Extraversion, Covid-19, and Spirituality

Bonhoeffer_closeupIn the midst of our present global scenario—of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, of distance learning, work from home, and digital churches—a phrase from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together keeps coming to mind: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”

Bonhoeffer’s meaning is simple enough. We regularly make use of either solitude or groups to hide our insecurities—whether those insecurities are the stillness of being alone or the energy of being with others. Whole people need both. The Church needs both.

Drifting prominently across my news feed these past weeks have been the increasingly urgent concerns of my more extraverted friends. Typically, it is the introverts in my life who post plaintive image macros about how much they’d rather be inside, alone, and about how much they relish cancelled plans. But a notable reversal sees my extraverted friends panicking that they have to stay inside. Desperate for connection, they’ve jacked up their online presence: they’re posting photos and videos of themselves doing things (any number of things), they’re standing in their doorways and shouting to their neighbours, and they clarify with some urgency that “social distancing” isn’t human, or humane, that we’re not made for this, and then follow up their concerns with a correction: “Social distancing isn’t right—it’s physical distancing that matters!”

cancelled plans macro

Go ahead and google it. “Introvert memes.” They’re a dime a dozen.

In these moments I hear Bonhoeffer in the background: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community.” With this in mind, I think there are two things I want to speak into this situation. One is to the church generally, the other is to clergy.

To the Church: Our present situation warrants serious reflection on Bonhoeffer’s warning. In particular, it seems to me that certain extraverted church members have collapsed being social into being the Church, while certain introverted church members have collapsed being alone into being spiritual. No doubt the Church is a social entity; no doubt significant spiritual activity happens in solitude. It is also beyond doubt that neither tells the whole human story. Today, however, I want to focus on the distortion of my extraverted friends.

jungIn case you’re not familiar with the terms, ‘extraverted’ and ‘introverted’ are personality types devised by Carl Jung, based on his broad observations of a multitude of clients. Some of them, he came to see, were recharged by being with people, while others, he perceived, were recharged by being alone. I’ve put ‘recharged’ in italics both times because it’s the key phrase here—extraversion and introversion are measurements of energy, not social skill, as is commonly thought (there are socially incompetent extraverts and socially expert introverts).

See, my extraverted friends, I used to be one of you. I used to be addicted to being with people, around people, and they gave me immense energy and I was energized and enlivened by being among you. But something happened during the ten years I was a pastor. People went from energizing, to utterly draining. I still loved my congregation, and still used a lot of energy while in groups, but it would take me, on average, about double the time in solitude to recover from any meeting I had. I suddenly needed lots of time alone. I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m an introvert.

I tell this story is because I want you to know that I’m not one of those smug introverts who, confident in the superiority of being alone over being in groups, is taking advantage of your present confinement to tell you how bad you are and to dish out a little of your own medicine. All the same, the person who cannot be alone should beware community. What is Bonhoeffer teaching us right now? Many of you are revealing that you cannot be alone, and I suspect that this incapacity to be alone is impacting how we think about spirituality. More to the point, I fear that we’ve collapsed the complexity of communal spirituality into the simplicity of energized gatherings. We get together, we chat and visit, we sing and listen to a sermon, and we go home feeling good about ourselves, but the ‘good feeling’ may or may not be spiritual in origin. It might just be that a group of extraverts have been recharged by being together and doing extraverted things. Doing ‘churchy’ things is no guarantee of spiritual benefit. Neither, for that matter, is feeling ‘churchy’ feelings.

Babylon Bee Introverts

The Babylon Bee even posted about the joys of introverts during the quarantine.

To put this another way, I fear that a lot of our spiritual practice may be dominated by extraverted dispositions. Extraverted pastors, cultivating extraverted churches, where extraverted people engage in extraverted forms of spirituality. And I see evidence of this domination in our ecclesial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Why should not being able to meet, temporarily, result in such panic for so many of the people I see? Why should staying home for two weeks be so deeply frightening? Why is it that we must immediately set up a host of Zoom meetings to keep our Churches meeting, meeting, and meeting?

