Missing the Climax of the Gospel Story

With the celebration of the Ascension just behind us, I wanted to draw attention to what I think is a very important point made by Matthew Bates in his recent book Saved By Allegiance Alone.

We generally tell the story of the gospel by telling about the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those events--birth, death and resurrection--are the Good News, the gospel.

But according to Bates, this telling of the gospel is leaving out the final, climatic moment in the story. It's like walking out of the final act of a play. Or reading all of the Harry Potter novels but skipping The Deathly Hallows. You never get to the climax and culmination of the story.

So what is the climax and high point of the gospel? It's the Ascension, Jesus being seated and Lord and King. The entire point of the gospel story--as the culmination of Israel's story--is Jesus being enthroned as Ruler of the world and cosmos.

If you never get to that point in the story, argues Bates, you fail to get to the defining Christian confession, that Jesus is "Lord of all." And if you miss that, you miss the heart of the Christian life and community, confessing and swearing fealty (i.e., faith) to the one, true king.

In short, the climax of the gospel is the Ascension. But how many churches and church members celebrated that event last week or this past Sunday?

Very few, I'm guessing, which is diagnostic of why there are so many enduring problems with American Christianity.

We haven't recognized, preached or celebrated the central point of the gospel,

Prison Diary: About Those Toliets

Last week I mentioned how the inmates keep cool during the hot summer months by using water from their toilets.

Like you, I also had a disgust reaction to this, so I did ask some questions.

"You use water from the toilets?"

Diego and Cody explained.

The small sinks in the room don't have strong faucets. They said faucets were more like water fountains. So it's difficult to soak or get a lot of water using the sinks. So you use the toilet in the cell.

Still, I wrinkled my nose.

"Well," Diego explained, "the toilets are stainless steel. And since we use the toilets for water we keep them sparkling clean. And it's the same water that goes to the sink."

I don't know if that explanation helps any.

But the explanation did remind me an illustrate all the disgust and contamination psychology I discuss in Unclean.

If you've read Unclean you know what I'm talking about.

There Is Nothing For You To Do, But You Can Come Eat With Us

Regular readers know that on Wednesday nights I'm a Freedom Fellowship, eating a meal and worshiping with our friends and neighbors in a poor part of our town.

When I share stories about Freedom people often approach me saying they'd like to come over and help out. And my response is, "Well, there is nothing for you to do, but you can come eat with us."

When people hear about Freedom they envision something like a soup kitchen, where volunteers stand behind tables serving a line of needy people. There are people serving behind tables and there are people in a line to get food. But the people cooking, serving and cleaning up after the meals aren't outside volunteers. The Freedom community does all that.

So there's nothing for a volunteer to do. But you can come, get in line, get a plate of food and sit down and eat with us.

And yet, that prospect seems to throw a lot of people. They don't want relationships, they want a service project. It's profoundly disorienting to many Christians to be told that they are not needed. We'd much rather serve than be asked to share a table with others. It's fascinating to watch how new people wanting to help at Freedom will stand around looking for a job to do, something to make them feel useful, when all they need to do is grab a plate and sit down.

Stop trying to serve, I want to say.

Just sit down and eat with us.

When We Think of Ourselves We are Perturbed

From Saint Bernard concerning the stages of contemplation:
Let us take our stand on secure ground, leaning with all our strength on Christ, the most solid rock, according to the words: He set my feet on a rock and guided my steps. Thus firmly established, let us begin to contemplate, to see what he is saying to us and what reply we ought to make to his charges.

The first stage of contemplation, my dear brothers, is constantly to consider what God wants, what is pleasing to him, and what is acceptable in his eyes. We all offend in many things; our strength cannot match the rectitude of God’s will, being neither one with it nor wholly in accord with it; let us then humble ourselves under the powerful hand of the most high God and be concerned to show ourselves unworthy before his merciful gaze, saying: Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved. And again, Lord have mercy on me; heal my soul because I have sinned against you.

Once the eye of the soul has been purified by such considerations we no longer abide within our own spirit in a sense of sorrow, but abide rather in the Spirit of God with great delight. No longer do we consider what is the will of God for us, but rather what it is in itself. For our life is in his will. Thus we are convinced that what is according to his will is in every way more advantageous and fitting for us. And so, concerned as we are to preserve the life of our soul, we should be equally concerned, insofar as we can, not to deviate from his will.

Thus having made some progress in our spiritual exercise under the guidance of the Spirit who searches the deep things of God, let us reflect how sweet is the Lord and how good he is in himself; in the words of the prophet let us pray to see God’s will; no longer shall we frequent our own hearts but his temple. At the same time we shall say: My soul is humbled within me, therefore I shall be mindful of you.

The whole of the spiritual life consists of these two elements. When we think of ourselves, we are perturbed and filled with a salutary sadness. And when we think of the Lord, we are revived to find consolation in the joy of the Holy Spirit. From the first we derive fear and humility, from the second hope and love.

Suffering to Give Birth to a New World

Last summer our bible class at church was working through the book of Colossians. In one of the classes I was teaching we came to this puzzling text:
Colossians 1.24
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
What does Paul mean when he says that he is "filling up what is lacking" in Christ's afflictions? We tend to assume that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was sufficient, lacking in nothing.

So what's Paul talking about?

The scholarship I consulted argued that what Paul is referring to here has to do with the "Messianic woes," a belief held by many Second Temple Jews, Paul included.

The Messianic Woes goes back to the book of Daniel where many passages suggest that the coming reign of the the Son of Man will be ushered in with suffering, persecution and tribulation. The Kingdom of God doesn't come painlessly.

Crucial here is the Jewish view that there are two ages, "the present evil age" and the Messianic "age to come." Many Jews felt that these ages would happen serially, with the "present evil age" ending to be followed by the Messianic age. The Messianic woes, the painful birth pangs of the new age, happen at the transition point, the ending of one age to usher in the next

Paul, however, nuances this two age view, seeing the ages as overlapping. With Jesus the new age has been inaugurated alongside and within the present evil age. This is the classic "already, not yet" dynamic. The new age is breaking into the present evil age but the Kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. We await a final consummation.

But in the meantime, as the new age breaks into the present evil age, the transition between the ages--the birth pangs of the coming New Creation--are still characterized by the Messianic Woes, by trials, persecution and tribulation. As Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble." Also, "Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name's sake." Or James 1.2-3: "Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."

In short, participation in the Kingdom is accompanied by an expectation of suffering and trials. As pioneers of the new age Christians carry the burden of the Messianic woes.

All that to say, what Paul seems to be saying in Colossians 1.24 is that the corporate body of Christ, who is suffering to give birth to the kingdom in the present evil age, "fill up" the sufferings that must take place from now until the consummation of the kingdom. There is X amount of suffering that will take place to fully usher in the Messianic age. So as Christians suffer to inaugurate the new age we are "filling up" this quota of suffering.

In short, to be the people of God is to participate in the Messianic woes. We endure the suffering to make the new age a lived reality in this present evil age.

