloth by ignoring Lazarus at his doorstep.

Sloth wars against our human call to magnanimity—and here I borrow from Josef Pieper’s language. As humans we each bear within us an urge toward greatness, one that I expect is rooted in the image of God. This urge is toward what Pieper (quoting Aquinas) calls the extensio animi ad magna—the stretching of the soul towards greatness. To deny this urge is to deny something essential to our humanity. To ignore its call, or to deflect it, or to live in intentional ignorance of what it implies, is to live in Sloth. In the grip of Sloth, I sanctify my own disobedience.

The tonic to this, of course, is listening and obedience. We set aside time for meditation and reflection, to listen to God’s voice, to really hear what He wants to say. From those gleanings, we must seek to obey His voice. As a rule, this process becomes cyclic—the more we listen and obey, the more He speaks, and the more opportunities we are given to obey. Ultimately, because our true greatness can only be found in obedient service to Christ (and not by our own efforts at greatness), it follows that an attitude of intentional listening is critical to the fulfillment of call. The kind of listening, in fact, which is precisely in view when we approach a season of fasting such as this one.

In view of this, is it not possible that in some sense busyness—our chronic mania of activity—is actually a manifestation of Sloth? From what we’ve seen, the Slothful person could conceivably be extremely active and busy, but busy about all the wrong kinds of things. And indeed, how often it is that we utilize our busyness wickedly, whether to earn credit with God for our actions, or to drown out our true obedience. Busyness dulls the ears from hearing God’s voice.

That’s not to say that our lives won’t be full. Busyness and fullness are not the same thing at all. Nor are rest and play to be confused with laziness. The Lord has given us time and pleasure as gifts. They only become wicked when utilized out of proportion to their purpose. In this sense, in addition to listening, Sabbath keeping would be another ironic answer to Sloth. In Sabbath, I declare that I am not too busy to stop, rest, and enjoy God’s goodness.

May God continue to bless your fasting, James—please pray also for mine!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (A)–Lent, Fasting, and Gluttony

Dear James,

I read with real pleasure of your intention to fast during this Lenten season. It seems to me more important than ever, in a disembodied and Gnostic age such as this one, that we humans strive to bring our bodies into alignment with our souls. Discipline is a very unpleasant and unpopular word, but it seems immensely good for us. In fact, all acts of bodily submission appear to bear some spiritual fruit. Not in a base and absurd way, as if we could bring our good deeds to God and bargain with Him for advantages, but simply because measured and intentional self-denial is a process which inevitably bears fruit. I applaud your intentions, and am eager to walk with you in fasting this season.

You are right to mention, of course, that a traditional part of the Lenten season is to reflect upon our sin and strive for fresh repentance. But I would hate for that to be where our focus stops. Surely, as in all spiritual exercises, our true end and goal is intimacy with God. Sin is not an end upon which we ought ever to focus exclusively, but only a road-stop on the way to life in God. It seems to me that we’ve got to keep that in mind as we reflect and pray these next six weeks. It can help in this to put special emphasis on things like the fruit of the Spirit. We are as much mired in sinfulness as we are deficient in Godliness, are we not? So if you’re going to meditate on an area of sin, then I would advise marrying that meditation to a similar area of Godliness. Our meditations, then, will have teeth, because we’ll have something positive to aim for.

It’s of note to me that you bring up Gluttony. On one point I have to disagree with you, because I don’t think it’s accurate that Gluttony is the sin which fasting most addresses. Gluttony is less about food, explicitly, than it is about pleasure. After all, I can fast for a day then break my fast on the next day by eating extravagantly. To make the most spiritual benefit from a fast, there’s an extra step that must be taken. That extra step, in turn, applies to all our sins. Of course, fasting is linked most commonly to food, and fasting from food is the simplest and easiest way to fast. It is also the way our Lord fasted, so that’s something keep especially in mind. But deeper than this, and for whatever reason, physical hunger has the capacity to awaken our awareness of not only our dependence upon God, but also our innate sinfulness. You’ve experienced, no doubt, the peckishness and inattentiveness that comes from a long time between meals. You can easily lose your temper, or not give proper focus to a task at hand. It has the effect of showing us just how contingent we are—if I don’t get my regular meals, I suddenly turn into a monster! But a simple act of self-denial has such remarkable power to not only illuminate my dependencies, but to show me what kind of a person I become when my presumed comforts are removed. In a word—a bad one! This drives me to pray, and seek the Lord, and to strive for His transforming power to work in these ugly, exposed flaws which simple hunger have revealed. In this way, fasting offers us special insight into our sin—and not merely the sins of food.

