Let’s talk about the “s” word

When did sin become the “s” word that we dare not speak?

This was not always so. There was a time when most believed that sin – disobedience to God’s law, whether through rebellion or neglect (1 John 3:4, James 4:17) – was a big deal. Sinning was stigmatized, a warning to others of its danger, like a sign on a power box: “Danger: High Voltage.” We believed it was the cryptonite that could bring any Superman to his knees. Do we still believe that?voltage

There are at least two devastating consequences of sin’s denial:

1. The denial of sin precludes the possibility of healing, leading to death.

In his sermon Original Sin, John Wesley urged: “Know your sickness, know your cure.” Salvation in Scripture is a solution to a problem. But if we think there is no problem, then we won’t seek a solution.

One of the most painful reality T.V. shows to watch is Intervention. In one episode, a young woman addicted to methamphetamine takes the drug regularly, admitting no downside to her habit. Yet she is blind to the way it is controlling her life, putting her job in jeopardy and straining her relationship with those who love her most. Recovery only came when her family staged an intervention and she was willing to admit: “I’m an addict, and I need help.”

Likewise, the Good News of Jesus’ death only makes sense if we first acknowledge the bad news of our sinful predicament. Each of us must come to the place where we acknowledge that we are the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15, NIV). Only when the illness is diagnosed and we accept Scripture’s dismal diagnosis will we be ready to seek the Great Physician for a remedy.

Sometimes death is presented only as what happens when we breathe our last. Yet sin is so poisonous that it begins to diminish the present vitality of those who deny its presence. In John 10:10, Jesus warns about the “thief” that has come to “steal, kill and destroy” (CEB). Sin gives us death on the installment plan, a progressive choking off of our life here-and-now. The end result is utter darkness, devoid of hope and without God (Matt. 25:30, Galatians 6:8). Conversely, to confess our sin is the first step toward the full recovery God wishes for each of us (1 John 1:9), a clean heart and a fresh start.

2. The denial of sin destroys community.

One of the devil’s biggest lies is often repeated: “No one else is getting hurt.” But is this true? Before the cheating spouse is unmasked, he or she may be convinced that an extramarital dalliance is harmless, not a sin but an innocent pleasure. Yet when the affair is exposed, the fallout is no less devastating. Like a priceless vase shattered into a hundred pieces, trust can only be painstakingly glued back together. Even then, the fissures are obvious, the beauty marred.

The epitome of beauty marred is Fantine, Victor Hugo’s pitiful character in Les Misérables. Her own indiscretion of conceiving a child out of wedlock is compounded by the sin of others who move beyond stigmatizing to self-righteous victimizing, chasing her from her factory job, forcing her to resort to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. In the 2012 film adaptation of the novel, Anne Hathaway sings “I dreamed a dream,” dripping with pathos:

“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…”

Fantine is alone and broken. Her own sin could have been forgiven and overcome if she had experienced the power of grace demonstrated through others. Instead, the blindness of her fellow employees to the sinfulness of their gossip and their subsequent shunning of one they judge to be disgraced dramatically fractures community. Whether it is the denial of sin by an individual or the tolerance of corporate sin by the community at-large, it is the community itself that is destroyed.

Only in this light does the radical action of Peter toward Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 make any sense. When they sold their land and secretly kept back part of the money for themselves, Peter confronted them. Since the couple had lied about what they had done, Peter became the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, pronouncing judgment: “You have not lied to people, but to God” (Acts 5:4, CEB). For the Christian community to sweep sin under the carpet would have guaranteed the church’s demise. Peter knew that the denial of sin destroys community.

Conclusion

In the 21st century, the Church faces many challenges. The culture in North America particularly seems to be growing intolerant of the “s” word. Yet Scripture and experience both remind us that only when we acknowledge our sin can God’s forgiveness flow. Isn’t it time we talk about the “s” word?

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Photo credit: Creative Safety Supply

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Abortion and the optimism of grace

african_amer_dad_kiss_babyI remember the moment when I first heard the word “abortion.” It was 1979 in Mrs. Ruch’s 10th grade English class and it was student debate day. In a twist on “show and tell,” my female classmate arguing against abortion brought pictures. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. From that day forward, I knew that abortion was to be avoided.