Christians share and participate in Christ's sufferings to "fill up" what is left of the Messianic woes until the kingdom comes in its fullness.

Material Koinonia

I've been researching the Greek word koinonia. This won't be news to many of you, but it's really a remarkable word.

The definition of koinonia is fellowship, participation, contribution and sharing.

We generally think of koinonia in the context of the fellowship enjoyed by the early church in Acts 2:
Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to koinonia, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Because of this text we tend to think of koinonia in relational terms. Koinonia, we think, is about emotional intimacy. But koinonia is also used to describe sharing in concrete, material and monetary terms.

Actual money, when it's shared, is koinonia:
Romans 15.26
For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a koinonia for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.
We see this in Acts 2. Being devoted to koinonia involves material acts of sharing. Koinonia shouldn't be reduced to emotional closeness and social intimacy.

Koinonia is sharing and fellowship that is concrete, material and sacrificial.

Prison Diary: How To Stay Cool

Summer is coming so it's starting to warm up in Texas.

Texas prisons are not air-conditioned, so the cell blocks will soon become ovens. Some buildings are air-conditioned, like the chapel where we have our study, but those spaces are just brief respites from the oppressive heat.

So this week I asked Cody, Diego and Joe about how they stay cool. "What's the Number #1 way to beat the heat during the summer months?" I asked.

Joe said a fan is absolutely essential. The inmates can purchase a fan for $20 from the commissary. Fans may be the most prized possession in the entire prison.

"It's a mental thing," was Diego's response, "You can't let the heat get to you, thinking all the time about how hot you are. That only makes it worse."

Cody had two pieces of advice.

First, he said, you have to shut and black out your windows. It keeps the heat out. Blacking out the windows is against the rules, but most officers let it slide. I asked Cody to estimate and he said about 85% of the cells black out their windows.

Cody's second trick to getting cool was this:

"You strip to your underwear. Then you throw water from the toilet onto the cement floor of the cell. You then get your towel wet. You lay down on the wet cement in your underwear and use the towel to keep yourself wet. Then put your fan so that it can blow over you as you lay there."

I looked at Joe and Diego to confirm that this is the best strategy to staying cool. They nodded yes, that's how you do it.

The Damage We Would Do To Each Other If We Had "The Explanation"

Imagine, if you will, that the Bible gave us an explanation for why there is so much pain and suffering in the world.

Imagine that the Bible gave us "The Explanation" in a specific text, something we could easily quote and share.

Imagine the Bible gave us the theodicy we all want, The Explanation we've all been asking for.

Then imagine how The Explanation would be used.

Imagine the thousands of sermons sharing The Explanation. The books devoted to The Explanation. Imagine how the Bible verse giving us The Explanation would be printed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers and home decor, just like we do with every other inspirational Bible verse.

But mostly imagine how we'd use The Explanation with each other in the face of pain.

Why did the Holocaust occur? Well, because The Explanation.

Why did my child die from cancer? Well, because The Explanation.

Why is there sex trafficking? Well, because The Explanation.

Wherever suffering is found we'd share The Explanation. We'd share The Explanation so often it would become automatic. Cliche, even.

And when you think about it, about what it would be like to have The Explanation, you're struck with just how much damage and violence we'd do to each other with The Explanation.

Everytime we encountered a victim or a suffering, hurting person, we'd throw The Explanation at them.

So it seems to me that the most loving thing God could do for us, in the face of suffering, is to refuse to give us The Explanation. Even if we cried out in the darkness for the Explanation. Because without The Explanation we're forced into silence and solidarity. Which is exactly where we need to be.

So maybe that is why we'll never have The Explanation.

We can't be trusted with it.

If we had it, we'd hurt each other.

Add Cream to that Soda

When I visit Kristi at her assisted-living facility we often like to go get a drink at Sonic. And Paul, Kristi's boyfriend, likes to go along. So it's often the three of us going to get drinks, to lunch, or to take Kristi shopping when she needs something.

If you're not a regular reader, I met Kristi at our church plant Freedom Fellowship. Kristi is blind from a brain tumor removed when she was young. She's also in a wheelchair, though she can walk short distances, though unsteadily. She's mainly in the wheelchair for safety reasons.

Paul is Kristi's on-again, off-again boyfriend who also lives at the facility. I'm not sure about the extent of Paul and Kristi's romantic relationship, but they provide each other companionship and given Kristi's blindness Paul frequently helps Kristi out.

Anyway, like I said, Kristi, Paul and I like to go to Sonic. Sonic is a Texas institution. To illustrate this, consider this analysis by Stephen Von Worley regarding geographical spheres of power among burger joints in America. Specifically, Von Worley created the picture below examining the saturation of McDonald's restaurants in relation to competitor restaurants:

How Von Worley created the plot:
...each individual restaurant location has equal power. The entity that controls each point casts the most aggregate burger force upon it, as calculated by the inverse-square law – kind of like a chart outlining the gravitational wells of galactic star clusters, but in an alternate, fast food universe.
Using this technique all the black areas of the map above are controlled by McDonald's. But notice that big blue patch over my home state of Texas. Who is displacing McDonald's in Texas?
By far, the largest pocket of resistance is Sonic Drive-In’s south-central stronghold: more than 900 restaurants packed into the state of Texas alone.
Texas is Sonic country. If you've never been to Sonic it is unique in that it's a drive through. And at some Sonic locations the servers will actually roll up to your car on roller skates. It's a fun retro vibe.

One of the most popular things about Sonic are the drinks. Sonic has all sorts of drinks and all sorts of flavors you can add to the drinks. It was at Sonic that I was first introduced to vanilla Coke when I came to Texas for college.

So when Kristi, Paul and I were recently driving to Sonic I asked both of them what their drink order would be.

"I'll have a Cherry Cream Vanilla Dr. Pepper," Paul said.

This is, incidentally, the kind of drink you can get at Sonic. You can add vanilla and cherry favoring, among many, many others, to your drink. Kristi said that Paul's order sounded good so that's what she wanted as well.

Trouble was, while I knew Sonic had cherry and vanilla favoring I wasn't sure they had cream favoring.

"Paul, I don't think they have cream favoring," I said.

"They do." Paul answered.

I pushed my doubts. "I don't think so."

"They do, trust me," Paul assured.

We pull up and I look at the menu. I scan the list of drink flavorings. I see cherry. I see vanilla. But I don't see cream.

"See Paul," I say, "They don't have cream. It's not listed."

But Paul is firm. "They do have cream. I've gotten it before. Many times. Just ask them."

My pride kicks in. Should I trust my judgment or Paul's?

Mine, of course.

I was about to give into my prejudice and just order a Cherry Vanilla Coke, minus the cream, but when I pushed the button to order I hesitated and decided to ask the question.

The voice crackles out of the speaker. "Hello, welcome to Sonic. Can I take your order?"

"Yes, but I have a question. Can you add cream as a favor to a drink? It's not listed anywhere."

"Yes Sir, we sure can."

Paul, in the backseat, is jubilant. "I told you! I told you they have cream! I've gotten it many times."

