Those People

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Yesterday, my cousin posted a news article about a woman who had repeatedly punched a 12 year old who was carrying a Trump sign while riding his bike. Thankfully, he reported what happened and it is currently being investigated. I wish I could say something like this crime surprised me, but it doesn’t, at least not anymore. Sadly, I also was not surprised at the comments. People were quick to write that this sort of behavior is “typical” of democrats and we “only hear of democrats doing crap like this.” I don’t know about you, but this sort of animosity fills my Facebook feed every day. I routinely have to resist rushing in to defend “my side” and I am not always successful.

Here’s the thing: The problem isn’t those people. It’s you. It’s me. When we physically attack people for carrying Trump (or Biden) signs, we reveal the evil within our own hearts, not theirs. When we say this sort of behavior is “typical of democrats” (or republicans), we convict ourselves, not them.

Friends, our self-righteousness and divisive attitudes are literally killing us. We make sweeping assumptions about the hearts and motives of people who think differently than we do. We presume that those people are evil, so by extension, we must be good. The consequence of this way of thinking is division, not love, and every single one of us is guilty.

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  • When you feel compelled to share an article critical of those people, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Am I honoring their humanity?”
  • When you feel angry about what those people have said or done, ask yourself, “In what ways do I do similar things?” Consider not only your actions, but your words and thoughts, which have a greater effect than you might imagine.
  • When you want to respond to someone who thinks differently than you do, whether online or in person, practice the pause. Ask yourself, “Have I stopped to listen to what they are trying to say?” When we don’t try to listen and understand, we contribute to the hatred.
  • Resist the urge to call those people names.
  • Pray for peace, within the world and within yourself. If you have a hard time praying, consider reading the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Above all, do no harm…

I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.

The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.

Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.

What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.

How have we as Christians come to this place where our principal value, stated or unstated is not, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but rather “Don’t tread on me”?

I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.

If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.

Toxic Versus Healthy Skepticism

Earlier today, I shared an article written by David French on my Facebook page titled Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment. He offered us a lot of food for thought regarding political theology, conspiratorial thinking, and the connection with the ninth commandment, which tells us not to spread falsehood about others. The article stirred some great conversation and questions amidst my friends. My friend Tim offered some great push back and I suggested that it is good for us as believers to differentiate between healthy and toxic skepticism. He wrote, “I ask for you to help me differentiate healthy skepticism and toxic skepticism within myself.” I thought, “yeah…how do we differentiate?” So let me offer a few incomplete thoughts about how to recognize toxic skepticism within ourselves.

First, I think it is always good to start with ourselves, though so much of our culture invites us to look externally when things go wrong. I frequently encourage people to ask the question “Is it possible I am wrong?“, though I suspect that for many of us, our initial motivation is to question the truthfulness of others when there is disagreement. It is easy to assume that our assumptions and influences come from a pure heart while consciously or subconsciously assuming that others are motivated by evil, emotion, or ignorance.

The second suggestion relates to the first. We need to get in the habit of asking “What are the costs and benefits of accepting a viewpoint?” For example, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There have been substantial costs to those of us in the 19%, especially when we have continued to express our dissent. For me, the most notable cost has been relational. Yet, there has also been benefit including finding a community of like-minded people who have a vision for what can be.

Third, I think it is good to ask how outlandish a perspective is? For example, known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said that the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead was completely fake and was staged to promote stricter gun control policies. Jones was not merely offering an alternative viewpoint, he was spouting evil falsehood yet some people believed him. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible?”, “Is it plausible?”, and, based on the preponderance of the evidence, “Is it likely?”

Fourth, if we are considering rejecting the majority, or consensus, opinion, it is good to ask ourselves why we would do so. If the majority of epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and medical organizations suggest that wearing a mask represents current best practice in regard to COVID-19, it is good to ask ourselves, “Why am I willing to reject the majority in favor of minority opinion?” Some people are skeptical of scientists because they seem to change their recommendations, which fails to acknowledge that best practice in science allows for adaptation as new information comes to light. They were not lying to us; they were offering the best evidence at the time. Scientists are not only willing to ask, “Is it possible I am wrong,” it is crucial to the scientific method. I agree that it is frustrating when recommendations change, but it should not lead to the logical conclusion that we should then ignore them altogether.

Fifth, I think we need to be careful about confusing anecdotes with evidence. All of us hear counter-examples that stir skepticism. In my mind, that can be a healthy skepticism, but if we ignore mountains of data because someone we know said something different, it can be toxic. For example, if I know someone who developed COVID-19, had mild flu like symptoms, and recovered, it does not follow that I should then assume that that this coronavirus is not a big deal and ignore the recommendations from the scientific community. I must also consider the world-wide reporting about its seriousness.