That’s not to suggest that Gluttony is a sin which doesn’t require redress—far from it! Gluttony is one of the most widespread yet unacknowledged sins of our time—a pet sin, a favorite sin, especially in its clearest forms. We take pride in overeating, and occasionally in being full of food and drink we do this to the expense of those who hunger and thirst. With our food, we have the capacity to violate righteousness, and this is a frightening prospect. What gluttony truly impinges on, however, is pleasure. I am no longer enjoying the bite I’m chewing because I am hasting to stuff my mouth with the next bite. I am no longer enjoying the meal I’ve eaten because the quantity which now fills my stomach has created pain. I am not enjoying the food in front of me because it isn’t as rich as what I would like to be eating. In the grip of Gluttony, I lose my capacity for the enjoyment of simple things. I wonder even if the phenomenon of photographing food is an indirect expression of gluttony—the artificial extension of pleasure, the pleasure at showing other people what I’m eating.

The deception of Gluttony is that, while I think I am consuming, in reality some other thing is consuming me. I am not enjoying a single episode of a show, I am watching all of them at once. I am not enjoying dessert in proportion, I am eating the whole cake. I am not enjoying the business of holding hands with my beloved, I am eager to drive forward into the marriage bed. I am not present with the person in the room, I am striving for presence with something called “the world” through access to the internet. I wonder, come to think of it, if our common usage of the internet is not the clearest expression of Gluttony we have. In all of these ways, by demanding the consumption of increasing pleasures, Gluttony eats at joy.

We have both agreed previously that pleasure is a marvelous gift from God. It is one of the ways that He calls people to Himself, a harbinger of those “pleasures forevermore” that we will discover in His presence one day. God is liberal with these pleasures, and manifold in their design. But Gluttony flattens this cornucopia of pleasures to one alone—my personal satisfaction in this present moment. We see less because we only wish to see what will make us full to our specifications. Contentment, it seems to me, is the virtue most attuned to Gluttony. That we would know when to say “enough.” That we would practice presence with our pleasures—whether it be a bite of food, or a walk on the beach, the holding of a hand, or the person in the room; that in each and every experience of pleasure we would offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord who gives them out so liberally.

May your fasting be enriched this season, James, and may we each, in our hunger, hunger most for our common Lord!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (9)–Hierarchy and the Good

Dear James,

Once again I’m sorry for the delay in writing you—yes, I have received both of your letters in the meantime. I was away for three weeks in the summer, was recovering from illness, and have been otherwise swamped with church work overall. I am glad to get back to my correspondence at last (especially ours).

I am as surprised to hear as I expect you are to report that your pastor has chosen to stick through this difficult time. It certainly sounds like it has been rough. And I can attest to how difficult it is to perform the pastoral office faithfully while every move and motive is being examined by committee. I shudder at the thought. Does his perseverance elevate your opinion of him, or do you begin to think that he is stubbornly refusing to see the truth? Ironically, every pastor needs stubbornness—in positive language we would call it “backbone.” The only question is where we pastors should choose to dig in, and wisdom is the business of choosing those battles correctly.

If you think about it, to choose anything always means to choose between good and bad, and sometimes even between one good and another. I bring this up because of one of your objections—you say that “doesn’t the kind of inequality you are talking about point to hierarchy, and isn’t hierarchy oppressive?” But I think you are wrong to assume that hierarchy is bad—hierarchy, in fact, is necessary for us to make any discerning choices at all. All choices depend on our ability to discriminate between goods, and the process of discriminating requires us to employ hierarchy.