Theologians speak of the “optimism of grace.” But what does it have to contribute to the topic of abortion? The grace described in Scripture extends to all individuals. There is no nook or cranny of God’s creation where God’s seeking grace is not actively present! It reaches to the condemned prisoner on death row, to the woman unhappily pregnant, and to the developing child in her womb. The Psalmist’s words celebrate this pervasive presence of God:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

 For you created my inmost being;
 you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

– Psalm 139:7-16 (NIV, bolding added)

The Christmas story recounts how God used a baby to answer the cries of the downtrodden, people suffering under the crushing dual burden of oppression and sin. The incarnation – God taking on flesh – was a rescue plan. Jesus was Immanuel, literally “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The LORD saw a dilemma and devised a solution. To solve problems, God uses people. In the case of Mary, God used an unwed mother in shameful circumstances to change the course of human history.

Environmentalists speak eloquently of deforestation as the destruction of cures for diseases known and yet unknown. When we clear-cut rain forest, we are destroying forever undiscovered medicines that one day could have cured cancer or a hundred other ailments.

Why is it what we understand about the earth’s natural resources we are blind to when it comes to human resources? In the United States, among the 55 million unborn children aborted since Roe v. Wade became law in January 1973, it is sobering to think of the immense lost potential. Yes, some would have become criminals; let’s not be naive. That is the human condition in a fallen world. Yet others would have been painters, sculptors, teachers, inventors, nurses, plumbers, and carpenters. Perhaps a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners never saw the light of day, the “smoldering wicks” (Isaiah 42:3) that God intended to fan into bright and blazing fires. How many intractable problems persist because the solutions we so long prayed for – creative solutions that God was sending our way in the form of babies – were short-circuited in the womb?

The optimism of grace is really the optimism of love. It says that no matter what mistakes any of us have made – including abandoning our responsibility as would-be dads and moms – there is a place of beginning again! None of us is so broken that Jesus can’t bind up our wounds. And as Jesus brings healing and forgiveness, each of us is part of his restoration team. Are we willing to put an arm of comfort around those who mourn poor choices? Are we willing to be practical support for each other in community solidarity? As Reuben Welch used to preach, “We really do need each other.”

Abortion is the tragic failure of imagination. Together, we can do better.

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Photo credit: Smart Beginnings

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 4 of 4

“You can be committed to the Church but not committed to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ and not committed to the Church.” So said Joel Osteen.

Exactly why the church is important is unclear from Pastor Osteen’s quote. Such is not the case for Stanley Hauerwas. Like Osteen, he sees a large place for the church, but Hauerwas ties it directly to how we develop Christian ethics, particularly the ethic of non-violence.

In previous posts, we examined ideas from Chapters 1-6 of Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). In this final essay, we turn to two ideas gleaned from Chapters 7-8, namely, the role of the Church in forging a Christian ethic and the “grace of doing one thing.”

Christian community and moral convictions

In earlier chapters, Stanley Hauerwas insisted that the Peaceable Kingdom was not about just any ethic, but the Christian ethic. The Christian ethic – in distinction from ethics that could be formed in other communities – is hammered out in a community with a unique story. The Christian community was brought into being by reflecting upon the story of Israel (Old Testament) and the life of Christ (New Testament) and continues to embody the ramifications of those stories. This narrative element is crucial in understanding Hauerwas’ methodology. The Christian ethic is modeled in positive ways by the life of the community, through the actions of individuals in the context of the group.  As an example, Hauerwas introduces the topic of abortion, observing about the positive modeling of community (p. 119):

…you learn about the value of life, and in particular human life that comes in the form of our children, because your community and your parents acting on behalf of your community, do not practice abortion. Therefore the negative prohibitions of a community though they often appear to apply to anyone because of their minimal character (e.g., do not murder) in fact gain their intelligibility from that community’s more substantive and positive practices. Prohibitions are the markers for the outer limits of the communal self-understandings. In short, they tell us that if we do this or no longer disapprove of that, we will no longer be living out the tradition that originally formed us.

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 4 of 4”

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 3 of 4

G.K. Chesterton wryly remarked: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” What is true for Christianity is equally true for pacifism.

Let’s face it: violence sells. What would a James Bond movie be without silencer-fitted handguns taking out the “bad guys” and explosives detonating every 20 minutes? No one makes action figures of Mahatma Gandhi.

It is upstream against this strong cultural current that Stanley Hauerwas is determined to swim. Chapters 5-6 of The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983) form the heart of his argument. Much more is packed into these chapters than can be addressed here, but let us examine three ideas, namely, Jesus’ denial of the “right of violence,” the church as God’s “sanctified people,” and just war theory.