Kristi laughs. I shake my head and admit defeat.

I order Paul and Kristi two Cherry Vanilla Cream Dr. Peppers. I get my standard Vanilla Coke.

Driving back home I eat humble pie.

"I admit it Paul, you were right and I was wrong."

"That's right," Paul says with a huge smile, "I was right and you were wrong. You didn't believe me. But you were wrong."

Ever since that drink order Paul and I have retold this story to each other many times. "Hey, remember that time when you were wrong and I was right?" We laugh and reminiscence about Paul's victory over me in the great Does-Sonic-have-cream-flavoring? debate.

This is a small story about an inconsequential event. But this story has taken on a great deal of importance in my life as I confront my educational biases and prejudices.

I have a lot of education. And I like to think I'm pretty smart. But I don't know everything. At Sonic that day I had a PhD and Paul had experience. And experience won out. Paul knew what he knew because he had lived it. And that experience trumped my formal education in ordering drinks at Sonic. Having a PhD doesn't teach you that Sonic can add cream to a drink. But experience can teach you that. And experience is what Paul had and what I lacked.

I've learned to listen to Paul. Because of his experiences Paul knows things that I don't know.

Like that day at Sonic when he was right and I was wrong.

The Kingdom of God Comes to Us As a Child

I was reading Luke 18 today and I came to the famous text about the kingdom of God and little children:
Luke 18.15-18
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Translations tend to support the traditional interpretation of this text. That interpretation tends to focus on the qualities of children.

For example, in 18.16 the kingdom of God "belongs" to "such as these," the children. That idea is unpacked in the next sentence, that we become "such as these"--like children--when we come to "receive the kingdom of God like a child."

We've all heard this interpretation. We must "become like children" to in order to receive the kingdom of God. The focus is upon the internal dispositions and attitudes of children. We have to replicate the internal spiritual posture of children.

This line of interpretation sets up the next question pastors like to ask us: "So, what are children like? What about children are we being asked to emulate?"

Unfortunately, the text doesn't say. So we are left to speculate. Are we to imitate a child's trust or faith or humility or some other characteristic? A lively discussion then ensures.

But I'd like to come at this text a bit differently.

Specifically, there is something about focusing upon the internal qualities of children that seems to miss whole point of what triggered the conversation in Luke 18 in the first place.

When you look at the story in Luke 18 the issue of "receiving" the kingdom wasn't about blocking impulses in our hearts, it was about blocking bodies, actual persons. Children were being brought to Jesus and the disciples blocked the children. Jesus says, "Do not block them, let them come for such is the kingdom of God."

The Greek word translated as "belong" in 18.16 in many translations is simply the Greek word for is. Thus the verse can be read as, "for such is the kingdom of God." That is, when you receive the bodies of these children you are receiving the kingdom of God.  The issue isn't about becoming like a child, the issue is about hospitality, about welcoming marginalized and excluded bodies.

In Luke 18 "receiving" the kingdom of God isn't a psychological event. "Receiving" the kingdom of God is a political event, making room for excluded bodies in our midst.

This line of argument also recasts the interpretation of 18.17. Rather than "like a child" the Greek can read "as a child." We must receive the kingdom not like a child, but as a child, as an actual, physical child.

This interpretation fits better with what triggered the whole teaching in Luke 18. The disciples were blocking and excluding children. Jesus rebukes them and says, when you receive these children you receive the kingdom.

As a parallel teaching see Luke 9.48: "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." 

Jesus isn't telling the disciples to become like children, Jesus is asking his followers to receive children, to make room for the bodies they have excluded.

Because when they do they welcome the kingdom in their midst.

The Call to Hospitality at Fuller Theological Seminary

Another note to let interested readers know that there is still time to participate in my class on hospitality this August in Fuller Theological Seminary's DMin program.

Anyone interested in auditing the course or Fuller's DMin program will need a theological Master's degree and can contact Debi Yu, the Admissions and Student Affairs Advisor, for more information.  Debi can be contacted at dmin@fuller.edu or (626) 584-5315.

My class "The Call to Hospitality" is a week-long intensive class. The course description and learning outcomes can be read here.

As can be seen in the course description, "The Call to Hospitality" will be connecting hospitality to spiritual formation.

Specifically, in the arena of hospitality I want us to explore the how practices cultivate capacities. Theological capacities, liturgical capacities, psychological capacities, group capacities, relational capacities.

Calls to hospitality flounder when a congregation lacks capacities in these or other areas. A church has to have the capacity to make room if it wants to welcome the God who comes to us, uncomfortably so, as a stranger. Strangers push the tolerances of the community--theologically, socially and relationally. Consequently, those tolerances need to be cultivated and expanded.

That topic will be at the heart of our discussions this August.

Consider joining us!

Prison Diary: The Monday Night Bible Study Cookbook

One of the things that impresses you about prison life is its sheer inventiveness. The things the inmates are able to build, cook or do are remarkable. They make, use and repurpose all sorts of things. They are mad-scientists and MacGyvers.

When it comes to the culinary arts, many inmates are resourceful and inventive chefs. Their ingredients come from the limited number of items that can be purchased in the commissary. Or pilfered from the kitchen. They also have limited equipment to cook with, often just a hot plate.

But the foods they cook.

"You should try my strawberry cheesecake," Al said to me a few weeks ago, "It's better than anything you'll eat in the free world."

Recently, I got the idea of collecting the recipes from the Men in White to publish them in a cookbook. Jailhouse cookbooks have been published before, but the spin for this cookbook would be a Christian spin, the recipes from the Monday Night Bible Study supplemented with Scriptures and reflections from the men in the study. The proceeds to go to a charity they select.

This week I shared the cookbook idea with the guys. We'll see how many recipes they give to me. Stay tuned.

The Paradoxes of Progressive Political Theology: The Paradox Revisited

Starting with my original post, I've argued that progressive Christians should adopt Niebuhr's Christian realism as the political theology that best supports their political efforts and activism to bring about social justice.

It's a better fit than Anabaptist theology.

Liberation theology could be an option, but I'm unclear what liberationist praxis looks like within liberal democracies. We could here describe a revolutionary rather than a democratic praxis, at which point we might introduce a split between radical and progressive Christians, the former agitating for revolutionary change and the latter advocating for energetic and forceful participation in democracy. I suspect that most liberal Christians would be progressive rather than radical.

Which brings us back to Niebuhr.

Despite my suggestions, let me confess that I think many progressive Christians, if they investigate Niebuhr, perhaps prompted by these posts, will balk at embracing Christian realism.

The sticking point will be the issue of war.

Again, in the story I told in yesterday's post, many progressive Christians gravitated to and welded Anabaptist theology, with great effect, to level criticisms at the Bush administration during the Iraq war. This, coupled with other anti-war impulses on the political left, caused many progressive Christians to strongly identify with pacifism. This is a location where progressive Christianity and Anabaptist thought are comfortable with each other.

And it's precisely here where progressive Christianity and Niebuhr's Christian realism might be uncomfortable with each other.