Christmas a mess

Even this little one can’t enjoy Christmas.

Face it—we’re really bad at being alone. We’re even worse at being still. We fill and populate our minds and our time with noise and things so that we can hold the stillness at bay. I feel this general noisiness especially around Christmastime. For years now I’ve felt that there was something deeply wrong with how we approach Christmas. Busy, busy, busy! Buying, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, preparing, getting Christmas cards together, gathering the last of the shopping—and then, finally, we all take one day off to rest, Christmas Day. But by the time we get there we’re so knackered from preparing for a day off, that that day itself is nearly ruined.

The reason this seems so odd to me is because even when I was growing up, the world was much better at taking a weekly Sabbath. This wasn’t that long ago, but on Sundays all the shops were closed. Need to shop? Do it another day. Need groceries? Get them another day. Need to look at cars? Do it next Saturday. Need to make a business call? Wait till Monday. When the world was in the habit of regular retreat from the busyness of life, Christmas was a bonus sabbath in a year of Sabbaths. Nowadays, it’s the only one we take—and we’re so busy we ruin it.

The point, my friends, is that we have been given a gift—the gift of solitude, of extended Sabbath. Why are we trying to ruin it with our excessive busyness? Why are we struggling to remember the Sabbath Day, and its joy of retreat from the normative busyness of life? Now is the time to be still, to reflect on being alone, and to really learn what it means to be the Church in solitude—to separate our spirituality from our extraversion. That’s where the clergy come in.

Empty churches

Pastor Troy Dobbs at Grace Church Eden Prairie in Minnesota on Sunday.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

To Clergy: One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry, I believe, is the unfair ratio of visible to invisible work, of tangible to intangible objectives. What I mean is that pastors typically get credit for their time for those things that appear to the church. For a small to mid-size church, that means an hour’s visible work on Sunday morning, maybe two if you teach Sunday School. People look at this visible work and conclude that you’ve got it easy. They say things like, “Well, you’ve done your hour’s work for the week! I wish I could get paid to do so little. Ha ha ha.” (You find you never laugh with them.) Members can ask, “So, what is it you do all week?” Their intonation makes it clear that they don’t think you do very much at all. The average time required for sermon prep, I understand, is between 8-20 hours per week. But you don’t get credit for that time, because it’s invisible. You don’t get credit for visiting sick families, teaching a weekly bible study, answering your phone, reading spiritually to enrich your own faith, praying for your congregation, or attending a board meeting. Pastoral ministry is dominated by the intangibles, and if we’re not careful this can be deeply frustrating.

Comic_You're not busy

The first reason this is frustrating is because clergy can fall into this visibility trap and come to believe that their chief value is in their visible work. This involves a severe flattening of the pastoral office—prayer, solitude, personal spiritual development; care, concern, support; vision, planning, implementation, management—each of these categories is a significant part of the clerical office. They are also invisible. The pastor who puts all of his eggs into the basket of visible actions will distort the office and enervate the life of the church. It’s like a gardener who spends more time posing for promotional pictures than tending to the trees. The pictures may look great, but the invisible work has to go on.

dont-skip-leg-day-bro-24045203-1jw8jmjBut we can compound the problem further with a second reason. Let’s imagine you’re a pastor who is extraverted, who gets a charge from being with your people. Suddenly, not only has the visible portion of your work been taken away from you, but you are also prohibited from connecting with the people who give you life. If you’ve only focused on extraverted spirituality, to the neglect of introverted spirituality, then there’s a good chance you’ve been skipping leg day in your spiritual workouts. And Covid-19 has commanded you to lift a piano with your legs.