This is actually a process that is grounded in the basis of human thought—that we have the ability to discern between good and bad, and then within goods to discern between good, better, and best. For any given set of choices I have there is often a choice between good and bad itself. For example, I have a son, and the good choice is to feed him, while the bad choice is to neglect him. But within the good choice I also have a ranked series—a hierarchy—of goods to choose from. I can feed him bread and water (good), or I can feed him a bologna sandwich (better), or I can prepare him a proper meal with spaghetti and salad (best). The differences between the three kinds of meals are relative goods. Surely it is better to feed him bread and water than to neglect him, but it is also best of all to provide him with regular, proper meals. The point is that we are making these discernments all the time, and in every circumstance we make choices between goods by utilizing a hierarchy of thoughts.

It is interesting that we see Jesus displaying this process during the temptation narrative. Satan there prompts Jesus to feed the multitudes, perform miraculous signs, and inherit the nations. Jesus refuses Satan in all three temptations, but then goes on in his ministry to do all three of those things. The problem, we see, wasn’t that Satan tempted Jesus with evils, but with goods that were outside of God’s timing. Jesus didn’t really refuse to feed the multitudes, he refused to do it on Satan’s schedule. He made a choice based on relative goods.

So, it is incorrect to claim that hierarchy is evil, or wrong. In fact, even to make that claim you have to argue that hierarchy is bad, and in arguing that it is bad you are arguing that something else is better, and therefore using hierarchy to argue that hierarchy is wrong. You can hear the saw working at the branch even now.

Perhaps this brings us back to our discussion of equality and inequality. I have argued that equality is always a fiction, and that just behavior in the world demands acknowledgement of those fundamental inequalities. This, you have observed, appears to imply a hierarchy among people, and this is a concept which the world finds abhorrent. But revulsion is not an argument, and hatred cannot equalize except by violence. There are people in the world who exceed me in virtue, as well as others who exceed me in power and influence (they are rarely the same people). They are my betters (relative to those particular categories), and I must function in the world acknowledging those differences, aspiring to greatness in virtue and to justice in using the power I have been given. I am not intrinsically more valuable than someone else, but by virtue of the gifts I have been given by God I must administrate those gifts according to their good. Hierarchy, in this way, is inseparable from responsibility and stewardship.

What I think has happened is that we humans fear power and hate pride—at least we fear and hate it in others, because we love it plenty well enough when we have it ourselves. Once again, envious of power and discontented that any should be exalted over us, we use the language of equality to violently reject the differences. The person who says, “Hierarchy is oppressive” is also saying he or she hates that any person would be higher than them. It is pride, rejecting the natural humility of life as a human. Hierarchy is not naturally oppressive, it simply exists. We might well reject actual oppression, and we will rightly condemn all misuses of power. But to reject hierarchy itself is to reject thinking at all. Human discourse decays into meaninglessness. Nothing can be done because nothing can be thought of as right or wrong.

You mention the parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20, where the master hires men at different times of the day but pays them all equally at the end of the day. This parable does not, in my estimation, argue for equality—certainly not as the world argues for equality. The point of the parable highlights the order of salvation. The Jews, who were God’s first workers in the vineyard, will receive the same reward (God’s kingdom) as the Gentiles who come in late. The final word gives away the game, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It hearkens to the sin of Jonah, filled with bitterness because God saved the Ninevites. Stated in Paul’s language, this is exactly what it means for there to be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” These factors no longer give us privileged access to God’s kingdom, which is open to all. There is no place for racism among God’s people. But that does not mean there is neither status, nor roles, nor hierarchy. All are part of the people of God; those exalted by God with power are expected to steward their power for the benefit of others.

So, as you continue to walk with your pastor, try to help him discern these goods. What is the best choice? And is there a better set of options available to him? Remember that at this time you have been given an exalted place—access to his heart and mind. You are “above” many others, but he is “below” the committee. You cannot escape these hierarchies, but you can act as a faithful steward within them. I am eager to hear how the situation develops.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (8)–Equality and Justice

Dear James,

What a change! When you first wrote me, you were complaining about your pastor—now you are defending him! I guess that sitting down and listening to him has had some effect on your perceptions, after all.