Because evil exists in the world Christian realism admits that war is a tragic choice we sometimes have to make. War is never good, it's always the lesser of two evils. But sometimes that's the tragic choice you have to make.

An example of progressive Christian discomfort with Christian realism was seen in the disillusionment many progressives felt with how Obama conducted the war on terror, drone strikes in particular.

Again, Obama is Niebuhrian. Evil exists and nations sometimes have to use force to combat evil. The influence of Niebuhr on Obama was on full display in his Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. The speech was largely an apology for the use of force to fight evil. And yet, the apology is tinged with Niebuhrian pessimism: war is always tragic and largely ineffective, still, it's the lesser of two evils.

If you're a progressive Christian, read Obama's Oslo speech. I think it will be diagnostic.

If you accept the speech, even if regretfully, then you're Niebuhrian.

But many of us, I'm guessing, will struggle with parts of the speech. Like this part:
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. 
Classic Niebuhr. Realistic. Pessimistic. War is a tragic and ineffective necessity.

The Anabaptist strain among progressive Christians, well-honed from the Bush years, will balk at Obama's position. Personally, I'm torn. Torn between my idealism and my realism. Between my inner MLK and my inner Obama. Between the cross and my weakness.

Which brings us back to the paradoxes of progressive Christian theology, the questions that kicked off all these posts.

What is progressive Christian political theology, and is it coherent?

Many of us want to be Anabaptist, but not really.

Many of us want to be liberationists, but not really.

And many of us want to be Niebuhrian.

But not really.

The Paradoxes of Progressive Political Theology: How Did Progressives Come to Think They Were Anabaptists?

Let me tell you the story about how many progressive Christians came to think they were Anabaptists.

(I'm mainly talking about post-evangelical progressives rather than traditional mainline progressives.)

To recap, I've made the argument that many progressive Christians believe they are Anabaptists when, in fact, they are Niebuhrians. This truth was exposed with the election of Donald Trump. The rise of Trump has politically energized progressive Christians in ways that are hard to reconcile with Anabaptist theology and practice. Again, this is no judgment of Anabaptist theology or of all the political activism of progressive Christians. Not at all. This is just a description of the disjoint between political theology and political praxis.

Most progressive Christians want to be politically engaged. Very much so. Especially with Donald Trump in office. But Anabaptist theology doesn't provide great theological scaffolding for much of that political activism. Thus my advice: Seek out and embrace a political theology that provides better theological support. To my eye, I think that theology is Niebuhr's Christian realism.

But that raises a different question. Why did so many progressive Christians come to embrace Anabaptist theology in the first place?

That's the story I want to tell you.

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture, and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with it's criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.  

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren't Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren't progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there's more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn't sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, Vacation Bible School and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing, and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church vs. world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: "The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world." In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

That negative view of the world has never sat well with progressives who, being liberals, tend to have a very favorable view of the world, a view which sits behind their very open, inclusive, cosmopolitan, non-judgmental social ethic. Progressives want to embrace the world, they don't want to create a community that highlights the darkness and depravity of the world. For many post-evangelical progressives, a negative view of the world smacks of the judgementalism they are fleeing from.

In short, during the Bush years progressives used parts of Anabaptist theology to great effect. Progressive Christians denounced the evils of war, empire, nationalism, and Constantinian Christianity. Progressive Christians were so effective in this critique that they started to think they actually were Anabaptists. But progressive Christians never really were Anabaptists. They were post-evangelicals who became Democrats.

The Paradoxes of Progressive Political Theology: Niebuhrian, But Not Niebuhrian Enough

I've shared two posts (here and here) commenting on the paradoxes of progressive Christian political theology.

I've argued that there is a paradox when progressive Christians use Anabaptist and liberation theologies to call for engagement in democratic politics.

To be clear, in pointing out this paradox I'm not judging any of the political theologies as theologies. I'm a fan of Anabaptist theology and liberation theology.

Nor have I been criticizing progressive political involvement and activism. I'm strongly in favor of all that action.

My point in these posts hasn't been about political action at all. My point has been about theology, about which theology best fits progressive political engagement and activism.

For example, to revisit my first post, a lot of progressives use Anabaptist theology to call for democratic political engagement. And that's just an odd fit. My point isn't to criticize Anabaptist theology or the democratic political engagement. My goal is simply to draw attention to the misfit between the theology and the praxis.

So, what political theology best suits progressive Christians working as activists and engaged citizens within liberal democracies?

If it's not Anabaptist theology or liberation theology, what is it?

I've suggested that the political theology that best characterizes most progressive Christians is Niebuhr's Christian realism.

I make this claim because most progressive Christians are liberals, and Niebhur's political theology was articulated and crafted as a theology to guide Christian participation in liberal democracies and the actions of the liberal democratic state. As we know, Niebuhr is Barack Obama's favorite theologian. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also greatly influenced by Niebuhr.

In short, most progressive Christians aren't Anabaptist or liberationists. Progressive Christians are Niebuhrian.

That said, while progressive Christians tend to be Niebuhrian they generally aren't Niebuhrian enough.

Largely because they don't know they are Niebuhrian.

Many of the confusions, tensions and paradoxes I've been noting in progressive political theology are due to a lack of self-understanding. If progressive Christians could recognize and own their actual political theology--Niebuhr's Christian realism--the confusions and paradoxes observed in progressive Christians circles would disappear.

And the benefits here aren't just about theological and political coherence. The benefits of self-understanding, owning and investing in the political theology that best suits you, can be spiritual as well.

For example, one of the ways that the liberal political theology of many progressive Christians isn't Niebuhrian enough is that it lacks Niebuhr's pessimism.

Niebuhr argued that when people are being hurt, politically you have to do something. Justice is love expressed politically. Justice is how you love your neighbor as yourself in a liberal democracy. This facet of Niebuhr's thought, this call to political action, speaks to progressives. It's the part of Niebuhr that attracted Obama and MLK.

But Niebuhr goes on to say that there is always a tragic, fallen, guilt-bearing, even sinful aspect to the exercise of political power. The state might make our affairs more rather than less just, but the state can never bring about the kingdom of God. Not this side of the eschaton. That's the pessimistic, realistic aspect of Niebuhr's political thought.

As liberals most progressive Christians are Niebuhrian, but they aren't Niebuhrian enough in this regard. That is, most progressive Christians lack Niebuhr's pessimism about political power. Many progressive Christians are motivated by a purity psychology that tends toward utopianism and the pursuit of a works-based righteousness/holiness via political activism. I think by embracing their natural political theology as liberals--Christian realism--the spirituality of progressive Christian political action and activism would be greatly enriched.

Specifically, if progressive Christians embraced Niebuhrian realism and pessimism they would be better positioned, theologically and spiritually, to avoid the ideological purity traps, contradictions, and utopian idealism they often succumb to in their pursuit of social justice.

By embracing Christian realism and pessimism, along with the imperative of justice, progressive Christian political action would remain energized and engaged, but take on a confessional, realistic, more pragmatic posture. Justice demands action, but we confess that getting our candidate elected isn't bringing about the kingdom of God. We also confess that when the state uses its power it will always have a tragic, sinful aspect to it.