To tie this all together, I suspect that, suddenly, a lot of the pastors in the world find themselves feeling the need to justify their existence. Their visible work is removed from them, and now they have to find a new and creative way to prove their value. It is all too easy in the pastoral office to allow identity to be intertwined with visible busyness, and visible busyness militates against stillness and solitude. Finding oneself in a place of hollow busyness, many pastors attempt to justify their busyness as spirituality. But the more activist we are in ministry, the less our contemplative muscles get worked. We need both. But for some pastors who are now forced to be alone and still it may amount to a crisis of identity, if not of faith.

But pastoring is so much more than public teaching, and there’s no time like now to show people what that looks like. I’ve got four suggestions:

1) Let the big churches be the big churches. There are a whole ton of great preaching pastors out there who are better than you, more professional than you, and who already know how to use the technology better than you. Why not just outsource your teaching for this season? Send your people out on ‘visitation’ to see how the big dogs do their digital ministry. Then, instead of you teaching, you can hold a discussion group for after the teaching. Go ahead and have your Zoom meeting, but instead of being the one talking, you get to do the listening and hear about what other people learned in their digital churches this week.

2) Focus on your people. As clergy, your job has always been your people. That hasn’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is the ability to gather in a big group. So this is as great a time as any to get out the phone list and call every single parishioner on it. Write down a few key questions ahead of time. Do you have everything you need? How are you holding up? How’s your spirit? How can I pray for you? If your people don’t like the phone, send them a chat or text. Your care for your people will be evident more in your connections than in your digital sermons.

3) Make the most of your time. What a time you have to plan for the future! To pray, reflect, and read, to listen to God and attempt to hear what He wants for the future of your congregation. This is the best of times to write out some sermon outlines, or plan some Sunday School lessons, or just to take a break. Put your feet up and listen to some music, or spend time in your garden, or prepare a feast and eat it, or play games with your family. Now is the time to remember that busyness is not spirituality. Live it, and then you’ll be able to teach it better.

4) Be still and alone. The best of all is time to simply be still. Recently I’ve read through Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—a book that argues that the training of attention is essential to the achievement of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi writes, that “unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided attention.” This is your chance, O clergy and parishioners, to develop your attention, to piggyback on enforced solitude as an opportunity for personal development. Take the time! Stop being so busy! And… just rest.

Some Really Terrible Coronavirus Sermon Illustrations

It’s Saturday night, and all over the world pastors are scrambling to put the final touches on their sermons this week. This week is unique, of course, since the spread of the Covid-19 virus has caused many churches to move, for the first time, to fully digital services.

messy-desk-23983More important than getting the tech right—which is a nightmare in itself!—is coming up with some killer eleventh-hour sermon applications from the coronavirus situation. After all, what preacher is worth his or her salt who cannot monopolize on a situation like this, to speak rich and profound spiritual meaning into a global situation by means of thin theology and vague reference points? That’s why I’m here to help. I’ve come up with the following awful terrible fantastic sermon illustrations, so you don’t have to.

“Pastor, tell me what it all means?!”

Pastor, your people are hungry for meaning. Are you going to give it to them, or not? In what is really the easiest of all sermon illustrations here you get to fill in the blank with whatever it is you (or your members) don’t like. “Do you want to know what this coronavirus means? I’ll tell you what it means. It’s God’s judgment against _______.” See that blank, there? You can put in whatever you want! Abortion, the Gays, NAFTA, Global Warming, Obama, the Kardashians. The possibilities are endless, so get creative!

Another easy sermon point is to utilize the play on words between coronavirus and corona beer. This one has potential because nobody, as far as I can tell, has noticed the similarities yet. It means we’ve got a great opportunity to take up the cause of Teetotalism again, and to get our all-too alcohol-sodden members to stop drinking the devil’s juice. “The virus is here because you’ve been drinking! Stop drinking, and the virus will go away!”

corona beer

Another way to force interpret meaning from the epidemic is to start with some scripture. This model takes a little more thought, but can be really useful. Here, you’ve got to find a passage with a thin relationship to global events, then twist relate it so that it aligns perfectly with what’s going on. I’ll give you some examples.

