What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

An Uneasy Conversation about Immigration, Continued.

I remain uneasy. Despite last week’s foray into the questions surrounding Immigration and Christianity, I am keenly aware of how much more there is to say—and of how uncertain a great deal of it is. Last time, I concluded that Christians do indeed bear clear ethical responsibility to the immigrant/stranger in the land, but I noted that the bounds of this responsibility are made unclear on account of the uncertain nature of our relationship to the state. In today’s post, I want to return to the question of the state, and to bring that to bear on the question of “illegal” immigration. I anticipate more uneasiness.

To get started, consider the following image, in which a cartoon of Jesus with children highlights Matthew 25:40 and suggests that the language of “least of these” applies specifically to undocumented immigrant children:

Immigration_Cartoon_Hay-Soos-COLOR-1020x684

This is a potent, evocative image. It raises questions (not entirely subtle) about national sovereignty, about where Jesus ‘stands’ in relation to nation-states, and about the extent of solidarity. It suggests explicitly that if we are truly Christian, we should be allowing these children (and by implication their parents) unrestricted access to America. In fact, it asks a fundamental question—one that is implied in a great deal of the discourse around American immigration and Christianity: Do nation-states have the right to exist?

To you, that may seem like the wrong question—it may seem like an exaggeration, or even a distraction. But I think it really captures the heart of the present debate. In one camp (let’s give a charitable account) are a group of Americans who want to preserve a form of national sovereignty. They want to do this, specifically, by clarifying the land border between Mexico and the Southern US. Many (but not all of them) want a physical wall. Now, however you may feel about this camp of citizens, if you are in the other camp and are going to oppose them, you’ve got to ask about the alternative. If we don’t enforce the border, for what are we advocating? Note that this is (at the moment) completely irrespective of the merits or demerits of a given immigrant—this has nothing to do with questions of “deplorables” or escapees. If we oppose the establishment of a clear border, aren’t we in fact advocating for no border at all? And if, upon reflection, we are advocating for no border at all, aren’t we tacitly arguing that nation-states shouldn’t have borders? Isn’t this bound up with desires for unrestricted travel, free trade, deregulated immigration, and a kind of “global citizenship” unbounded by certain premodern conceptions of the state?

aint-no-border

This, then, is our question: do nation-states have the right to exist? And how will we answer this question from a Christian perspective? The answer is: with difficulty. Firstly, and as I mentioned last week, there is no instruction whatsoever in the Bible on the management and establishment of foreign nation-states. We’ve got examples of states gone wrong (Canaanites, Egypt), and states under judgement for having gone wrong (Sodom, Gomorrah), but no ready-made Scriptural management techniques which we can apply to the Southern American land-border with Mexico. Instead, we’ll have to intuit a few answers and then draw some conclusions. To me there seems to be four sets of clues we can draw from: property laws, hospitality laws, the Kingdom of God as a State, and modern examples of anti-property, anti-border states.

Property Laws
First, property laws. The Bible has lots to say about property—it is enshrined, in fact, in no less than two of the Ten Commandments (we are commanded neither to steal, nor to covet). Property laws are then worked out in a host of case studies, relative to oxen (Ex. 21:32), donkeys (Ex 21:34-34), slaves (Dtr 15:17), children (Ex 21:22), and so forth. Among other things, this indicates that the category of things called “property” covered a significantly broad and varied assortment. It also points to the fact that, in the ancient world, the master of a household bore responsibility for virtually everything in the household. We must remember that in that world the horizons of economics and household management aligned. Within this extremely broad set of passages, there are also clear stipulations about the role of land rights. We are warned not to move ancient boundary stones (i.e., stealing property—Dtr 19:14), and we are commanded to return property to its hereditary owners after fixed-term leases (in this sense, no property was ever really ‘sold’ in Israel—see Leviticus 25 in full).

How can we connect these passages to the question of nation-states? Quite simply, if individual households have the right to exist, to preserve property, and to be managed according to just governance, then it is reasonable to expect that nation-states are subject to the same conditions. In short, as the household, so the nation-state. As households are judged (scripturally) on the merits of their masters, so nation-states are judged on the merits of their governors. As households have boundaries and door locks, preventing unrestricted access and protecting their assets (containing all the variety of ‘property’ within), so nation-states have boundaries and borders, similarly preventing unrestricted access and protecting its assets (containing all the ‘property’—its citizens—within). From this perspective—if our logic is sound—then nation-states possess the right and duty to establish and enforce a border. To fail at this appears to be, at minimum, a negligence of management.

Korean Rock Wall_Jeju_batdam

A rock wall separates farmland in Korea.

Hospitality Laws
However, and alongside each of these property laws, there is also a clear set of instructions regarding hospitality. Primarily, these are the laws of the stranger that I discussed last week. But in addition to these laws, there are a few key Scriptural examples to consider. The first is Genesis 19, where Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. It is extremely important to note that while immorality (esp. in a form of violent homosexuality) is in play during this story, the primary reason for their destruction appears to be the violation of hospitality. The angels appear at the gates of the city, and Lot—the only righteous man in town—displays his righteousness by offering them hospitality. The test of the city appears to be in how it treats the stranger. Sodom and Gomorrah’s response is disturbing: we rape strangers. Lot attempts to save the angels (not knowing they are angels) at the expense of his daughters’ lives, but before they can be subjected to this horror the angels begin their saving and destroying work.