Progressives don't need Anabaptist theology to be pessimistic about the state, Christian realism does the trick, and it does so while calling for political action in a way Anabaptist theology does not.

In short, if progressive Christians could embrace the political theology that best suits them their political witness would be theologically more coherent and spiritually healthier.

But when was the last time you saw a progressive Christian on Twitter #Niebuhr?


The Paradoxes of Progressive Political Theology: On Liberals and Liberationists

Last week I posted about what I called "the paradox of progressive political theology."

In that post I argued that many progressive Christians like to use Anabaptist theology to level critiques of the state while simultaneously advocating political engagement in democratic politics. Rhetorically, I said, progressives often talk like Anabaptists but act like Niebuhrians.

(Reinhold Niebuhr argued that it was a duty of Christians to participate in liberal democracies to bring about justice and protect the weak.)

Some readers of my post objected that the political dichotomy I used between Anabaptist and Niebuhrian political theologies wasn't very comprehensive. For example, many progressive Christians embrace liberationist political theologies.

That's true, but progressives using liberation theology exhibit the same paradoxes. 

First off, liberation theology is a paradox in itself. The paradox of liberation theology is that you use it to denounce empire, with the political end of revolution being to take over the empire. Historically, we've observed how revolutions "from below" have played out in Russia, Cuba and China, one empire replacing another. Plus, theologically it's hard to turn Jesus into Che Guevara.

But in regards to progressive Christians espousing liberation theology, there's the same disjoint I noted in my post last week: the disjoint between rhetoric and practice in regards to the state.

Specifically, another paradox of progressive political theology is rhetorically using liberationist anti-empire theology, while practically encouraging everyone to call congress and vote. Revolution through democratic participation!

In short, there is something paradoxical about liberal Democrats using liberation theology.

An example of this paradox from the last election was watching progressive Christians using liberation theology to defend voting for Hilary Clinton, she of Goldman Sachs fame.

To be clear, I voted for Hilary. But Good Lord, the Clinton's were not the revolution we've be waiting for. And if you didn't notice, neither was Barack Obama. And I voted for him twice.

Liberalism isn't liberation theology.

So again, the same paradox I noted last week:

Denouncing Caesar while embracing Caesar.

Prison Diary: Kairos

Two weeks ago I had to be out at the prison to renew my volunteer training. You have to go back through the training every two years.

Herb and I went out to the training early because Kairos was happening that weekend, so we wanted to spend some time encouraging the Kairos volunteers and the Men in White going through the experience.

Kairos, I think, may be the largest prison ministry in America and worldwide. Kairos is associated with Walk to Emmaus though the programs are separate. Similar to the Walk to Emmaus, Kairos is a three and half day experience that introduces you to the basics of Christianity and the Christian walk. In our prison, after the Kairos weekend inmates who participate can attend "Prayer and Share" gatherings each week to pray and encourage each other. These gatherings are lead by Kairos volunteers.

All that to say, if you're interested in prison ministry you might check to see if the prison in your area has a Kairos ministry. Sign up to volunteer.

The Chemistry of Parenting

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Luke Norsworthy and I recently talked a bit about what I called "the chemistry of parenting."

I'd like to explain that a bit more.

Each of us are unique, our personality a combination of traits that gives our selves a "molecular shape." Consequently, when two people come into contact--like a parent and child--these two unique shapes, these two distinctive personalities, come into contact in specific, particular and unique ways. Ways that are unique to the pair and unlike other combinations. The contact points I have with my two sons are different than Jana's because Jana and I are different. Our personalities make contact with our boys' personalities in different ways.

So that is what I'm calling "the chemistry of parenting," the unique and particular ways the personality of a parent makes contact with the unique personality of a child.

The chemistry of parenting is what makes parenting books and advice so limited and useless. Every kid is unique. But so is every parent! The combinatorial possibilities here are vast, making generic, general and "one size fits all" parenting advice almost impossible.

Now let me change the metaphor to two uniquely shaped objects coming into contact.

Effective parenting, as I see it, is learning to manage the unique friction points between a child's personality and the parent's personality when the two come into contact. These friction points will be unique for every pair, as each personality has a distinctive shape. These friction points are the flash points of irritation, conflict, frustration, and disillusionment. If these friction points are not managed well relational damage occurs, hurt feelings and emotional distance. Sometimes a parent will try to "sand down" aspects of a child's personality or force a child's personality into a different shape to reduce the friction points, which amounts to trying to force a round peg into a square hole. That's not a good way to parent, sanding down or forcing the shape of a child's personality to accommodate your own.

Some child/parent pairs are, fortuitously, well matched, with few if any friction points between their personalities. This is a happy occasion and a location of joy. But that lack of friction is not good parenting. It's a happy accident. "Good" parents are, more often than not, lucky parents.

Good parenting, in my estimation, is finding yourself faced with friction points and attending to them lovingly, graciously and well.


The Fruits of the Spirit come to mind. Parenting well is simply the pursuit of holiness and love.

Mailbag Podcast with Luke Norsworthy

Keeping the home crew apprised of my social media appearances, I joined Luke Norsworthy last week on his podcast.

No single topic was on the agenda, we even took some mailbag questions. We talked about the pope's new laundromat for the homeless, the relationship between neurosis and sin, the chemistry of parenting, suffering and deconstruction, and what I'd preach for Easter.


In light of yesterday's post about the paradoxes of progressive political theology, let me point you to my recent guest post at the Nomad podcast blog:
Talk of resistance is everywhere these days. Especially among my progressive and liberal Christian friends in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. And I know there are similar sorts of worries in the UK and Europe.

But what is the shape of Christian resistance to what the Bible calls “the principalities and powers”?
Read the rest over at the Nomad blog.

The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology

I'd like to try to point out, as a progressive Christian, something that has been bothering me about progressive Christian political theology--a paradox, tension and inconsistency that keeps popping up.

The tension/paradox is easily stated.

Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That's Niebuhrian realism.

In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.

Why does this paradox exist?

I think it's because progressive Christians have an anemic ecclesiology. Progressive Christians aren't known for showing up on Sunday mornings.

Progressive Christians resonate with Anabaptist, anti-empire political theology as it aligns well with the language of the prophets--indictment of oppression and injustice--which connects with the social justice impulses of progressive Christians. But lacking a robust ecclesiology, church as counter-cultural polis, progressive Christians are forced to turn to the state as the only player able to address the oppression and injustices they are calling out. Without a church, democratic engagement--guided by Niebuhrian political theology--is the only tool available to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Thus the paradox running through much of progressive political theology.

Denouncing Caesar while embracing Caesar.

Prison Diary: A Magical Night

As any teacher will tell you, there are magical days in the classroom. The teacher, students and topic converge in some mystical chemistry where everyone is tuned in and riding the wave.