Consider a passage like Leviticus 14:36 “Then the priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease, lest all that is in the house be declared unclean. And afterward the priest shall go in to see the house.” See, there were rules in the Old Testament about how to approach a plague-filled house (plague = coronavirus). The quarantine, in other words, is calling people everywhere to seek priestly purity. The purpose of this time is to make everyone purify themselves! The plague is God telling your members to get their houses in order.

Another great example is Numbers 32:13, which says that “And the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone.” Here, the Israelites are forced to wander in the desert until an entire generation has passed away. Since the coronavirus is most lethal for the elderly, clearly this is God’s judgment on that generation! The Israelites sinned because they were faithless upon entering the land, and you can pick whatever sins you want to lay at the feet of today’s elderly—the housing crash, the 60s, Joe Biden—as before, the list is only limited by your imagination!

A Final Illustration: Toilet Paper and Praise

No image has been more pervasive, or generated more outrage, than that of people hoarding toilet paper. The wise pastor will harness the outrage, piggy-backing on it to give punch to his sermon illustration. I’ll tell you how to do it (and I’ll also tell you that it’s so good I wish I was preaching tomorrow!) Here’s how to do it: you’ve got to link the odiousness of hoarding toilet paper to the odiousness of hoarding praise from God! See the link?! People are hoarding toilet paper, and we all think they’re horrible; but how much more horrible are we when we hoard what belongs to God—the praise He is due! Don’t you see, sinner, that you are as awful in God’s eyes for hoarding praise as those people at Costco are for hoarding all the toilet roll? Repent, now, or the virus will get you!

toilet paper hoarding

I hope these illustrations are helpful to all the pastors preparing sermons tonight. They’re guaranteed to make your people feel good about themselves, to make people you don’t like feel guilty, and above all to make you feel good about yourself. Oh, and one last thing—remember that when people groan at your sermons it’s a sign that you’ve really hit home.

Orientalism—Othering and the Kingdom of God

Orientalism_Cover2As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”

Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.

Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.

Boundaries_Shoes

“He who knows one culture knows no culture.” ~ David Augsburger

However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.

The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?

Oriental Restaurant

What kind of food is actually being served here?

An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.

ridwan_adhami_islamophobia1

Photo by Ridwan Adhami

As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.

There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.

Dutch East India Company Flag

This is the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which famously (or infamously) married its acceptance of Christian missions to its profit margins. Missionaries, often enough, were reduced to advance agents for empire.

Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.

Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.

Guns and the 120th Psalm

The relentless spate of mass shootings in America lends itself to one grim, consistent conclusion: America is a violent place. And if there is any lesson to be learnt from one of these recent mass shootings—specifically the one at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas—it is that there is no place safe from such violence. It will enter schools, workplaces, and churches alike, without discrimination or fear.

sutherlandsprings-l

An act of violence inside the Church, however, especially foregrounds the Church’s response to violence. Violence brings cameras, and cameras highlight attention, and attention gives birth to talking points, dialogue, and diatribe. If for this reason alone, where the violence of America comes into contact with America’s houses of Christian worship, the very Christianity of the response must be abundantly clear. Few opportunities are provided to the Church where we can witness that are more profound than when we stand alongside the suffering.

The situation is ripe for a truly Christian response, a prophetic witness spoken in the very midst of a culture of extreme and senseless violence. And yet two dominant responses emerged from the shooting in Texas. Christians offered “thoughts and prayers,” and Christians talked about the need for more guns in Church. Neither is particularly Christian. Neither addresses a culture of violence.