Sixth, for those of us who are Christians, there are a whole host of questions that humility and prudence demand we ask of ourselves.

  • How do my theological presuppositions affect my understanding of the issue at hand?
  • Is it possible my theological presuppositions are wrong? How did I come to believe the things that I accept as true? Does my viewpoint line up with the Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)? Is my understanding of politics (or whatever issue is currently at hand) informed by the Bible, or is my understanding of the Bible informed by my politics?
  • Does the way I communicate my skepticism reflect the manner of Jesus? Let me suggest that smugness, pride, vitriol, and name calling do not reflect the manner of Jesus. I anticipate that some of you will bring up Jesus turning over the tables in the temple or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but remember that in those cases it was religious people he was confronting. As believers, we are called to gentleness, patience, respect, love, and truth.
  • Am I more likely to believe religious leaders or news personalities than experts? If so, how did I come to those conclusions? Is it possible that I am susceptible to propaganda? Too often, I am afraid, well meaning Christians accept as true information they hear from people who claim to be Christian. It seems to me that the apostle Paul’s greatest concern regarding falsehood and deception was inside the church.

Seventh, it is good to ask whether we are adopting an adversarial mindset versus a cooperative mindset. I have elsewhere written about the difference between an “against mindset” and a “with mindset.” When we approach others from an “against mindset,” we view them as our enemy, which shapes our presuppositions about their motives. When we approach them from a “with mindset,” we recognize that we are interconnected and we become less likely to assume that they are out to deceive, manipulate, or control us.

Skepticism in and of itself is not evil; indeed, I think a measure of skepticism is good and healthy for believers who are encouraged to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:6). However, let’s not reserve our skepticism only for those outside of our camp. Instead, let’s be willing to ask:

  • Am I presenting this story or idea as incontrovertible fact and, if so, is there sufficient support for doing so?
  • Is my skepticism grounded in an honest wrestling with all of the facts or because “my people” told me what is true?
  • Have I done due diligence in confirming whether something is true?
  • Am I honoring others as people of value even if I disagree with them?

This world is not as it should be. Let us live as Christ’s ambassadors, committed to the truth and love he revealed to us.

The Unselfing of America

Why are the nations so angry?
Why do they waste their time with futile plans?–Psalm 2:1

Eugene Peterson published Earth and Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society in 1985, which as far as I can tell is now out of print. Peterson’s core message in this book is that America was a “self-bound society” in need of unselfing. Its message is as relevant today as it ever has been. His prescription–prayer–also seems as relevant as ever.

In the book, he presented eleven psalms as frameworks for prayer, encouraging his readers to gather together eleven times to pray for the “unselfing of America.” Although we cannot now gather as we once did, I would like to invite as many of you as are willing to commit to praying each of the psalms at least once per day for a week. Each weekend, I will share a link to the Psalm in the New Living Translation, but feel free to choose whatever one you might like or, each day, pick a new translation. Read it slowly, meditatively, and prayerfully.

I will also include chapter highlights that might help with understanding Peterson’s thoughts on the Psalm and, for the particularly adventurous, I will include a link to the audio of the chapter read by yours truly.

The first is Psalm 2, which you can access here.

Some thoughts from Chapter 1 (here is the chapter audio):

  • America is in conspicuous need of unselfing. Concerned citizens using the diagnostic disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and theology lay the blame for the deterioration of our public life and the disintegration of our personal lives at the door of the self: we have a self-problem and that problem is responsible for everything else that is going wrong (p. 13).
  • The only way to escape from self-annihilating and society destroying egotism and into self-enhancing community is through prayer (p. 15).
  • The self is only itself, healthy and whole, when it is in relationship, and that relationship is always dual, with God and with other human beings (p. 16).
  • Prayer is a repair and a healing of the interconnections (p. 23).

If we are to correct our abuses of each other and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and integrity of better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.

Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

What is happening in Christianity: My thoughts

This week, several people shared John Cooper’s impassioned plea about Christian “leaders or influencers who were once ‘faces’ of the faith falling away,” most publicly, Josh Harris and Marty Sampson. First, let me say that in most respects, I agree with him, particularly with regard to his perspective on Christian celebrity. I have had a deep respect for Cooper’s witness and the music of Skillet for many years.  

I wrestled with writing anything, but there is more that needs to be said.

Continue reading “What is happening in Christianity: My thoughts”