Friday, September 28, 2012

Owning Our Faults

A few days ago, this post showed up in my email (I subscribe to the blog). In it, the author, Joshua, (who is a non-religious Jewish atheist) makes a strange assertion that took me a while to come to grips with: That the Christian Church has a history of antisemitism, that this antisemitism persists even today in many Christian circles, and that the Church refuses to acknowledge this past and present antisemitism. Finally, Josh asserts that because of this, and because of a continued reluctance on the part of individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) to consciously and deliberately take steps to rectify the past and current wrongs, he finds it very difficult to take the Church seriously as a moral authority. I dialogued briefly with him on his post and felt convicted to write about it.
There are times, I think, to argue about unjust accusations and unfair generalizations. There are times to point out that the Church is, after all, composed of fallen human beings who do their best but often stumble: There are also times to point out that the earthly church has often been hijacked by those who use it for power and to further their own selfish, hateful ends.
But this isn’t one of those times. Antisemitism was not a brief moment in the life of the Church, quickly corrected. It was not a heresy that was recognized and cast out. It was not some kind of splinter movement, or the beliefs of a few radical “Christians.” It started early, around 400 a.d., as influential writers and thinkers began to condemn the Jews and claim that their sufferings were a result of their part in the death of Christ… and then it quickly became “and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill youeither!” They were sub-human, mere beasts.  Although some popes did, indeed, speak out against the prevalent anti-semitism, many did not. The Jews were villainous beyond belief, and depending on who you asked, they were destined for perpetual slaverypracticed ritual murderate Christian children and drank their blood… Jews were railed against in churches and public places, driven from their homes and expelled from countries where they sought refuge, and killed by the hundreds and thousands.  And this was done by the general body of the Christian Church, sometimes with the explicit support of church leadership. And this went on, off-and-on again under various popes and in varying degrees of persecution, for over a thousand years.
We don’t like to talk about the mis-steps of the Church. We don’t like to talk about the people the church hurt and killed, the lives the church ruined, the terror and wreckage we let loose on the world when the church went bad. And perhaps that’s the reason that I never knew any of this before I got to Biola. I was never told, not at my private Christian k-8th school, not at my Sunday school, not at my church. There’s this huge, enormous, chunk of church history that we like to pretend never existed, so we don’t talk about it, we don’t acknowledge it in the slightest.
But it did exist. It happened. And while we’ve left the bloody pogroms and accusations of child-sacrifice behind, there remain the blanket-condemnations of the Jews of Jesus’ time as stupid, or greedy, or power-hungry, the ugly stereotypes of the Jewish lawyer, and a general and offensive ignorance of all things Jewish (which we nonetheless like to talk about with authority because hey, Christianity, right?).
I was lucky enough to be raised in an intelligent Christian household where antisemitism held no sway (to the best of my knowledge). I have never driven a Jew from his country, or accused him of eating a child, or blamed him for the death of Christ. I suspect most of you can say the same. The question then becomes, “Why do we need to apologize for something we had no part in? Why do we need to speak out against something that we aren’t doing wrong?”
Because Scripture tells us that we are one body, but many members. And because history, and the personal experience of Jews, tells us that the earthly, visible body of Christ has done great harm in Christ’s name. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 12 that “if one member suffers, everyone suffers with it.” What happens to one member of the body of Christ happens to all members… and by the same reasoning, what one member of the body commits, all members are responsible for.
We cannot deny responsibility for the harm we have caused and are causing currently to the Jewish people as a whole and individual Jewish people in particular, merely because we did not personally take part. Neither can we deny responsibility to set things right, as much as it is in our power. We are not all pastors, and there is no central evangelical authority that can declare some official stance. But we all have spheres of influence in our lives (mine happens to be this small space right here). Each of us, individually, can take responsibility for the Church’s wrongs, and more importantly, we can take responsibility for setting them right.
That’s the point of this post. If we are to claim that the Church is, in fact, one body, and that the Church means something, then we must claim responsibility. As ambassadors of Christ, we must own our faults and right them: Otherwise, why should the world take us seriously?