Don’t hold yourself too much to blame for this group which have gone after him so doggedly. I think, from what you’ve told me, that you did your best to avoid this kind of action. Now, because of your friendship, you can see the effect this has on him personally. One group, who sees only their grievances, are now attacking a man who perceives only their anger. Of course, I’m not suggesting that these grievances shouldn’t come to light—it is important that your pastor deal with these concerns and deal with them directly. But I am grateful that, at this difficult point in his pastoral career, he has at least one friend in the congregation who can advocate for him.

In this, I think I perceive a couple of different roles for you. The first is that you continue to serve as a friend to your pastor. Walk alongside him and be a listening ear to his concerns. Attempt to help him hear what the aggrieved brothers and sisters are saying, but to hear it well. But second, as a friend you also need to be a discerning voice for him—that is, to help him discern the voice of God in the midst of all this. If, as you have told me, he has drifted from the Scriptures, is uninspired as a preacher, is overly focused on social issues, and overall has lost some passion for ministry, then within the bounds of relationship bring those subjects up. Have a long talk together and ask the question, “What is God saying to you in the midst of this?” He might say, “I feel like I want out.” Or he might say, “God is saying nothing to me right now.” Or he might say something else still. Whatever it is, take advantage of this opportunity—as difficult as it is for him—and make use of it to speak into his life for the Lord’s sake. I pray that you will be truly surprised by the outcome.

It is interesting, given our recent discussions, how this episode reveals some of our topics. Observe, for example, how power has switched places in these relationships. Just a short while ago, your minister held the power—in his pulpit and his sense of church authority. Now, because of this committee and the elders’ intervention, he has lost that power and is in a position of scrutiny and weakness. Where before the members felt weak, now they feel the heady rush of power. And you can already see how dangerous this is for them. Because they have not examined their motives carefully, their attitude toward power is now motivated more by envy than by grace—they are seeking reparations in response to their perceived wrongs, rather than justice for the heart of their minister. If they are not extremely careful, he will become simply a victim of their abuse of power—and not only him, but the next minister who comes to serve you as well. Once a group like this begins to abuse power, unless it is checked their abuse will continue on and on. I’m reminded of something from the Proverbs,“Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filled with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maid when she succeeds her mistress.” Whenever there is a sudden switch in power, the envy, bitterness, and vengeance of the originally weak party is given life and vitality by its new empowerment. And power without character is like a driver’s license in the hand of a child—someone is going to get hurt.

Once again this illustrates the illusion of “equality” as well. There is no such thing as equality. It is one of the more generally accepted lies of our recent century (especially in political discourse) that a belief in equality is one of the most important things we hold. But it simply isn’t true. In every situation, in every relationship, in every discourse and exchange, there is a fundamental inequality at work. No two people on earth are equal—in strength, intelligence, vitality, wealth, capacity for work, capacity for leadership, and so forth. You and your pastor are unequal in training, and at this moment your pastor and the committee formed against him are unequal in position and authority. And now, having found new power, the committee will attempt to “equalize” the situation by squelching and scrutinizing your pastor further. But this is not equality either, so much as it is a violent flattening.

These ideas have found footholds in the church as well, particularly through passages such as Galatians 3:28, where Paul says that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now, at a surface level, we might conclude that this is a clear statement of equality in the church, but a careful reading muddies that clarity. For one thing, in this passage (as in similar lists in Paul’s other letters) Paul is at pains not to equalize the church, but to neutralize the advantages traditionally offered to certain classes. In other words, we get no special benefit towards salvation by virtue of our Jewish heritage, free status, or masculine gender. All the traditional, social advantages are nullified in Christ. But at the same time, this does not mean that roles are eliminated, nor does it mean that all these individuals are “equal” in the church. The New Testament makes no provision for freeing slaves, but rather for the conduct of both slaves and masters within the established economic system. The New Testament has almost nothing to say about “women’s rights” as we would conceive them, but instead makes provision for the conduct of husbands and wives within the established system. In other words, the New Testament assumes inequality, then prescribes just actions in accordance with those inequalities.