The strange thing is how these magical days are often the days when you're least prepared or least expect them. You're tired and under-prepared, planning on winging it to get through the class and then, unexpectedly, magic happens. On this of all days. Rarely does it seem that the magic happens on days when you're prepared and ready to go. I've never understood why this happens, this great mystery of teaching, how magic happens when you are least, rather than most, prepared. Maybe it's because when you're least prepared you're more human and vulnerable, or more open to following the lead of the students than expecting them to follow you.

This same thing happens out at the prison. And this Monday was one of those magical nights.

Herb had knee replacement surgery on Monday. So I was carrying the two hour class by myself, and will for the next few weeks while Herb recovers. Given that I had to carry the whole class I was actually pretty prepared. I even practiced my Spanish for critical texts I planned for us to read.

But at the start of the class Al asked me to catch them up on what was happening at Freedom. So I started sharing stories from Freedom, in a Lake Wobegon sort of way. And those stories lead us to talk about fear, grace, confession, forgiveness, and dark nights of the soul. And before I knew it, two hours had flown by. I never once looked at my notes. We never took out the song books. We just talked, passionately, for two hours straight.

I can't explain why it happened and why I can't make it happen every week.

Some nights the Spirit simply blows. And I've never been able to tell from where.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 5, The Wisdom of the Kingdom

Last post in this series.

If you've followed me to this point you likely see where my mind is going.

Generally, when we talk about empathy, love and the mission of the church, we frame all these things universally. Empathy and love for the entire world. To suggest anything less is sacrilege.

And yet...

And yet, as we've discussed there are issues, problems even, with non-specific, free-floating,  universalized empathy. This isn't to say--LET ME BE VERY CLEAR!--that we don't display sympathetic compassion for every bit of suffering in the world. Just the suggestion that empathy evolved--biologically and/or providentially--to do its work in a small, more local, and intimate arena of action. Empathy, I'm suggesting, is best suited and always does its best work when we are looking at each other face to face.

And if that's true then I think it reframes one of the more embarrassing aspects of the Bible, the very unfashionable teaching that love should be especially focused upon the church. Do good to everyone, but especially our brothers and sisters.

That just doesn't sound right to us, that narrow focus. But might there be some wisdom here? Might the arena of God's actions to save the world, the local community of Christ followers, be perfectly and providentially suited to fit human moral psychology?

Our moral psychology is ideally suited for intimate, neighborly and face to face interactions. And that's the exact mission and work God has called us to to reconcile all things, the local and intimate work of caring for and living at peace with a specific group of people I'm sharing life with.

Again, to be clear--AND LET ME BE VERY CLEAR!--this isn't to suggest that universalized empathy and universalized love for the entire world are bad and should be shut down. This is just the simple observation that there is a psychological and biblical convergence when it comes to the arena of love.

Love works best when it is face to face. God's mission and our hearts--empathy and the kingdom--are well-matched in this regard.

All that to say...

...when our empathy and love becomes pulled in too many directions...

...or when we feel that the burden to love the entire world is too heavy for one heart to carry, burning us out and making us anxious and depressed and ill...

...or when our love is becoming more abstract and emotional than behavioral and sacrificial, trapped on Facebook rather than pouring into intimate relationships...

...God and our own hearts continually call us back to rest into the little, intimate, mustard seed, cup of cold water work of loving the people God has given us this day.

Perhaps we love the whole world best when we love a piece of it fully and well.

Maybe there is wisdom and salvation in that.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 4, Do Good to All, But Especially to the Family of Believers

In these ruminations about empathy and the kingdom we've already tackled one sacred cow, the limits and problems associated with universalized empathy.

In this post I want to tackle a second sacred cow: Are Christians supposed to love the entire world?

Quick answer: Of course we are. The Golden Rule. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. And so on.

But that quick and obvious answer might need some nuancing. Throughout the NT Christians are called upon to love, but they are routinely instructed to concentrate their love on their Christian brothers and sisters. You clearly see that instruction at work in Galatians 6.10:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers
Do good to all people, but especially to the family of believers. 

As John Nugent points out in his book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, one of the best kept secrets in the Bible--because it's so awkward--is how Christians are asked to focus their love on the church.

To make this point Nugent quotes the assessment of Gerhard Lohfink (emphases in original):
In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament--if we abstract from Jesus' saying about love of enemy--interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one's brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else in the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.
To illustrate this point Nugent then goes on in Endangered Gospel to list every text in the NT that commands us to love to show that, in just about every instance, the focus is upon loving each other in the church. A sampling of texts:
John 15:12-13
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Romans 12:9-10
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Ephesians 4:1-3
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Hebrews 6:10
For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

1 Peter 2:17
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

1 John 3:16-18
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 4:19-21
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
This bias for loving brothers and sisters runs through the whole New Testament. And we can appreciate why we don't like to talk about it very much. We are uncomfortable and even scandalized at the cliquish and insular nature of this sort of love. We're also worried about how this sort of distinction might become toxic, creating an in-group vs. out-group dynamic.

When Christians talk about love we mostly talk about a universal love, a love for everyone in the entire world. And no doubt we are called to love the world as God loves the world.

And yet, can we love the whole world sacrificially?  Is a universal love possible or sustainable?

And by "love" I don't mean affection, I mean the sacrificial, laying down your life for your friends sort of love. Behavioral love. Being there for each other, day in and day out, sharing our burdens. Covenantal love. Hesed love.

What I'm wondering about is this.

Might the work of the kingdom, as we've seen with empathy, require a smaller, more local and intimate scale, if it is to be practiced relationally, sustainably and sacrificially?

Yes, we love the entire world, but for love to be put into practice, for love to become a concrete and daily aspect of my life, love needs a specific, particular, local and intimate sphere of action.

Otherwise, love becomes abstract and emotional (rather than concrete and behavioral), diffuse or unsustainable.  

Reviving Old Scratch: Academy of Parish Clergy Book of the Year

Today I'll be joining the Academy of Parish Clergy for their annual conference to receive their award for Book of the Year for Reviving Old Scratch.

It's an honor to have a book you've written receive such a recognition. When you write a book you hope it speaks to people and into issues in ways that resonate and make a difference. Thank you to everyone who has read the book, plugged it on social media, and have used it for reading groups and bible classes. And Thank You to the Academy of Parish Clergy for recognizing Reviving Old Scratch.

Tonight at the APC awards ceremony I'm supposed to share some comments about the origins and goals of the book.

Per the title of the book, I came to the subject of the devil with lots of doubts and disenchantment. As a progressive social scientist I didn't have much room for the talk about the devil or demons. And yet, when I started sharing life on the margins of my town at Freedom Fellowship, where we reach out to the poor and homeless, and out at the prison, I began to bump into the devil on a regular basis. Suddenly, I was moving and living in a very enchanted world. And all my progressive social justice theology didn't have a lot to say about this enchantment, where the devil was real and active "prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (I Peter 5.8).

This disjoint was one of the reasons that lead me to write Reviving Old Scratch, a disjoint I'll name in my talk tonight as "the colonialism of disenchantment" or even "the Whiteness of disenchantment."