Monday, September 17, 2012

His Name Is Alex

On my way to youth group on Wednesday night, I stopped at Rite Aid for a soda. As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed a young woman talking to a man leaning against the side of the building. I guess that I noticed his clothing had a certain rumpled quality to it, but I didn’t really think anything more of it.
I went inside, bought a Cherry Coke, and at the register, I made sure to get cash back, $20 in fives. There is a huge amount of homeless people in the Fresno area, and I like having something to give them. I exited the building and began walking through the parking lot back to my car. I looked to my right to see if the man I had noticed before was still there at the side of the building.
He was. Our eyes met for maybe two seconds, and I gave him a nod. Neither of us said anything: It was just a nod, a wordless, “Hey, man.” Then I looked away. I took a drink of my soda and walked a couple more steps, before he shouted out to me across the maybe 25 ft. which separated us.
“Thank you!”
I stopped, turned, and began to walk back towards him. He expanded: “I saw you nod. You saw me, and you nodded, like…” He trailed off, seemingly not sure how to finish it. “Thanks,” he said again.
I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked him his name.
“Alex,” he said. We talked a bit. He had a large cut on his lip, and he rolled up his arm to show me bruises: Some “youngsters” had tried to steal his backpack (with nothing but toilet paper and toothpaste in it) the other day.  He apologized (twice!) for his raggedy appearance: I told him that nobody worth caring about cared about stuff like that (not the best thoughts on the subject ever, granted). He agreed enthusiastically, saying that there’s only one person who can judge us: Our Creator.
We only talked for a few minutes. I asked him if I could give him five bucks (although I now greatly regret not inviting him into the Rite Aid to load up on granola bars and the like). He didn’t say anything, at first. He looked shocked; he almost looked  like he was about to cry. I told him I would really like to help him out a little bit. Finally he said that he would really appreciate that.
So I gave Alex $5 and told him that I would keep him in my prayers. He thanked me, and I walked away.  And as I finished the drive to youth group, and for the rest of the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
All I had done was nod to him. I hadn’t even spoken to him at first. I had looked at him, met his gaze, and nodded. And yet that one thing, that gesture, that bare acknowledgement of his existence and his humanity, was enough to cause him to literally call out and verbally and explicitly thank me.
That blew my mind. How terrible is our culture  that the obvious, commonplace thing to do is to simply ignore the poor and suffering among us? Yes, it’s always been  easier to do that, even for Christians, and it’s possible that it’s always been like this and I merely hadn’t noticed… but when what should be the bare minimum of an interaction between two people fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God becomes something rare and worthy of thanks, we have a problem.
I don’t want to end this with a “Therefore, we should…”, because that makes it sound like I have it all together and am basing my call to action on my own incredible performance. That is so not the case. It is, instead, a recognition of how far short I have fallen each and every time I have avoided the gaze of someone on the street, merely because I didn’t have any money, or because I was in a hurry, because it’s just easier not to look at them than to look at them and be uncomfortable. 
I need to do better. We need to do better. I asked him his name, which I think is important: He isn’t “some homeless guy I met at a Rite Aid.” His name is Alex, and he was made in the image of God.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton, is one of the greatest books many people will never read.
After posting my thoughts on Job, I revisited Thursday. I often do this: I have it on my computer, on my kindle, and a physical copy (although that never gets used anymore). I’ve read it more times than I can count, whether from the first page to the last, or just random bits and pieces here and there. And I wanted to talk about it, because I think you should read it: Yes, you. I don’t care who you are, I don’t even care if you’ve read it before. You should read it.
He wrote it in 1908. Years later, writing The Everlasting Man in 1925, Chesterton would say, “It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to write any book on any subject… without showing that he is a Catholic.” Although he wrote Thursday long before this statement–indeed, long before even his official conversion to Catholicism–it is clear that this sentiment was already alive and well in Chesterton in 1908. In Chesterton’s own words, the book was “a protest against the pessimism of the ‘nineties. And though I didn’t know much about God, I was ready to stick up for Him against the jury of Cockney poets who had brought Him in guilty.”
It was the second of Chesterton’s books that I had the pleasure of reading: Manalive was the first, coming into my freshman year at Biola, and for more than a year I failed to appreciate its brilliance. Then I read it again, and immediately I knew that I had to find more of Chesterton.
We found Thursday on, my mother and I. “That one!” I said, and *click*, *click*, *click* and “It’ll be here in two days,” my mom said (Amazon Prime is truly a marvelous thing). And then it was there, and I read it all in one afternoon.
I still remember the first time I read it, now about four years ago.  I was sitting on the couch upstairs at my parent’s house (although back then it was also my house). It started out as a poetical dual between two poets, quickly becoming a tale of the Last Crusade, the last heroes of the world and their fight against anarchy.
And suddenly it wasn’t that, anymore.
I distinctly remember the exact moment it ceased to be a suspenseful detective story about the end of the world and became… something else. I remember the thrill — even now, chills are running down my spine as I remember it. I had been leaning–no, lounging–back against the couch, but at some point I found I had arched forward, hunched over the book, eyes racing over words and pages towards I-knew-not-what.
And then the moment… that amazing, incredible moment when everything comes together and even if you don’t understand, you knowthat there is something absolutely marvelous there, something beautiful and amazing and terrible… the book slipped from my fingers, falling to the floor, and I likewise fell backwards into the cushions, head tilting back to stare at the ceiling, breathing “holy crap” to the empty room.
And then, after a minute, I picked it back up and read the ending again. Then I turned a few pages back and finished it a third time. This is burned into my memory. I remember it clear as day: I relive it, to a lesser degree, when I re-read the book now.
You see, I can’t just tell you what’s so marvellous about it. That would be to rob you of that moment, when the book punches you right in the heart, soul, and mind. But I did want tell you to read it. I’m not going to say you need to read The Man Who was Thursday. But I think you should. I think you will greatly enjoy it. I think you will profit from it immensely. And as you read it, think of Job.