Another case in the Old Testament is found in Numbers 20. There, Israel seeks Edomite permission to pass through their land—a desire for a kind of national hospitality. They even offer (astonishingly!) to drink no water, and pass through no crops. The Edomites refuse, and we note that to refuse water to a desert dwelling people is to desire, tacitly, their death. This is a source of future enmity between Edom and Israel. It is a violation of hospitality.

Note that we are not released from these hospitality laws in the New Testament. Most evocatively, and perhaps with Genesis 19 in mind, the author of Hebrews (13:2) admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers, “for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In each stranger, he argues, we may be offering hospitality to an angel of the Lord. Hospitality remains a fundamental test of our civic virtue.

lot-sodom-angel-ftr-600x396

The Kingdom of God as a State
“But wait a moment,” I hear you object—doesn’t the New Testament church do away with property? Don’t the believers share all that they have? Isn’t it the case that none had needs in the early church? Yes, and no. Yes, there was a radical new sharing among the people of God. Yes, it was the case that members of the early church exchanged earthly goods so that members of the fellowship could eat. But it was not the case that all members divested themselves of property. First of all, we must remember that the Church continued to meet in homes. To meet in a home you have to own a home. To own a home in the ancient world you had to be wealthy. The early church had quite a few wealthy members who did not sell all they had. They maintained their property. But wait—didn’t Ananias and Sapphira get the axe because they didn’t sell their property? Not quite—they were killed, primarily, because they lied about it. They sold the field not in order to bless the people, but in order to make themselves look good. They kept the money because their hearts weren’t in the gift. They died because, like Achan in Joshua 7 before them, their corruption could not be allowed to sully the new conquest of the new Israel in the world.

Furthermore, it was not the case that money was redistributed in toto in the early church. There are rules about widows and orphans (they must be genuinely helpless—1 Tim 5:3-7), there are rules about working and eating (if you can work but don’t, you are not going to get help from the church—2 Thess 3:10). There are admonishments for the wealthy taking advantage of the weak (1 Cor 11:17-22). These passages indicate that the early church was not a kind of proto-communist utopia, but a place of fulfilled and glorified biblical economics. All who can work must work, those with an excess give, those who are desperate are cared for by the church.

There is more. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully. The Kingdom—that is, God’s reign, invading the earth—is an entity that actively rejects national boundaries. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, and in every case citizenship in the Kingdom trumps that of individual nation-states. My identification with other Christians in China, Peru, Namibia, and Honduras sits in clear priority over my identification with any particular nation state (whether the US, Canada, or the UK—the three where I’ve lived so far). Without regard to my individual nation-state, I bear an ecclesial responsibility to Christians first. They are part of my household. And yet, this reality of Kingdom-citizenship still has its own boundaries. There is an inside, and an outside; there are those who are part of the kingdom, and those who are outside of it (see Matthew 25). The Kingdom itself maintains (and defends?) its own boundaries, its citizens, and its values (see, for example, Eph 5:1-13).

Colorful World Map

The Kingdom transcends all borders.

Nation-states that have abolished property
From what we can tell so far, it seems reasonable—on Scriptural grounds—to infer that yes, nation-states have a right to exist. They are an extension of the household and are governed (at least in part) by the Scriptural laws of property and hospitality. Is there ground, then, to make a case for the abolition of nation-states? Not from Scripture. Even the Kingdom is conceived as a place of boundaries and property management under the governance of justice, hospitality, and identity. By contrast, in the modern world where governments have attempted the abolition of property the consequences, in human terms, have been disastrous. Ironically, the effect of removing property reduces all persons to the property of the state. Outsiders—those who do not participate in the communist project—are viewed as assets to be added to the collective (very literally, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine). A lack of borders becomes an invitation to the overriding of the borders of other nations. Nationalist, ethnic, and ideological holdouts are subjected to “re-education” (which is a word that should strike fear into any person educated with respect to 20th century history). In a strange turn, the abolition of property results in dehumanization.

Many Christians—historic and modern alike—have advocated for degrees and forms of socialist/communist economic structures. They have argued for these structures on the basis of their reading of the New Testament Church. However, it seems clear that they are guilty of an over-realized eschatology—what may work in a perfected world cannot work in this present, imperfect world. And in each case where this has been attempted such borderless projects, while promising heaven, have in fact delivered only hell.

Re-education in Vietnam

These images are from Vietnamese re-education camps, and are mild (i.e., they’ve been staged). Most of the other images are too disturbing to post.

Further Uneasy Ethics
Now what? And how does this help us with regard to the question of “illegal” immigrants? Here are five, further conclusions to consider.

1) Nation-states do indeed have the right to exist.

2) Nation-states are judged (by God) with respect to their management, specifically concerning utilization of property and hospitality.

3) Nation-states have a household responsibility to care for their citizens and maintain borders.