Disenchantment is WEIRD. And by that I mean that disenchantment (doubting the supernatural elements of faith) is largely found among Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic nations and peoples. Most Christians who are poor, non-White and in the Third World believe in the devil. Same goes for marginalized populations in the West, places like Freedom and the prison.

White, rich, educated Christians doubt the devil. Christians of color and the poor do not. Globally and here in America. This is why, for example, Pope Francis talks so much about the devil.

I wrote Reviving Old Scratch to make the devil less WEIRD and weird for progressive Christians.

Thank you so much to the APC for recognizing the value of this work for pastors, clergy and the church.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 3, The Scale of Empathy

I recently read Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John Nugent, a book that has gotten some attention on various blogs.

As you might surmise from the title, the central thesis of Nugent's book is that the church is endangering the gospel by trying to fix the world. That analysis might strike some of you as strange. Isn't the church supposed to save the world? Isn't the church trying to make the kingdom of God come to earth as it is in heaven?

Yes, Nugent answers, the church is trying to save the world and trying to make the kingdom come to earth. But the church has gotten confused, Nugent argues, about just how God is working to accomplish these goals.

Succinctly, in the words of Nugent, the church isn't trying to make the world a better place but is, rather, seeking to become the better place in the midst of the world.

For every problem facing the world the church--the better place--is God's response and active intervention. God is saving the world through God's kingdom people, a community who invites the world into God's better place.

Nugent's vision here of the church and the world is rooted in the Anabaptist tradition and should be familiar to students of Yoder and Hauerwas. The church is a counter-cultural polis (city) that exists in the midst of the world where the reign of God is displayed and enjoyed.

My focus on Nugent's book in these posts is more interested in psychology than upon ecclesiology, though the two, as I'll eventually argue, are related. Specifically, in this series we are wrestling with the scale and scope of empathy and compassion.

Over the last two posts we've been thinking about the problems related to empathy, and a lot of those problems happen when empathy becomes universalized. True, we are called upon to love the whole world, but the scale of a universalized compassion, turbocharged by the 24/7 social media feed, may be unsustainable, exhausting and damaging to us physically and emotionally. Providentially or evolutionarily, our empathy is been wired to work on the scale of local, face to face interactions. And for most of human history that's where compassion lived and thrived.

Perhaps, I'm suggesting, our empathy is ill-suited to an age saturated by cable TV and social media.

This is not to suggest that empathy for the suffering of world is bad or wrong. Just that universalized empathy will face a suite of temptations that need to be attended to. And for the most part, I'm arguing, these temptations are not being attended to. If anything, by encouraging a non-specific, free-floating and universalized empathy the church makes the situation worse.

So what's my suggestion?

My suggestion is that empathy works best--is most effective and healthy-- when it works at a proper scope and scale, and that if we don't attend to the scope and scale of our compassion we'll be pulled toward all the dark things we've talked about over the last two posts. We'll be pulled in so many different directions we won't settle down to specific and concrete work. We'll focus on emotionally venting and virtue signalling on social media over stepping away from our screens to love others sacrificially. We'll keep contributing to the culture of outrage rather than working shoulder to shoulder with people who vote differently. Lastly, we will burn ourselves out, growing increasing anxious, outraged, depressed, and stressed.

Maybe, I'm suggesting, empathy has a "sweet spot," a scope and scale that makes it humane, effective and sustainable--relationally, emotionally and physically. And that "sweet spot" appears to be a local, face to face community.

And that brings me back to Nugent's argument that the church isn't tasked with fixing the world but is, rather, called to be the better place in the local community.

Perhaps the means of God's mission--the local family of God--is a perfect match for the "sweet spot" of empathy. We love the entire world, but that love manifests itself, and is most effective and sustainable, when it is poured into a group of people I share face to face life with. In this way I love the world universally and generally by loving specifically and intimately.

I'm suggesting a possible fit between ecclesiology and psychology, a fit between God's means of saving the world and our moral hard-wiring. I'm supplementing Nugent's argument with a psychological observation that when the church universalizes its mission--fixing the world over being the church--it universalizes its empathy, bringing along all the problems we've been discussing. Dilution of impact. Outrage and political polarization. Social media solidarity over concrete acts of care. Emotional burnout. And so on.

To be clear, lest there be any confusion, we are talking about means and ends.

We love the world and seek its salvation. That's the end.

But means toward that end, I'm suggesting, is local and intimate. 

Prison Diary: Joe's Gift

Joe, who is an older Hispanic man, is a part of our set up crew. Joe gets to the chapel early to set out the chairs and put out the songbooks.

But what Joe takes particular delight in doing is going to get Herb and I a cup of tea or coffee. Inmates don't get access to these drinks, but Joe can get them if he's bringing them to us, the volunteers.

Now, prison is all about getting an edge, working the gray areas through daring, smooth talk, deception or a hustle to get access to something. So in the case of getting Herb and I drinks, Joe could work this to his advantage. It would be entirely expected and predictable. In getting coffee or tea for us Joe could grab a third cup and pour himself a drink as well. In fact, when Joe does bring back a pitcher of tea or coffee any inmate around rushes to get some after Herb and I pour our drinks.

But not Joe. Joe never drinks what he brings us.

I asked Joe about that this week. "Joe, there's more tea here. Why don't you get a glass."

"Oh," Joe replied, "I don't drink the coffee or tea I bring you. I don't want anyone to ever think that the reason I bring drinks to you is so that I can have one. I just want to bring the drinks to you, to say 'Thank You' for ya'll coming out here each week."

Joe's gifts are truly gifts. 100%. There's no hustle. He denies himself to make sure of that--for us, himself and the onlooking inmates.

Week after week, Joe brings us a drink, and never gets one for himself.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 2, Empathy + Social Media = Continual Collective Freakout

In the last post I raised some questions about empathy.

Empathy is a good thing, but there are some issues with compassion that we should pay attention to.

For example, empathy can pull our compassion in so many different directions that our efforts to help the world become so diffuse as to have no impact. Empathy also tempts us toward anger, hate and violence in the fight for justice and righteousness. Empathy also causes us to seek emotional catharsis over self-sacrificial love. Lastly, empathy, as a stress reaction, can lead to burnout, chronic anxiety, depression and physical exhaustion.

So those are some of the problems with empathy. But before move on with this series I'd just like to pause to note how social media has made all these empathy problems so much worse.

Before the rise of social media our empathy was local and neighborly. The scale of compassion was personal and face to face. Empathy prompted us to respond to the needs of our immediate community. Tragedies struck, but these were the shared traumas faced together by the community. Drought. Tornado. Fire. Economic downturns. Plague. Floods.

Nowadays we experience these traumas on a daily and universal scale. Because of social media and cable TV compassion never gets a day off. If you are a compassionate person not an hour passes without the news bringing you images or news that breaks your heart or fires your outrage.

Instead of aching for our neighbors and local community our hearts break for the entire world 24/7.