This factor is very important to keep in mind, especially since holding bad ideas about equality has messed up our perceptions of justice (and this is why justice today is so often flavored by envy, greed, pride, and wrath). Believing that “everyone should be equal” we have utilized justice as the mechanism which equalizes individuals. Have you worked twice as much as person X? Rather than it being just that you are paid twice as much as X, the thinking generated by false equality says that it is “just” to pay you equally. Did your parents or grandparents work hard to provide you with a better life? Justice today claims to strip those advantages and give them to another. Equality under the law (a great principle of the modern age) does not mean that “everyone gets the same.” It means that each person is judged impartially by the law—it means that the laws, which preserve our freedom, judge the wealthy and poor alike, the powerful and the weak the same. Justice, then, is a measure of my own right-relatedness toward my resources, my God, and my neighbour. I have been entrusted with X—am I utilizing X according to the law of God? I have a relationship with God—am I living in accordance with the dictates of His commands? I have a relationship with my neighbour—am I above reproach in regard to my conduct with that individual? Justice, you see, is therefore slightly different for each person (but not radically different).

And all this comes back to the situation with your pastor, of course, because you are now accountable in all three areas. Is your conduct upright before God—your conversations, your thought life, your prayers for him? Is your conduct with what God has given you upright—your authority and influence within the church, your friendship and experience with the pastor? And is your conduct with these other members upright as well—are you seeking true justice together, or vengeance? And that might be one of the most important questions of all—what will be the just action of your church? If they run away with their anger, they will wound their pastor and themselves in the process. What does God want for him? What does God want for them? And what does God want for you? You see that true justice is impossible without a conviction of what God wants, and that right action in these circumstances requires a clear understanding of the underlying inequality.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios­

Dear James (7)–Privilege and Power

Dear James,

My apologies that it has taken so long to write you back—travel, illness, company, and work, together conspired to take me out of the game for a while. Please be assured that I have not forgotten our correspondence.

In your last letter you brought us to one of the great bugbears of our time—the question of privilege. You say that you “can appreciate the vision for reconciliation” that I have outlined (and I hope you will do a great deal more than simply appreciate it!), but ask how this, now, connects to the discussion of privilege that appears to dominate our public discourse. It is a highly appropriate question, and I’m glad you have presented it.

First off, I think that the language of privilege is what Lewis described as a Bulverism. A Bulverism is where you or I dismiss a person by means of appealing to a factor outside of whatever position he or she has espoused. A classic Bulverism is the phrase, “You say that because you’re a woman.” Note that in saying this, I have not addressed the claim of my disputant, rather I have identified some separate factor in her persona (namely, her womanhood), and am using it to dismiss her position summarily. Instead of dealing with a person as the person he or she is, or even instead of dealing with the arguments as the argument, I am introducing an external factor in order to win my case.

Most of the time when I hear a person identify “privilege” in another person it’s this kind of dismissal—“You say that because you’re privileged.” It is a conversation-ending statement in much the same way that, were I to announce to my wife, “You say that because you’re a woman,” I would discover that I had ended the conversation. In both cases it stifles understanding and denies effective communication. It can also, we should note, ruin a relationship.

However, we should acknowledge that power is real, and that furthermore differentials in power really do exist between people. I have been raised in North America, am the beneficiary of dietary and social benefits which are attendant to my upbringing, have been well educated, and today inhabit a career which (barring extreme circumstances) ensures that I will never rank among the global poor. In those senses, of course, we might identify something likening itself to a kind of privilege—that is, to the gift of circumstances which have enriched my life apart from my effort.