4) The Kingdom of God is the nation-state to which Christians belong, and may not be identified with any earthly nation-state. “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

5) Christians within nation-states possess a dual citizenship—the first, primary, to the Kingdom; the second, relative, to their nation-state.

Obviously, this creates an uneasy ethical tension. On the one hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of my nation-state, which has a sovereign responsibility to defend its own boundaries. On the other hand, I am subject to the laws and regulations of the Kingdom of God, which transcends those boundaries and makes difficult demands of me.

So how do we address the question of the illegal immigrant? It seems that he or she falls squarely between the boundaries of earthly states and the Kingdom. We are bound to acknowledge that national borders are important—i.e., we admit that we all lock our doors at night for the sake of the residents of our homes. At the same time we bear a transcending Kingdom responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger. In the crush between the laws of our land and the commandments of Scripture, we are left with two questions: How shall we exhibit hospitality, and shall we err on the side of legality, or on the side of mercy?

First, hospitality. We don’t have to admit every immigrant who comes to a nation, but we ought—under God’s own command—to treat them each with dignity and hospitality. This will be costly, but the cost of ignoring it is too great.

Mother Teresa_pew

Second, mercy. Laws matter. And yet they are not all—especially when we follow Christ. And on his account it is clear that no amount of law-keeping will make us righteous if in the process we have become, and are, unmerciful. He even says this explicitly, quoting Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13, Hosea 6:6). Christ seeks from us a heart of tenderness, more than a heart that has kept all of the rules.

In all of this, I have still left out one, final, looming question: What responsibility does the Church have toward outsiders? What are the boundaries of solidarity? To that question I will return, and conclude, next week.

Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

I must confess that I am uneasy. I am uneasy about the stories of immigration in the news lately. I am uneasy with progressive responses to those situations. I am uneasy with Christian responses to those stories. I am uneasy about the trustworthiness of news sources, the spin of commentators, and the histrionics of disputants. But beneath and throughout all of this uneasiness, I’ve felt especially uncomfortable with how Scripture is used when it comes to questions of the “immigrant,” the “stranger,” and the “refugee.” Some serious thinking was required, and the result is something of an uneasy conversation.

Immigration_CNN_mcallen-texas-exlarge-tease

This uneasy conversation is rooted in the fact that immigration (both legal and illegal), refugees, and Christian responsibility come together in an awkward discourse, one that stretches the boundaries of any simplistic ethics. At the heart of the conflict are two, oil-and-water realities—the life of the Kingdom of God, and the existence of nation-states. Unclear thinking in both areas, to my mind, has created a great deal of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps one way to summarize the diverse dialogues and talking points is to pose a simple question: what is the Christian responsibility towards the immigrant/refugee?

The most common answers I encounter come from certain interpretations of Scripture. Consider two such interpretations now. In this first image Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are likened to refugees, fleeing Herod to Egypt. The message, implicit, is that the state of the refugee is crucially linked to the story of Christianity itself.

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

An Icon of the Holy Family, by Kelly Latimore.

Another image lists a series of scripture texts, but pointedly translates the word “stranger” as “immigrant.”

Immigrant Scriptures_

I won’t take the time to analyze these images in depth, but where I want to focus is on their use of Scripture. Specifically, in both cases Christian Scripture (or an event) is used pointedly to address the current immigration/refugee issue in the US. Each is, in fact, a form of proof texting—here is a situation, here is a Scripture to address said situation, case closed.

Allow me to register a few concerns. First, modern labels such as “immigrant” and “refugee” are heavily freighted with meaning. While the Bible does indeed have things to say about the stranger in the land, they may not be the same kinds of things that modern commentators are making it say. Is the modern refugee really the same as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt? Can these texts really be applied to our modern situation without interpretation or context? For instance, in order to claim that Israel’s stranger laws should directly inform America’s immigration policy we would need to establish that the nation-state of Israel is sufficiently similar to the nation-state of America. This is a deeply tenuous connection, and one that many commentators would not be so happy to make.

In light of this, a second concern. In addition to the quoted stranger laws, the Bible has lots of other things to say about how we treat one another, specifically from the same passages of text! For example, instructions in Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 shift almost breathlessly from laws about clothing of two fabrics, to rules about sex with slave girls, to the breeding of cattle, to forbidding homosexual relations, and to honouring one’s parents. Many of the same people who reject the Bible’s teachings on some of these issues (e.g., homosexuality), are presenting contextually linked scriptures as proof-texts for immigration reform. Furthermore, when they give reasons for why they are not bound by a scripture like Leviticus 18:22, they cite the fact that we do not observing other, contextually linked passages, such as the garment laws. The law of the stranger, then, is binding, but none of the others. I find this, at best, disingenuous.

Levicitus Clobber Text

While these flaws make me uneasy, they are not themselves an argument. They are bad rhetoric, and possibly poor interpretations of Scripture, but we still must examine the Scriptural claims about what, if any, is the proper Christian response to the immigrant/refugee. We’ll need to think about this from two angles—the nation-state, and the immigrant.