And while that is a good thing, there is a social, emotional and physical cost to the continual collective freakout caused by the advent of social media. Emotionally, we are not wired to carry the sufferings of the world 24/7. The scope, scale, and unremitting suffering of the world is too much for one heart to carry day after day, year after year. Empathy in the age of social media can ruin us, spiritually, emotionally and physically. But what else can a compassionate person do when the next tragedy strikes?

All that to say, I think the problems we noted in the last post about empathy have been massively amplified by social media.

As social media hits us with tragedy after tragedy and injustice after injustice our empathy is pulled in a million different directions, causing our impact on the world to become more and more diffuse.

Social media has also become an outlet for moralistic aggression, a place where we fight, call out, and denounce the Bad Guys in the world. Empathy-fueled social media is often anger-fueled social media.

Social media also captures and traps our empathy. Our empathy causes us to write, post, Tweet, Like, re-post or re-Tweet about the latest tragedy or injustice. By posting on social media we get an emotional outlet, but rarely does this "virtual helping" translate into concrete acts of sacrificial love for people we care for face to face.

Finally, if empathy is a stress reaction then chronic exposure to tragedy and injustice on social media is, perhaps, the number one reason we're all so stressed, depressed, and anxious. Christians have become emotional wrecks.

In aching online for the entire world 24/7 we've lost the local and intimate scale of empathy where compassion is sustainable, healthy, relational, tangible and effective.

And maybe that's where the kingdom of God comes in.

Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 1, What Is So Bad About Empathy?

I'd like to write a few posts wrestling with how empathy functions in the kingdom of God.

I've been kicking around some thoughts about this subject, but I have hesitated to share them. Why? Because in the course of these reflections I'll be taking on some sacred cows. Some of the posts in this series will be disorienting for some readers. By the end of the series I hope to have us in a pretty good place, but to get where I'm going we will have to rethink some things.

But that's why I hope you visit this blog. To watch a theological high wire act. Something different and out of the box. Something to puzzle you and make you think.

So this series will be one of those "experiments" in theological reflection. Follow along and see what you think.

I want to start off with a problem and then think toward a solution in these posts.

To lay my cards on the table, the problem is empathy and the solution is the kingdom.

So let's start with the problem. What's so bad about empathy?

Let me be clear that empathy is foundational to our ability to show kindness, compassion and love. We must cultivate empathy and practice empathy. Empathy is a critical component to being formed into the image of Jesus.

But that's about as far as we take our reflections about empathy. Compassion is good, so let's all be compassionate. And yet, there has been a growing chorus among psychologists and ethicists suggesting that, while very good and necessary, empathy has some issues that we need to pay attention to. For example, see Paul Bloom's essay "Against Empathy" or David Brooks' "The Limits of Empathy." The claim is that if you don't pay attention to the problems with empathy your compassion can take you into some very dark places.

So, how can empathy be a problem?

Let me describe five problems with empathy:
1. Ineffective Empathy
When our heartstrings are pulled toward a multitude of charitable and social justice causes our resources become spread and diluted, decreasing their ability to make an impact. We all know the statistics that show how much of the charitable giving being done in the world is often misdirected, ineffective or even harmful. Empathy is flowing by the truckloads, but it's not making the world any better. And sometimes empathy makes the world worse. Watch Paul Bloom's short video on this subject.

Christians are aware of this problem. Consider all the (virtual) ink that has been spilled about how short-term mission trips to the Third World are a form of poverty tourism. Our empathy pulls us toward these sorts of trips and ministry efforts but their effectiveness is seriously in doubt. In short, empathy--a compassionate desire to help--doesn't always lead to actual helping. Another example here is the whole When Helping Hurts conversation.

2. Empathy and Violence
Much of the violence done in the world is motivated by moralistic aggression. Moralistic aggression occurs when the Good Guys use violence to defeat the Bad Guys, Bad Guys who are hurting people in the world. In short, empathy can lead to violence. The example Paul Bloom makes in the video above is how our empathy was used by the Bush administration to create public support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dark side of empathy is that it causes us to demonize people. A lot of our politics is motivated by empathy, care, and concern for the suffering in the world. But that empathy creates moralistic aggression toward political opponents. Angelic Good Guys fighting against demonic Bad Guys. Empathy drives a lot of our politics, which is a key reason our political discourse has become so angry, polarized, and uncivil. 

3. Empathy and Sacrifice
Feelings aren't actions. One of the problems with empathy is that it privileges feelings over actions. When we feel empathy the temptation is to look for an emotional outlet, like taking to social media to write a Facebook rant or a string of angry Tweets. These are outlets that create the illusion of "doing something" that are more emotional catharsis than action.

In short, we can feel loads and loads of empathy but still not do anything. How many of us have sat under a convicting sermon or testimony, completely gut-checked, to have that feeling evaporate by the time we sat down to lunch after church?

Empathy is vital, but it's a far cry from self-sacrificial love. We're addicted to compassion. We take a pass on agape.

4. Empathic Distress
Empathy is a stress reaction. When we witness the distress of others we sympathetically feel their distress in our own bodies. We get upset, sad or angry. Or all of these feelings at the same time.

Consequently, empathy creates an emotional and somatic burden. As we watch social media and cable news our empathy triggers sadness, anxiety and outrage. Minute by minute, day after day, month after month. That load of sympathetic stress leads to empathy burnout. Chronic anxiety. Depression. Physical exhaustion. Emotional numbness.

In short, if we are not careful our empathy can ruin us, emotionally and physically.
So this where we'll begin this series, with raising some questions about a sacred cow.

We consider empathy to be foundational to cultivating a Christ-like character, compassion heralded as the singular Christian virtue.

But might empathy create some real problems for us? Problems we are not paying attention to?

And if so, maybe we need to think harder about how empathy functions in the kingdom.

The Metaphysics of Gratitude

Yesterday I mentioned my students presenting their research at the SWPA conference. At SWPA I also got to hear Robert Emmons present about his research on gratitude.

Emmons is the world's leading expert on gratitude. You can check out a popular treatment of his research in his book Thanks!.

Toward the end of his talk, after reviewing the positive benefits of gratitude and how gratitude can be fostered, Emmons turned to more conceptual issues. One of the issues he raised was the distinction between gratitude for and gratitude to.

Gratitude is a social emotion, the thankfulness we feel having receiving a gift (or some benefit). Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver. This is gratitude to.

But what about gratitude for? Emmons raised the question of environmental gratitude. Can you feel gratitude for the sunrise, a beautiful mountain, for life itself?

To be sure, we can feel lucky and fortunate for all these things. But without a giver can we, properly speaking, feel gratitude for these things?

In short, since gratitude is a social emotion might feelings of gratitude--environmentally and cosmically speaking--require a metaphysical framework? Gratitude to a giver?

And this isn't only about emotional states. When we feel grateful we take care of the gift, cherish it. Being grateful for the world and life prompts us to take care. By contrast, when we don't feel grateful we don't take care. In short, gratitude is associated with ethics.

So there is a reinforcing matrix here of metaphysics, gratitude and care.

Faith, worship and ethics.