Jesus’ denial of the “right of violence”

Without question, the Sermon on the Mount is the most challenging portion of the gospels to put into action. Yet it is here in Chapter 5 of The Peaceable Kingdom where Stanley Hauerwas teases out the implications of non-violence. Commenting on Matthew 5:43-48, he insists (p. 85):

God wills nothing less than that men and women should love their enemies and forgive one another; thus will we be perfect as God is perfect. Jesus challenged both the militaristic and ritualistic notions of what God’s kingdom required – the former by denying the right of violence even if attacked, and the latter by his steadfast refusal to be separated from those on the “outside.”

Jesus was not creating a peaceful ethic out of whole cloth. Isaiah 11:6-9 is the image of the “peaceable kingdom,” of the wolf lying down with the lamb, of God’s holy mountain where lions will eat straw like an ox and where children play near a snake’s nest without fear of harm. Yet how shall this idyllic estate be attained? For Hauerwas, violence as a “right” must be eschewed and can be because the resurrection – “God’s decisive eschatological act” (p. 88) – establishes peace not in some far off future but as a “present reality” (Ibid.). The Sermon on the Mount contains “rigorous demands” but is not “some unrealizable ideal” (p. 85). Because Christians “worship a resurrected Lord, we can take the risk of love”(p. 90). This love is embodied in forgiveness, the only way that we can renounce violence.

The ethic of loving forgiveness is imaginable on a personal basis, and there are stories to bear it out, such as parents of a slain child eventually being able to forgive the guilty party. Here Hauerwas is on solid ground experientially. Where it becomes murkier is relationships between groups or nations. Is a peace ethic workable when so much is at-stake? Cannot “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” mean practicing a love that “protects” (1 Cor. 13:7)?

Yet Hauerwas seems to realize that ethical theory is insufficient. As the old saying affirms, some things are better “caught than taught.” The peaceable kingdom is best modeled not individually by corporately by the winsome lifestyle of the people of God .

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 3 of 4”

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 2 of 4

Look at any tree. What you see above the ground – branches, leaves – is mirrored underground where we cannot see. So, if a tree’s branches stretch one-hundred feet into the sky, then its roots push one-hundred feet into the earth.

As with trees, so with Stanley Haurwas’ book, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). In an eight chapter book, I’m four chapters in and still the author has only vaguely alluded to peace. Yet it is the ideas in pages 1-71 that will anchor what he has to say in pages 72-151, like the deep roots of a sprawling tree.

In Part 1, we looked at Chapters 1-2. In this post, let’s consider Chapters 3-4. Specifically, let’s take a look at two ideas, namely, his concept of freedom and how Christian community determines our ethics.

Freedom as “the presence of the the other” 

In what sense are we “free”? Stanley Hauwerwas rightly points out that there are many circumstances over which we have no control. He points to a professor of philosophy who was denied tenure, so instead he enrolled in law school and became a successful attorney. While he chose his new path, the roadblock that pushed him to change directions was determined by other forces not of his own making. Because of the reality of causes outside of ourselves, instead of the word “freedom,” Hauerwas (p. 42) substitutes the concept of “agency”:

…to be an agent means I have tried to develop my action within an ongoing history and within the community of language users. Even what has happened to me, my habit of dependency, becomes mine to the extent that I am able to make it part of my story. I am not an agent because I can ’cause’ certain things to happen, but because certain things that happen, whether through the result of my decision or not, can be made mine through my power of attention and inattention.

This “ongoing history” is part of the “narrative” of which each of us is a part. A personal illustration may help. My Uncle Norman grew up alongside my father (Don) in the Pacific Northwest. Yet at a critical juncture in his early 20s, my dad joined the Navy, which relocated him to New Jersey, where he met my mother. And so began a new story, resulting in a new family raised on the East Coast. Meanwhile, his brother, Norm, stayed on the West Coast, married, and raised his own children. Though they are my cousins and we’ve gotten together several times, I realize that they have been brought up with a different narrative, a story with some common elements to my own, but a divergent story nonetheless. So, for both myself and my cousins, important parts of who we are were not our own choice. Neither of us chose our parents, nor where we would grow up. In that sense, none of us were “free.”

But returning to Stanley Hauerwas, he is not willing to say that elements of our environment determine in-full what we become. He observes: “Yet it is the Christian claim that no one is completely determined that he or she lacks all means to respond to the story of God and thus find some means to make his life his or her own” (p. 44).