The Bible and the State
First, does the Bible speak to the circumstances of the modern nation-state? In a word, not really. The Old Testament offers instruction on the management of theocratic, then monarchic Israel. Many Christians believe that these instructions ought to shape the governance of their nations, but this is by no means a simple open-and-shut Scriptural case. For example, the text points to the role of boundary stones (Proverbs 22:28), of property management (Leviticus 25), of ethnic purity (Deuteronomy 7:3), and of economics (Leviticus 25, 23:22, Deut. 23). These are instructions for Israel specifically. It is worth noting, however, that when other nations stand in violation of certain aspects of God’s law they are judged, and even destroyed, based on those violations (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9).

And yet, apart from these passages of judgment (for moral reasons) we get no instruction on secular civil governance in the Bible. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to “obey the civil authorities” (and he says this about Nero, mind you). John in Luke 3 tells the tax collector to collect just the right amount, and the soldiers to avoid harassing people and be content with their wages. If we wish to look to the Scriptures for advice on how to govern, manage, and maintain national borders, we are going to get precious little help. Furthermore, the concept of the modern nation-state—as a non-religious, non-ethnic social aggregate of disparate persons—is unheard of in ancient Israel, and certainly insufficiently like the Roman state for easy comparison with America, if only because no ancient person had a vote like modern persons do.

EmperorMaximiam

Emperor Maximiam offering incense to Jupiter.

In view of Romans 13, however, it is worth remembering that Christian obedience to the state clearly had limits. When the New Testament was written, the early Church had an uneasy but largely unchallenged relationship to the Roman government. But in the years following the writing of Paul’s letters this situation changed—the question of obeying Caesar or Christ became pointed, and the resounding witness of the early Church was to honour Christ, even if it meant death. Thus, when a given Christian stood before the altar to Caesar and was pressed to offer incense to him as a deity, that Christian refused to obey the civil authority. Death, by the very sword entrusted to those who govern, was often the consequence.

It follows, then, that because there are no Christian states, properly speaking, but only states with proportions of Christians serving inside them, no civil ethic ever aligns perfectly with a Scriptural model, whether Old or New Testament. The default ethic would appear to be some form of Romans 13:1-7 (to honor civil authorities), combined with some form of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (to lead a quiet life). However, in those situations where the state stands opposed to Christian teaching, then we side with Christ, even if it means our imprisonment or death.

The Bible and the Stranger
Second, does the Bible speak to the situation of the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee? In a word, yes—quite a lot, actually. While the image macro of Scripture texts above bent matters a little for its own benefit, each of the texts do speak about treatment of the stranger in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 is one of the clearest and most poignant:

21You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Slaves in Egypt

Israel, as a people who were formerly strangers—immigrants, if you will—in Egypt, are called to remember at all times their former status and to treat others accordingly. Note: the text makes no provision for the ethnic heritage of the stranger, nor for his or her religious background, nor for his or her quality of life, language ability, or socioeconomic status. It does not matter if the stranger is a qualified worker or a slave, he or she is to be treated justly. Leviticus 24:17-22 makes this explicit:

17 ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. 18 The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. 19 If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. 21 Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’

(Note: similar passages can be found at Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Deuteronomy 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3-5.)

In light of these passages, does the situation of the modern immigrant and refugee correlate to the biblical picture? It certainly seems so. Central to the story of the Bible, Jacob and his sons flee economic hardship in order to reside in Egypt, where they are immigrants. In the book of Ruth an Israelite woman (Naomi), on account of famine (a natural disaster) emigrates to Moab. After her sons die, she returns with Ruth (now an immigrant) to Israel, where they live, essentially, as economic refugees. Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus do indeed flee a situation of political hostility (the government, Herod, wants to kill them) and reside as political refugees in Egypt. Central to the story of Christianity is that of displaced people seeking safety and hope in foreign lands, and crucial in God’s ethics towards displaced persons is our responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger in our land.

The_Good_Samaritan_After_Delacroix_-_Vincent_Van_Gogh

Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan

At this point someone might object that for those stories, their movements were ordained by God as part of His story and plan. That is true enough, but it was on account of those stories—and especially the original story of Israel in Egypt—that we receive the clear commandments from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the stranger in our land, irrespective of that stranger’s ethico-religious identity. Whatever the origin of the story, now we have inherited an ethic which governs our treatment of the displaced.

An Uneasy Ethical Balance
This, then, is the heart of our uneasy conversation about Christianity and immigration: on the one hand, we have a clear, Scriptural ethic to care for the stranger, and on the other hand, we have no clear Scriptural ethic about how to be a Christian in a secular nation-state. In light of this, I think the following, provisional conclusions are in order:

1) A Christian perspective does indeed carry ethical obligations toward the immigrant/refugee. If we take the Bible seriously, we must care for the stranger and seek justice for him or her.

2) To the degree that America is, in fact, a Christian nation, then it bears a Christian responsibility toward immigrants/refugees. By implication, Christians should be as pro-immigrant as they are pro-life.

3) To the degree that America is a Christian nation, to that same degree it bears economic, religious, and moral responsibilities as well. This will cover homosexuality and poverty, land reform and honouring the Sabbath.