But this difference in power and advantage must be sharply distinguished from issues of race—not to suggest that they do not at times combine, but that they are not the same thing. My use of power, and my beliefs about race, can be combined for either great good or great ill. We must remember that racism, historically, always begins with belief about the self—not with belief about others. Nazi Germany believed first in the primacy of Arianism, and that belief in themselves gave permission to redefine and dehumanize others, especially the Jews. Japanese Imperialism similarly believed in the native mastery of their own heritage, and this gave them permission to dehumanize the Chinese, as well as their other enemies in the Second World War. Japanese and German atrocities were birthed, in other words, from their beliefs about themselves, and only secondarily from their beliefs about others.

I hope you can see that, within these structures, power is a neutral force. It can be used for either good or evil, applied to either health or destruction. Racism, false belief in the self which redefines the ‘other,’ added to power, creates vast destruction. But racism can be just as prevalent among powerless people as “privileged” ones. Racism is racism; power is power.

Notably, within this dialogue of privilege and race we still witness an abuse of power—in this case with the inversion of the power differential through words. “Privilege” is thrown about as a term to silence the opposition. Words are used, not to encourage understanding, nor to expand the boundaries of human self-perception, but to divide, exclude, and punish. The language of “privilege” is then reduced to a punitive missile aimed at leveling the perceived inequality of power. To use this language, then, is to commit an injustice in the service of one’s favored justice.

This brings us, at last, to the use of power, which is really the most helpful discussion we might have. Here, as a clarification, we ought to keep in mind that the fact of identifying power (or privilege) does not mean that we have dismissed power. The fact that I have a measure of privilege relative to others is not in itself a problem, it is how I use that power which is important. The Christian question to ask, then, is this: am I being a good steward of the power with which God has entrusted me? This, of course, is precisely what we see in the parables of the talents and the pounds in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels respectively. In both cases that master (our Lord), has entrusted his servants with unequal responsibility. This is a point we mustn’t overlook, because inequality is a fact of life, and it is therefore not an evil fact. When the master returns, each of the servants is then judged according to the responsibility he was given. On the Day of Judgment I will answer for how I have made use of the gifts God has given me, and you will likewise answer for the gifts God has given you. And it won’t matter then that I had more than you, and you had more than person X, but it will matter a great deal whether we have been faithful stewards of that which we have been given. And the standard of judgment will not pay regard to the quantitative value of that trust.

One of the great strengths of the dialogue about “privilege,” then, is that it can highlight for us the fact that many of the things we have taken for granted are in fact portions of the investment God has placed in our lives. They are therefore elements of our stewardship for which we are accountable. In this, the role of the Church in the dialogue of race and power ought to inhabit a profoundly prophetic voice, calling the powerful to convert their resources (all of them!) into service for the Kingdom. We ought not, in other words, blame white Christians for being white, or privileged Christians for being privileged, or black Christians for being black, but to each and all we should call them prophetically to seek the complete sanctification of every aspect of their lives—of race, power, privilege, and all else.

At the same time, the danger remains that those who perceive themselves as “underprivileged” will forget that although they may have less power and access than others, they are equally responsible to spend their power well. We are all judged alike, and if identifying privilege makes you feel better about yourself, then I suggest that you are motivated by envy rather than justice, and that you are in an altogether dangerous place.

All that being said, I believe that the world’s vision of privilege and race is deeply flawed, while the Church’s vision presents great hope. The world claims that we are unequal and divided, and that therefore we should take power forcibly from the privileged and distribute it among the underprivileged. What the world neglects to mention is that this change still operates under the dictates of power—it is not that we have transcended power, merely that we have made it change hands. The new masters will be every bit as wicked as the last, if not more so. The Church, on the other hand, says that the answer to the problem of race is the New People of God, and that the answer to the problem of power is its complete submission to God’s purposes. Instead of suppression, or vindictiveness, it is an action of redirection and sanctification. In Christ we do not do away with race or power, but sanctify them both, and therein lies the glory of the Church.

It’s time for us to wrap this up, but maybe we can end with a personal point—you yourself have already experienced some of this power in meeting with your fellow disgruntled church members. There is great power in coming together, in talking things through, and in dreaming about how to change the situation in your church. Have you considered what it will look like to convert that power for the service of Christ’s church? What will true submission to Jesus’ agenda look like for this group? What might it look like for your neighbors?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios