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Saturday, June 30, 2007

godspell

When people say they don't think religions should proselytize, I have to smile.

I can understand someone not enjoying an aggressive in-your-face confrontation with a person wanting to convert them. A good number of people enjoy talking about spirituality if they feel they can be free to express themselves without a great deal of judgment and cant coming back at them. But to say religious people should never talk about their faith with anyone in a positive and persuasive light would mean of all the organizations in the world religions would be the only ones denied this freedom.

If we put it within a Christian frame of reference every corporate group has its gospel. Budweiser tells you - in ads full of handsome men and beautiful women - that if you drink their beer everything will be all right. You'll be popular, happy, youthful and sexy. If you drive a Ford truck you'll be a person who can handle anything, rugged, self-reliant. Budweiser saves you. Ford saves you. The right bank saves you. The right mortgage. The right cat food.

And the same is true in other areas of life. Every NGO has its gospel. Every government. The UN has its gospel. The WTO and IMF. They come to the world and its nations and people groups and they say, "If you do this, all will be well. Forever. Just give us your time. Give us your money. Give us your commitment. Trust us." In the middle of such a cacophony of voices why shouldn't a person of faith be allowed to say, "I also have an idea about all of this. Life, death, human rights, politics, poverty and wealth, justice and immortality. May I speak?" Many of the organizations that every day preach their gospel to the world over television and radio and DVD and the internet say no. Faith has no place in such discussions. Yet they ask the global community to put their faith in them and their products.

It is not as if religious groups are the only ones with doctrine and precise points of view and hold what they believe as sacred. Toyota is the same, and Dow Chemical, and Greenpeace, and Amnesty International and the World Bank. All of them say they will save you and all of them say they have the truth. They all proselytize. They all seek converts. Even atheism.

So into this mix those who believe in a Being greater and more authoritative than the UN or IMF also have a place. Of course organizations that wish to be seen as the ultimate authority do not like groups that claim to supercede their authority. This makes religious groups particularly threatening. But all the more reason that voices which worship God should be heard. For if commercial groups and ideological groups want to play God with people's live it would be nice to let God speak for himself through those that believe in him.

If Budweiser can speak to people of why it matters so much to drink their beer, or the UN can go to nations and say why it matters so much to follow their policies, Christians certainly have the right to go to the world and say why the gospel of Jesus Christ makes a critical difference in people's lives. It's sheer hypocrisy to say it should not do so, that this is wrong, an interference, the dirty word proselytism, when all the rest of the world does what Christianity and other faiths are condemned for doing. If all the others speak into the world's realities, its pains and pleasures and hopes and fears, and often for no other motives than power, greed and control, so should Christ. Portrayed properly, he only seeks the individual's good and the world's good, with no price tag attached and no hidden agenda of power for power's sake.

There is no shame in taking Christ's life and words to the nations of the earth. Not what he said. Not what he did. Not the love and courage he showed. No shame. No embarrassment. No disgrace. Especially considering the alternatives and the words they use and what they stand for. Let the gospel of Jesus be heard. Let people judge for themselves. Does commercialism save? Or capitalism? Or socialism? Are they ultimate? Are they transcendent?

Or is Christ's gospel unique set beside all the other gospels of the earth?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reading The Whole World

I am taking a sabbatical in a few weeks (actually 20 days to be exact). Never had one before. I'm used to having a month off in the summer but now there will be three.

What will I do? Rest, people say. But rest comes in many forms. I have no desire to sleep in or sleep extra. But I would like to spend time in the wilderness, wouldn't mind heading down to the desert if I could, would love to flop by a mountain stream and just watch it go by and count the emerald bubbles.

Yet there are few things more interesting on this earth than stories and few stories more interesting than those that come from people far away in lands even farther away. "I had a farm in Africa . . ." writes Isak Dinesen and right away we want to go there and see this farm, walk its acres, see its animals and houses and the colours of its skies. I have read a lot of English literature but I confess to not having read enough of non-English literature, even in translation, even of those from other lands who choose to write in the English tongue instead of their own. Perhaps this is the summer to turn all that around.

I have read some books from far away, of course. All Quiet On The Western Front, burned by the Nazis, is a German book, and even in translation the prose is magical. It had a profound impression on me as a boy and I will always remember a passage the author wrote about the soldiers marching in the driving rain - it rains on the trenches, it rains on the mud, on their faces, on the dead, in rains in their hearts.

Dumas counts for France with his adventure novels on the three musketeers (actually four): "All for one and one for all." Ah, if only the world was really like that. But sometimes, you know, it is. And Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame counts for la belle France also: "They covered his hands with kisses. He was dead."

Russia is easy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Turgenev. Sholokov - And Quiet Flows The Don. Pasternak - Doctor Zhivago. Solzhenitsyn - One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Russia is easy.

What is not so easy, at least for me, is to say I've read the stories of the Indonesians or Malaysians, the stories of China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Vietnam and Cambodia, Denmark and Norway, Chile and Brazil and Colombia. The fiction is out there all right. Some names have been carried to me by the nuthatches and sparrows and robins. Some by CBC and CNN. Some I've found listed on Amazon. There is much out there. Where to begin?

Somehow I've decided to begin with Africa, a continent that people often mention as if it were one country instead of many. I have read some African writers - Alan Paton of Cry, the Beloved Country; Andre Brink of A Dry White Season; Nadine Gordimer of The Conservationist. But my intention this summer is to try and read some literary works from each of Africa's countries - Botswana, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Kenya, as well as the nations of North Africa - Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and, surprisingly (for isn't it a nation of the Middle East?) Egypt.

The point of the matter is you can be a tourist in a country and learn nothing about the real people and the way they really are when you are not looking. If you live in the country for a few weeks or months or years you can learn something, for sure. But when a good writer writes of their people and their land then you get to the heart of it fairly quickly. Not that I undertake to read the whole world, African nations included, just to gather in some sort of international information that will allow me to blather on, ignorantly, at a party of friends. "Well, you know, the famous writer of fiction in Ethiopia says . . . " This should be a matter of the soul, stories that come into you and make their home in you and never leave. They work on you in the night and by the bright rays of the day, and they humanize the planet and all the news reports, and they dye your imagination with the colours (and they colour outside the margins too, which your art teacher told you never to do). Everything changes once I've read hundreds and hundreds of the good stories of the earth, not just those written by Americans and Canadians and the British. Not that those nations cannot plant rich fiction in me. But it is time to leap over the garden wall.

I know that I will not like some of the stories and sometimes that will be my fault and sometimes theirs (no matter how the critics praise for I know critics well enough to accept they will praise the worst writer just for being ethnically unique, or politically correct or incorrect, or writing about an atrocity or injustice no one else has written about yet). But it is my hope that I will find enough sun and shadow to delight me and bring that deeper rest to my soul I crave.

A friend says persons come back from their sabbaticals to stay a year or less at their old jobs and then move on. Some never come back. I have no idea which of those people I will be, if any of them. But I am going on safari and it is certain that I do not know when I will be back and who I will be when I arrive at my front door which will be shut tight against the October winds.

christlike?

If someone says, "Oh, that person is Christlike," they usually mean the person is being gentle and compassionate and forgiving. And there's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. Where problems come in is when people think that the ONLY way you can be Christlike is when you are gentle and compassionate and forgiving. And that's just not the way it is.

Such records as we possess of the life of Christ most definitely portray a man inclined towards peace, a healer, a person who sided with the underdog and the marginalized. But the idea of perpetually portraying Christ as some sort of Christian-Buddhist monk, going placidly and unthreateningly on his way, or a kind of backwoods mystic in touch with nature and the divine and floating from place to place with an ethereal expression on his face is not the Christ of the ancient literature - and that's the only literature we have about what he was actually like.

I suppose it started with emphasizing his attitude at the crucifixion - submissive, passive, silent, acquiesecent in the whole murderous process. So this then became the quintessential definition of Christlike - stories about how he forgave and healed and had mercy for all kinds of people just puffed this definition a little bit more. Not to mention the famous words from the Sermon on the Mount - "love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give blessings for curses."

But the Christ portrayed in the gospels did not always act the way he acted at the crucifixion. Far from it. When they hurled a woman at his feet and wanted to stone her to death he faced the lynch mob down and didn't flinch from their murderous fury. When his sense of right and wrong could take no more he boiled over at the religious leaders and called them hypocrites, sons of hell, blind guides, blind fools, gravestones, rotten corpses, dead men's bones, snakes, vipers (Matthew 23). When he saw the spiritual centre of his people being corrupted, the Temple, a sanctuary that was supposed to house the very presence of the Holy God, he roared with rage and threw tables and money flying, ripped the cages open that held birds and animals, made a whip with his own two hands and drove animals and the sellers and the moneyhandlers out of the Temple grounds - drove them. Submissive? Passive? Docile? Placid? Hardly. Christlike? Yes. Because he was the Christ and therefore all of his actions were Christlike. But we choose to select only a few of his attitudes and only a few aspects of his personality, deify them, and call only those few sacred and Christlike. Yet all aspects of his personality were.

Facing down the mob was Christlike. So was lacing into the religious leaders. So was clearing the Temple. So was feeling anger at death when he faced the tomb of Lazarus. So was impatience and exasperation with his disciples. So was confronting people on wanting more free food from him instead of real spiritual food. So was his anguish and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. It's all him. It's all Christlike.

How do we explain the way he acted at his arrest and whipping and crucifixion? He knew he needed to go through with it. He had accepted the fact that his death was the only way the world could be saved. So he submitted to it. At that moment he played the lamb. But at other times, such as at the Temple, he played the lion. Flip through the pages of the Apocalypse. Look at John's vision of Jesus as walking fire. Look at the conflict between Christ and evil. Metaphorical language it may or may not be, but the passive Christ he is definitely not.

What about the famous language in the Sermon on the Mount? How could someone who made a whip and who told his apostles to strap on their swords (Luke 22) say those things - love your enemies - turn the other cheek? Well, the same one who told his disciples to pull out their eyes if they saw evil or pull out their tongues if they spoke it. Did Peter go about tongueless for denying Christ? Were the apostles known as the one-eyed crew? Christ spoke with word pictures and stories and adjectives and yes, hyperbole, to get his points across. He overemphasized to make things stick. But he demanded no one's eyes or tongue. And he and his followers did not go about with red cheeks because they'd let others slap them so often. Nor did they go about naked because they kept giving their clothes away to those who asked for them. Nor did they keep getting diverted from their mission to go from village to village by constantly putting everything on hold and travelling with someone twice as far as he wanted them to. So what was the point? The same as the point about plucking out eyes and cutting out tongues and being born again: "Take these things to heart. They are crucial. Don't fill your eyes with evil and lust. Don't fill your mouth with curses and threats. Don't hate your enemies - look for ways to be reconciled, look for ways to make friendship, seek peace and pursue it. Don't get caught up in a blood feud and take eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, no, instead break the vicious cycle and look for ways to create relationship and love, not harm. Begin a second life different from the first."

I am a great admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of what non-violent protest accomplished in the United States in the 50's and 60's. But as Joyce Carol Oates said at a talk in Michigan in 2004, "It would never have worked in Nazi Germany." No, because the Nazis would have mowed them down or trucked them off to Treblinka. Even in the US, King's movement would have failed if the marchers had not been protected by federal troops - with guns and helmets and live ammunition. Without that armed protection King would have died long before 1968 and so would many other leaders and followers of the movement.

Many Christians have become pacifists because of their reading of Christ's teachings. Tolstoy comes to mind, King we have just mentioned, and lately Wendell Berry has joined their ranks. I have a number of very good friends who take "turn the other cheek" literally (but not "cut out your tongue"). I respect their decision to walk this path. I have even tried to walk it myself. But ultimately I came to realize I would fight in self-defense and in defense of others, I do believe in law enforcement and the proper use of the military, I do believe there are times individuals and nations need to resist with force. (For instance, had it been up to me, I would have sanctioned the use of force by Romeo Dallaire's UN troops in Rwanda and I believe such force, though it would have cost hundreds of lives, would have saved hundreds of thousands.) I embrace this way of thinking not to perpetuate violence but to end it, not to foster hate but to curtail it, not to nurture vengeance but to prevent it. (Just as the Federal Marshals and National Guard assigned to protect King and his followers sought to do.) And I do this as a follower of Christ, a christwalker, seeking friendship and peace rather than enemies and war. But seeking peace and pursuing it is not always won without force of arms or personal resistance.