As I close, let’s acknowledge two crucial factors. First, while conclusion #1 is unambiguous, neither #2 or #3 is in any sense ethically simple. Neither of the premises for #2 or #3 are clear (that America is a Christian nation), therefore the implications are necessarily murky.

But second, I’ve left aside one, looming question: what about illegal immigration? To answer that question, we will have to further consider the role of boundaries and self-identity in secular nation-states. For that discussion, we will need to return next week.

Orientalism—A Fourth Set of Thoughts (Othering and Bulverism)

Orientalism_Cover 4I’ve benefited immensely from my read of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, and lately I’ve been blogging through a few reflections on the implications and impact of that work. Today I want to think about Othering, Bulverism, and the danger of labelling.

‘Othering’ is a formal concept where I employ an identifying metric in my encounters with an ‘other’ in such a way that I both highlight the differences and reinforce my sense of self. In the encounter between my self and an other, the other is used as a foil for my own identity, and in the process I often fail to see him or her as a real person, with real narrative, and with real information to bring to a relational engagement. Today I want to reflect on how defining a process such as ‘othering’ is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time.

First, it is helpful because it does indeed describe many of the historic, and ongoing, interactions between the West and other cultures. One doesn’t have to search far to find evidence of Western reductionism, selfishness, and fetishization of non-Western ‘others.’ Orientalism has allowed the West to compartmentalize, and then no longer see, a group—by rendering them invisible, they can be ignored, reduced in narrative, and made simple. In short, Orientalism has been a disposition that makes discrimination possible. In this, as a label it is helpful as a diagnostic tool to mark, identify, and seek to redress these abuses.

At the same time, I think it can also be unhelpful. One of the hallmarks of modern discourse is labelling—if I can effectively and evocatively label a situation, or a wrong, then I can summarily defeat it. Think of the power of big labels such as “racism,” “abuse,” and “intolerance.” Think also of the power of lesser labels, such as “Becky,” “Wypipo,” “millennial,” or “snowflake.” If I can successfully label you, then I can summarily dismiss you. Partly, this appears to be nothing more than a turning of the tables—where once, the West in power labelled and dismissed non-Western others, now non-Western others are able to label and dismiss the West.

specialsnowflake meme

I was reminded, here, of something C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock (also published as Undeceptions), specifically about just and unjust arguments. His description is worth quoting in full:

Lewis_UndeceptionsIn the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In other words, the application of a preconditioned label—racist, liberal, Trump-supporter, snowflake, millennial, Baby Boomer, etc.—is sufficient argument enough. No more needs to be said, and no listening needs to happen. The argument, by virtue of the label, is rendered complete.

Crucial in Said’s account of Orientalism is his appeal to a kind of listening as a tonic for the abuses of the past—toward this goal, he utilizes the label of ‘othering’ as a diagnostic tool, but he does this in order to make an appeal for better communication and understanding between the East and West. In his own words, he argues that “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency and outright war.” (Orientalism, xiv, emphasis added) When labels are simply a power-play, then they can no longer facilitate this process.

In view of this, I am reminded of Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:22,

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell

Note that in this passage Jesus is giving instructions for how we are to behave when our brother has something against us (he says this explicitly in verse 23). We, in other words, are the offender in this passage. But our response is illuminating—first, we become angry with our brother for bringing a charge against us, then we call him a name (“good-for-nothing”), and finally we ascribe to him a label, “fool.” Labelling, in this passage, is the process of hardening our hearts to the claim of our brothers or sisters. It diminishes and reduces the complexity of the person. It is the antithesis of listening, and in Jesus’ instruction it is equated, in the end, to murder.

Sermon on the Mount_

It probably didn’t look like this.

Does that mean that no one is ever a fool? Of course not. There are scads of them. Just as there are scads of genuine snowflakes and racists in the world. But when we misuse those labels in petty power plays and in a context devoid of genuine listening, we put ourselves on what, according to Jesus, is a highly dangerous trajectory.

Don’t Preach Like Andy Stanley

Atlanta preacher Andy Stanley has crossed my news feed several times of late. Most recently, he was publicly criticized for a sermon where he troublingly interpreted Acts 15 by saying that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Numerous articles emerged (one of the best in First Things) to discuss Andy’s dangerous theological direction.

And yet, not long ago ,Andy was also in the Christian news circuit, listed among a set of the most influential Evangelical preachers. Stanley, the son of megachurch and radio preacher Charles Stanley, has piloted NorthPoint Community Church for years, an Atlanta megachurch with some 39,000 people in attendance weekly at its six campuses. He is an author, a traveling public speaker, and used to publish podcasts on leadership to which I would listen, in another life.

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In response to the recent furore over Andy’s April 29th comments about the Old Testament, I watched the YouTube video of the sermon. While indeed it was the case that I found the content of his sermon troubling, even more than that I found the sermon itself—his delivery, style, and manner, to be alarming. Since Stanley is so highly regarded as a preacher, and since I spend a lot of time thinking about preaching, I thought I’d suggest some reasons why we ought not to preach like Andy Stanley. I’ve got three such suggestions today.

#1) Are you Controlling?
Throughout his sermon Stanley repeated two phrases so many times that I lost count. He would assert “Now this is important,” and he would command the audience to “Look up here.” Now, if Stanley had digressed from his main point, and then used phrases like these to gather the congregation back to the main point again, I can see why they might be useful. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, these were deployed in what I can only guess was an attempt to try to keep the congregation’s focus razor sharp on what Stanley was doing at a given moment. They exhibited, to me, what appeared to be a desire for control over the congregation—control over their attention, their minds, their focus for the duration of the service. I think this kind of (attempted) control is really dangerous for preachers.

It is dangerous, among other things, because it creates a climate of distrust and of performance. When a preacher continuously labours to keep your attention, it is because, at heart, he doesn’t believe you’re really listening, because he doesn’t trust you. This opens the door for phrases like Stanley’s, for gimmicks, and for any number of “creative” means for keeping congregations interested (movie clips, song lyrics, images, etc.). It also creates a culture of performance—after all, the really faithful Christians are the ones who hang on every word, who take extensive notes, and who can repeat the points of the sermon easily at lunch after the service. Those who can’t are, by implication, lesser Christians.

I was once at a Youth event with a guest preacher who was a short, muscular, African-American man. As is often the case at weekend Youth events, the youths stay up late fellowshipping, playing, and eating cup noodles (you can pick your own snack, but I was with Asians and cup noodles after midnight are a must-have). After one (or maybe two) such nights, one of my members fell asleep in the back row of the hall where we were meeting. This was unsurprising—not only had he been up late, but he was a generally tired guy. Well, the speaker noted this from the front, and then suddenly left the front, marched to the back, and sat on my member’s lap! He then whispered in his ear (I found this out later), “Do you think you can stay awake now?” From that point on, everybody stayed awake, but when I asked them about it later they told me it was because they were terrified that the muscular speaker might do something to them! He had won his point, but lost his audience in the process.

Cup Noodles_Kimchi

When I was a beginning preacher I had an idea of the perfect sermon that looked a lot like what I think is going on in Stanley’s sermon. I thought that the ideal message would keep a congregation spellbound for the duration of the sermon—locked in attention, immobile, perfectly hanging on every word. Toward that end, I used to refuse to give out notes for sermons because I felt that if I were doing my job properly, they wouldn’t need any notes. Then, one Sunday morning, a young woman came up to me after the service and told me that she was seeking God, and enjoyed coming to church, but that sometimes she just couldn’t follow along with the sermons. In that moment I heard God speak to me with impressive clarity. He said, “Jeremy, will you keep this young woman from learning about Me because you have some stupid idea of what a sermon should be like?” I was immediately chastised, and from that time on I always printed and handed out notes for sermons. I also changed my philosophy of preaching. Instead of aiming for the pied-piper spellbound model of sermon, I realized that the very best sermons are when people stop listening to you completely because God is doing something in them. You’ve said something, and they begin to think about their lives, about what it means, about how the Word impacts them. I realized that losing people in this way was way more important than keeping them focused on me. And that meant, last of all, that the best sermons are the ones that provide easy ways for people to get back on board. “On ramps,” we used to call them in Seminary—phrases like, “Back to John 14,” or “Returning to our main point, that Jesus heals today…”—these phrases bring a congregation back to the text, and show how a preacher can guide without being controlling.

#2) Are you Angry?
Another thing stood out to me prominently during the 40-odd minutes of Stanley’s sermon—there wasn’t a lot of joy. There was intensity, focus, and drive—there were moments of elevated energy and a few jokes, but on the whole there was something monochromatic. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the emotion which dominated Stanley’s sermon was actually anger. Now, anger is a perfectly suitable emotion for a sermon when it is directed at a just cause, or framed by a situation that calls for anger, but throughout this sermon it felt more like anger was the passive, baseline emotion which drove everything along. Not only did I find this really interesting, I realized that it might explain a common preaching phenomenon.

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Are you able to discern the actual line between intensity and anger?

I found this interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them because I’ve been someone who has had to discern and diagnose my own anger, which had become the passive emotional baseline in my own life. When my own anger was undiagnosed, it leaked out through my energy, my creativity, and my relationships. Anger that is unprocessed doesn’t go away—it stays and festers, shaping, distorting, and limiting all other emotions. It took time for me to recognize this pattern and begin to reframe it accordingly.

As I thought about this angry sermon, I had a sudden realization. Preachers often talk about “really feeling it,” or “really preaching.” They may use other words, but it describes the emotional state of being totally engaged in the sermon, of really feeling like you are preaching. Often, preachers will diagnose this experience as a work of the Spirit, moving the preacher to this excited emotional level—furthermore, they often take it as a sign of God’s favour with what they are preaching. But what, I wondered, if many preachers have simply misdiagnosed their anger? What if this heightened emotional state isn’t the rush God’s Spirit, but rather the rush of my own anger? The symptoms would be the same—a sense of energy, of elevation, potentially an adrenaline rush, followed by a subsequent emotional crash. Side effects would be frustration at distractions—a baby crying, a person getting up to use the restroom, or mishaps with sound equipment. Preachers who feel they are “really preaching” are often, to my knowledge, also really keyed up.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think it is true. I’ve listened to some of my friends preach, and their sense of ‘feeling it’ is outwardly indistinguishable from anger. Not long ago I listened to Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (for First Things). In it he was affable, brilliant, and prophetic. I decided then to listen to his MLK50 sermon, in which he was, well, angry. If the difference between the first talk and the second was that the second was a sermon, then this seems to confirm my thesis even further.