It is clear, with regard to “thoughts and prayers,” that individuals who offer these are well-intentioned. They mean, by the phrase, to assert a kind of solidarity with the victims and survivors of such attacks. Solidarity is commendable in its own way, and yet it is also clear that there is little to distinguish “thoughts and prayers” from the more generic “positive thinking.” And when you think about it further, one begins to wonder if the sentiment of “thoughts and prayers” is properly Christian at all. A comic, making the rounds on social media, has captured this pointedly. The image is of the injured man on the road to Jericho, while an individual—either the Levite or the Pharisee—walks past without helping. The caption below cements the irony: he offers the injured man “Thoughts and Prayers!”

thoughts and prayers

There may be, admittedly, a hint of snide self-righteousness in the comic, it nevertheless makes a point worth taking to heart: that Christian help in the Scriptures is nearly always practical help. When Jesus praises the sheep in the great judgment, they are praised for feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and helping the sick. When Jesus condemns the goats, it is because they have failed to do these things. In the same spirit, James 2:15-17 is startlingly specific, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Thoughts and prayers, when they do not include physical, material assistance, are clearly in violation of James 2:15-17. More to the point for our purposes, how do “thoughts and prayers” offer practical assistance in challenging or bringing change to a culture of violence? Before you object, please note that I recognize that there are a host of Christians who are offering real, practical help to victims and families of victims from events like the shooting in Sutherland Springs. I am not questioning their piety or obedience in the slightest. What I do question is how our Christian responses to these acts of violence is working to change the culture of violence. To this query, the answer appears to be quite clear that thoughts and prayers are especially useless as mechanisms for changing such a culture.

The other dominant response I heard from Christians in regard to the shooting in Sutherland Springs was an appeal for more guns in the Church. The straightforward logic appears to be that, had there been guns in the Church in Sutherland Springs—armed membership, or armed security—then the congregants might have stopped the shooter before things got out of hand. They could have shot him before he shot them. And it seems clear that many Christians in churches across America think it is their Christian, and civic, duty to bear arms in the congregation of God’s people in order to protect God’s people from dangerous malcontents who might attempt what was accomplished in that Texas church. There is definitely a kind of logic to this—but once again we must ask, “Is it Christian logic?” Doesn’t Jesus clearly teach in Matthew (26:52) that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword?” And are we to conclude that more violence—or even the threat of potential violence—is really the answer to the problem of violence in America? Is self-arming the embodiment of a prophetic response to a culture of violence?

Guns in Church

Credit Pool Photo by Ed Reinke, New York Times

These realities made me think about Psalm 120—especially its final two verses: “Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” This psalm seems to encapsulate what it means to speak both to and within a culture of violence. Consider the whole psalm for a moment:

1In my trouble I cried to the Lord,
And He answered me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,
From a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you,
You deceitful tongue?
Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With the burning coals of the broom tree.

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war.

When I studied this Psalm in seminary I remember well Iain Provan’s comments on the text. He drew connections between the cities that are named, and the narrative the psalmist documents. For example, he noted that “Kedar had a reputation for archery (Isa. 21:17); while Meshech was the homeland of the Scythians, bowmen of proverbial cruelty (2 Macc. 4:47).” In other words, the narrative itself is designed to highlight the fact that the psalmist’s longing for peace is uttered in the context of a people who are steeped in traditions of war.

Psalm 120 presents some challenging questions. Does the Church fail to speak for peace because it is so inundated in a culture of violence? Has the American Church lost its ability to speak against violence? In the cry for more guns in the Church is the voice for peace drowned out by the voice for war? Is the American Church so in love with guns that it cannot imagine challenging them? Do words for peace, for change, fall on deaf ears because for too long we have dwelt among the tents of the gun owners, for too long we have sojourned in the company of the gun manufacturers? Has our American context become something that prevents our Christian witness against violence as a way of life? Have we had, for too long, our dwelling among those who hate peace? And, perhaps, have we even lost the ability to lament such a situation?

All of this, of course, is simply preamble to a more significant challenge: What would it look like for Christians in America to take a thoroughly Christian stand against a culture of pervasive gun violence? What are we going to do, not only to protect ourselves, but our homes, families, schools, and institutions? What are we going to do to seek the welfare of the city around us? How are we going to take a stand for positive change?

We have two options: we can strive to change people’s hearts (we can preach the gospel of peace), and we can labor to change our nation’s laws. And that, my friends, is going to look a great deal like gun control.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.