Jesus was not a pacifist. A pacifist as we have come to define the term does not indulge in the use of weapons (a whip) or the use of a vitriolic tongue (Matthew 23) or violence (clearing the Temple). On the other hand, Jesus did what he did to bring about good, to bring about justice, to try to build peace. Unquestionably, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation points to an ideal world of friendship, a world absent of tyranny or violence or warfare. It was Jesus who said that those who live their lives by the sword - define everything in terms of warfare and violence and destruction - die by the sword. Jesus did not call upon us to kill in his name or build a political empire in his name or rule the earth with an iron sceptre in his name. But nor did he ask us to be doormats for injustice, to let evil overwhelm the weak and oppressed, to stand by and watch the innocent slaughtered and never act in their defense. He did not say the truly spiritual person would never feel outrage at human wrongs and atrocities, never explode with fury at the genocide of Rwanda or of the Kurds or of the Armenians. He never said it was not Christlike to speak up forcefully, never said it was not Christlike to challenge and confront with anger, never said it was not Christlike to use violence to resist the violent. We said that. And we've made a religion out of it.

To be Christlike means to imitate all aspects of Christ's personality, not just those aspects we like the most or which most conveniently fit into our ideologies. Christ is no one's ideology and he fits into no man's pocket, no woman's purse. The one who says, "Well, Jesus is a pacifist, " is off, but so is the one who says, "Well, Jesus is a killer." The one who says Jesus is a peacemaker is closer to the truth (as long as they remember how Jesus fought for peace at the Temple), and the one who says Jesus is a warrior is closer to the truth (as long as they remember how Jesus told Peter to sheath his sword during the arrest sequence in the Garden of Gethsemane). Christ is a person of balances struck and if we do not strike those balances we miss what matters the most, the heart of Christ. He did not join the zealots and seek to kill Roman soldiers and restore a political power to Israel. He helped a Roman centurion, in fact, and he did not tell him to stop being a Roman soldier, or any kind of soldier, he did not say to him, "Your servant is healed, now go and sin no more, take off your uniform." There is never a sense in Jesus, just as there is none in Paul, that there isn't a place for an armed police or an armed military or an armed government or an armed justice system which holds the power to incarcerate or liberate. Such a way of viewing life or defining the Christian faith does not come from Christ. It comes from others. But they tip the balance and the Christlikeness is lost.

Christlikeness is anger over injustice as well as the ability to forgive the perpetrators of injustice. Christlikeness is calling a spade a spade as well as speaking mercy to a wrongdoer's heart. Christlikeness is resisting evil with force under certain circumstances as well as choosing not to use force to resist evil under others. As with many things in life, the trick is to know when to act one way or the other. In terms of following Christ, it is impossible to get it right if we let pre-conceived philosophies or ideologies, on one side or the other, lock Jesus into a rigid inflexible posture. There is no substitute for reading Jesus's words for ourselves and turning them over in our own minds, putting aside for a time the spin others put on them, just as there is no substitute for a spiritual life in terms of comprehending Christ's intentions, a life that includes the supernatural as well as the natural, prayer as well as action, restraint as well as resistance, a time for war and a time for peace.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the person who never fights back. The one who never fights back may well be the less spiritual person. I would have wanted someone to fight for me at Auschwitz.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the person who never gets angry. Christ got angry over injustice. And the person who is not angered by atrocities of war (genocide, rape) and of peace (serial killing, rape) does not seem to me to be a very spiritual person at all - unless we are going to start defining spirituality in terms of lack of feeling and lack of emotion, as some have always done.

Christlikeness does not mean the more spiritual person is the one most docile and passive. That person may well be the one most withdrawn and most uninvolved and most disconnected with the fate of others. The one who acts and who is on the move and doing things and busy may well be the one most like Jesus, under the circumstances, because Jesus himself was often just like that - so busy he hardly had time to eat or sleep. On the other hand, the person all over the map for Christ may not be Christlike at all in how they do what they do in his name and may be abusers of themselves and others.

Christlikeness is all the traits Christ exhibited played out in our human lives in the proper places and at the proper times. Not more than this. Not less than this.

It is a great freedom to live this way. Of course, the responsibility is great. We always say that and it is true. But the liberation of our personalities, so that all aspects of who we are can be included and made spiritual in the life and person of Christ, is a greater freedom than most of us have ever known or felt.

Christlikeness is being all of who Christ is.

And as well as being many other things, Christ was a warrior and a lion.

He was also, in the words of poet T.S. Eliot . . .

". . . Christ the tiger . . . "

We cannot keep losing the balance as we have done.