Russell Moore

There are lots of reasons for pastors to feel angry—their own personal pain, undiagnosed wounds, a sense of the burden of ministry, frustration at members, and so forth. And the truth of the matter is not that pastors ought never to feel angry, but that we’ve got to examine, diagnose, and process it so that it doesn’t leak out into our ministries. Unless anger is specifically called for, I would suggest that the dominant baseline emotions for a preacher ought to be either peace, joy, or a combination of the two.

#3) Are you Preaching Bad Theology?
I think this final question requires the least amount of reflection. As I said earlier, I’ve listened to Stanley’s sermon in full, and I feel that it is deeply theologically troubling. Even a charitable read, which focuses on Stanley’s intentions, leaves much to be desired with regard to Acts 15, the Gentile inclusion in the Church, and the (ongoing!) role of the Old Testament in the moral lives of God’s Church.

The thing is, good theology isn’t Stanley’s primary goal. His primary goal—which he has executed with great effectiveness—is to build a church “where unchurched people love to attend.” As far as it goes, this is a solid goal, and it’s clear that Stanley has succeeded enormously. It is also clear from the content of his sermon that this goal is operating in the background of his theology—his desire to “unhitch” the Old Testament is rooted in the perception that the Old Testament might keep people from coming to faith. In this, he sees the story of Acts 15 and the Gentile inclusion as a kind of snapshot of his own ministry (where the Jerusalem council is also creating a church where un-churched people will love to attend).

Andy Stanley_Old Testament

A screenshot from the April 29 Sermon.

But note—this seems to suggest that Stanley’s theology is being shaped by his vision, rather than his vision being shaped by theology. And this means we’ve got to have some discernment of values. We’ve got to be careful that our local vision for the church doesn’t war against a) the scriptures, b) the creeds, c) the church global. Theology is that funny chimera born within the midst of those three features, and while it is by no means monolithic, it does have a discernible centre. If my desire to create a church were unchurched people love to attend begins to cause me to edit and reshape some of that theological centre, then I’m stepping into enormously dangerous territory. That’s why there is a discernment of values. The Church is allowed enormous, almost astonishing, freedom of local expression, and yet she must maintain her ties to those centres of focus. When “local expressions” begin to trump the orthodox middle, it is then that we’ve got serious problems.

Andy Stanley has a powerful ministry with enormous impact. But don’t be like him. Be like you, and serve where God has planted you, and try to do it without controlling, without a spirit of anger, and in solid theological company.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Schadenfreude and the Psalms

Every Christian who reads the Psalms devotionally is confronted with a dilemma. The Psalms are a book of prayers, of the recorded prayers of the people of God as they recount the various and diverse experiences of their humanity in relationship with God. Thus, recording this intimate conversation between God and His people, the Psalms are heartfelt, and rich, and occasionally quite raw. The raw quality is most evident in what are called the imprecatory Psalms, those prayers that cry out for vengeance. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the language, such as in Psalm 58:6 where David cries out, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God!” Or consider his ironic request from Psalm 109:17, “He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him.” Or maybe you’ve read the stunning, astonishing prayer of Psalm 137:9, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” If the Psalms are a book of prayer for God’s people—a book that shapes and forms our emotions for God—then how are we supposed to pray such prayers?

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When I was young and didn’t really have enemies, this was merely an academic question. But as I’ve gotten older and gathered opponents, this question has become more pressing. Just the other day an enemy of mine was brought low. This is not a person you know, and, as a matter of fact, it is not someone that I know, either. As is often the case in our world today, this is a person I’ve observed online, and this person had been belligerent, unkind, unwilling to listen to reason, and in the process had actively and publicly deceived the people of God by means of what that person believed to be ministry. When I learned that this person had been brought low, I could not contain a kind of pleasure; it was an emotion the Germans describe as schadenfreude. You’ve probably felt it too at some point, because it describes the pleasure we take at another person’s misfortune.