I agree with the thrust of the author’s argument, but it does raise a question:

To what degree does becoming part of God’s story require a repudiation of our story up to that point? 

Having grown up in a revivalistic tradition, I remember hearing many “testimonies” (as we called them) to what God had done in the lives of individuals. Many testified to a life that was aimless and damaged in some way before coming to Christ, and how much more meaningful and hopeful God had made their lives since that encounter. The most common “narrative” was of radical change. As one who never spent – in the words of the old hymn – “years in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified” – I longed to hear testimonies from those whose stories from the start seemed more aligned with the “story of God,” as Hauerwas called it. Are we willing as a community of faith to affirm not only the “prodigal sons” (and daughters) but also those who never wandered in a far off land? Are not both testimonies of God’s grace at-work in the lives of individuals?

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 2 of 4”

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 1 of 4

Over the years, I’ve had a knack for coming in on the middle of a conversation, and consequently totally misunderstanding its meaning.

Such is the danger of writing in 2012 about The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). So much has already been said over the last 29 years about this early work by Stanley Hauerwas. It’s a conversation I’ve missed,  but in a strange way, that’s an advantage. I come at the work untainted by what others have written about Hauerwas, free to engage his writing directly, without the undue influence of others.

Background

Stanley Hauerwas is a professor of theological ethics at Duke University, shared between the Divinity and Law schools. His later book, A Community of Character (1991), is widely considered his best, laying out a Christian social ethic informed by the community of faith.

Professor Hauerwas has acknowledged the influence of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder on his own thinking. That debt was apparent not only in Peaceable Kingdom but also in Hauerwas’ scathing assessment of what he perceived to be American imperialism in foreign policy. This critique he delivered in a zealous but rambling address to a lukewarm audience at the 40th annual meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society in March 2005, a meeting that I attended and where Hauerwas was the keynote speaker.

Herein lies part of my motivation for carefully reading through The Peaceable Kingdom. In it, I hope to find the answer to my sincere question:

What led a man of his academic stature to risk alienating a room filled with members his own guild, over what some viewed as a matter of political opinion rather than of Christian faith? 

This four part series will examine the 1983 book, analyzing two chapters at a time. Accordingly, this first installment will weigh the major themes from Chapters 1-2.

Laying the foundation for a narrative Christian ethic

Christian ethics usually falls under two headings:

1. deontological — Emphasis is upon duty, and there is an accent upon rules, standards for behavior gleaned especially from the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or other moral guidelines contained in Scripture.

2. teleological — Here the focus is not so much on rules as the end (Greek telos) or objective being sought.

Stanley Hauwerwaus attempts to side-step this either/or approach by introducing a new variable, namely, narrative. He contends: “We know who we are only when we can place our selves – locate our stories – within God’s story” (p. 27). Why should understanding the role of story and our place within in have anything to say about how we live? Hauerwas (p. 28) gives three reasons. First, we are contingent beings, dependent (as is all creation) upon God for our existence. Secondly, we are historical beings. Tradition develops over time, but especially within the context of a community of faith. Finally, narrative is crucial because God has chosen to reveal Godself through narrative, particularly through the story of Israel and the life of Jesus.

The author’s claims raise questions. If ethics are determined within the context of community, then we might ask:

What do we do when two communities draw opposite conclusions about what is morally correct?

This is no hypothetical situation. Groups of Mormons have concluded that having multiple wives is not only morally acceptable but even desirable. At the same time, the consensus of American society in the 1800s was that having multiple wives was morally wrong. Two different communities drew two divergent conclusions. In the end, Mormons had to give way on the issue, if they wanted Utah to be admitted into the Union as one of the states.

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 1 of 4”

Honey, I shrunk the Bible

It was one of the more memorable fun flicks from the ’80s. Wayne Szalinski (played by Rick Moranis) was the mad scientist working on an incredible shrinking ray. Sadly, he only managed to blow things up, until the day his invention worked, accidentally shrinking two of his own children and two of the neighbor’s. The rest of “Honey, I shrunk the kids” revolves around the hapless teens’ attempts to avoid dangers lurking in the lawn while their parents search frantically for their diminutive offspring.

Herein lies a cautionary tale: We can shrink things unintentionally that were never intended to be shrunk. 

Take the Bible, for instance. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve reduced both its size and its function.

Continue reading “Honey, I shrunk the Bible”