I take it as axiomatic that a significant part of growth into Christian holiness and maturity is growth into Godly emotions, what Jonathan Edwards termed our affections. I am increasing in holiness not so much when my conduct appears holy (although this is important), but when my inner man loves the things God loves, and hates the things God hates. In this, the Scriptures are to be seen as a book which shape our affections, molding our inner persons to love rightly those things that are most worthy of love. It seems clear to me that the Psalms, perhaps more than any other book, expose us to these primal, ordered, loves and hates after which we must pattern our own affections. With this in mind we might consider Psalm 139—that marvelous poem about God’s loving and creative hand. In God’s hands we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and in the record of God’s plan are written “the days that were ordained for me.” Rising in praise, David cries out, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!” Indeed, how precious—and many people, I suspect, would prefer it if the Psalm ended there, but the following verses mark a startling turn, because right after this David cries, “O that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and then, “I hate them with the utmost hatred.” Such a reversal of mood might cause a modern reader to wonder if perhaps David were not bipolar. However, when we consider that the Psalms are training our affections, then possibly we can see that the journey from understanding the intensity of God’s loving provision for us, to understanding the intensity of hatred for those things which draw us from that provision of God, is not so distant after all. The more I come to love the things of God, the more I ought, quite naturally, to come to hate the things that He hates as well. This is an essential component of what it means to train our hearts for holiness.

jonathan-edwards

Edwards is unquestionably America’s greatest theologian.

Let’s return now to schadenfreude—the pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. If this is indeed an emotion I experience, then it is one of the emotions which requires shaping by the Scriptures. Do I find warrant for the experience of schadenfreude in the Scriptures? The answer is, in some ways, yes. When Moses composes his song after the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in Exodus 15, the lyrics open with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea,” and a few lines later Moses cries out, “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is His name.” This is a song of clear exultation at the demise of Pharaoh and his army. The Israelites are singing a song of pleasure at the demise of their enemies. It is an anthem of schadenfreude. This is not the only example. Malachi 4:2-3, exulting in the coming day of the Lord’s judgment, says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” A nice enough image, is it not? But the following verse turns it somewhat grim, “‘You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the Lord of hosts.” The calf is leaping for joy because it is leaping upon the ashes of its enemies!

Does this mean, then, that schadenfreude is one of the emotions I can cultivate on my journey towards Christian holiness? Consider for a moment the curious warning offered in Proverbs 24:17-18, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Or the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him.” This appears to be a straightforward warning but gets odder the more you consider it. We are commanded not to rejoice when our enemies fall, and not to let our hearts be glad when he stumbles, and this appears at first like a clear warning against schadenfreude. And yet, look closely at the second clause: the reason the Proverb urges us to restrain from rejoicing is because if we rejoice, God might lay off His punishment of the wicked person. In other words, if my rejoicing will shorten your suffering, then I better keep a straight face so that your suffering will continue longer!

Does this imply that pleasure at another’s misfortune an unqualified good in the Christian life? Not quite. One of the things that is not immediately clear in the Psalms is the way that the experience of exultation—that unique joy at the vindication and revelation of God’s perfect justice—is placed squarely on God’s justice more than on the persons of the wicked. The Psalmist who praises God’s justice has in view God’s justice, not the wicked. The pleasure he experiences is the pleasure of vindication, the pleasure of things being made right. And while there is a piece of that pleasure which, yes, is found in the fittingness of a wicked person receiving his or her comeuppance, I don’t think that this is the primary pleasure we ought to exult in. This is an important distinction. The more I seek the pleasure of witnessing the wicked be brought low, the less I am looking at God’s perfection—in fact, my sight becomes distorted by my undue focus on the wicked themselves (and you should look to Psalm 73 for when this happens). It is David’s focus on God’s goodness that makes him despise the wicked in Psalm 139, not David’s hatred of the wicked that makes him love God more. And it is here, I suspect, that schadenfreude requires Scriptural shaping, shifting its focus from the pleasure at the individual’s misfortune, to pure pleasure at God’s vindication and His revealed, eternal justice.

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“He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.” Psalm 37:6

I don’t know that any of this gets us closer to understanding quite how we are supposed to navigate the complex feelings we have when our enemies receive comeuppance. I can only offer an autobiographical answer. When, the other day, my enemy received a comeuppance, I did experience a moment of vindication, and furthermore, intermingled with that vindication was a feeling of distinct pleasure. I think that, rightly understood, this is merely the reflection of my heart’s inward desire for justice being fulfilled. There is a kind of universal fittingness whenever bad things happen to bad people—it’s the way we are imprinted to believe that the universe works, because we are creatures made with a longing for justice. However, my pleasure was rapidly tempered by a few thoughts. First, I wondered to myself who might feel such pleasure at my downfall? And furthermore, am I certain that I am in the right? And in turn these thoughts gave way to prayer, because I did not wish for the destruction of this person more than I wished for repentance and change on their part. I hoped that the experience would bring about an adjustment in thinking, in attitude, and in public discourse. Critical to recognize for the Christian who wishes to grow in holiness is that it will be difficult to experience full-blown schadenfreude when you are praying for your enemies and blessing those who persecute you. Heartfelt prayer means that my intentions toward all the individuals in my life, those with whom I agree as well as those with whom I disagree, means that I am eager for all of their difficult experiences to bear fruit in greater repentance, more Christlikeness, and real, lasting change.

In the end, it seems to me that the right ordering of the experience of schadenfreude is to ensure that my exultation and rejoicing are situated more upon the inevitability of God’s justice than it is on the suffering of the person. Should I look to rejoice in the visible displays of God’s justice? Most certainly, and rightly, and it is good and meet so to do. And yet we must be ever cautious to ensure that our pleasure gives way to compassion, concern, personal reflection, and deeper prayer.