Go and do likewise

While many people are becoming more comfortable with single payer healthcare–thanks to Bernie Sanders–many of my Christian compatriots live in a socially conservative milieu that has so totally embraced the myth of the bootstraps that it has turned the call for personal responsibility (an inarguable good) into an excuse to escape caring for other people when we have the means.

This was made clear to me when I shared Jessica Kantrowitz‘s post on twitter:

Understandably, some people objected.  For example, my mother, a careful reader of scripture, commented: “???? Never read that.”  In the discussion that followed, she said Christians are to be personally involved, “A real neighbor sees a need and gets personally involved.

And I totally agree with that.

However, it ends up being an excuse not to use taxes for social welfare since there is no “personal involvement.” But, the story of the Good Samaritan does not say the only way we are to help others is through personal involvement.

So, let me return to the original statement that provoked this discussion. It is a hyperbolic statement.  Jesus did not literally say “Pay for other people’s healthcare.”

But it would be a valid conclusion to draw from the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor?” by a man trying to make sure he met all the legal requirements the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” He was trying to make sure he would merit eternal life.

In response, Jesus told a story that ended with a Samaritan paying for the care of the man he rescued (after two other “holy” men before him had passed by) and then promising to pay for any further costs when he was able to return.  After this story, Jesus asked, in the Socratic style of teaching, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

So, yes, Jesus didn’t say “Pay for other people’s health care” but he also did not say “Go be personally involved.” In fact, the story clearly shows the opposite: the Samaritan was personally involved, but when he couldn’t stay and personally take care of the man, he left him with someone else and left money to care for him.

And in the end, Jesus didn’t give the man asking him for spiritual advice an easy answer. He didn’t give any explicit direction. He said “Go and do likewise.” What that is in any situation differs.

Sure, like the Good Samaritan, Christians are called to get dirty helping others.

But, also like the Good Samaritan, we have to continue with our own business.

This doesn’t excuse us from caring for others when we cannot be personally involved. When we have other pressing matters we can give others the resources to care in our place, just as the Good Samaritan left the man with Innkeeper.

(Photograph by jean-louis Zimmermann from Moulins, FRANCE [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Yet another take on the 2016 election

A friend of mine who is an ordained minister, someone I first met in real life, is now primarily a Facebook friend and has posted a link to If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies.

As you can probably predict, it caused some discussion, but just as I was getting ready to comment, it looks like he took it down.  That’s fine.  This works as a blog post and I’ve been meaning to write one.

Last week my friend posted a link to A Wretched Choice. I said then that the anti-Clinton prejudice was palatable. I’m struck, again, by the built in prejudice against Hillary. She has her faults but so much of what is said assumes you agree that she is satan incarnate.

In making the argument for voting for Trump’s policies, Wayne Grudem seems eager to take Trump at his word but ready to doubt Clinton no matter what she says. I think he’s forgotten Jesus admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

In the meantime, he is ignoring Trump’s words — he contradicted his wife and said he didn’t apologize to her for his comments in the 2005 tape — and hearing only what he wants to hear. If you look at Trump looking for contrition and humility, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Mr. Grudem points to the Republican and Democrat’s respective platforms which he says guide the actions of elected officials. I would point out that Trump has shown a profound antipathy towards the Republican leaders. Why would you expect that he wouldn’t show that same antipathy towards the “shackles” of the Republican platform?

Look, I think it is fine to say “both candidates are awful and I just feel better about Trump”. At least, then, you’re honest about your prejudice. But if you want to present a rigorous case for Trump and against Hillary don’t assume that I agree with all your preconceived notions about Hillary.

For example, give me a reason to think that Trump’s past support for abortion is past, or, better yet, convince me that he has real compassion for those who are less fortunate for him. I’ve at least seen hints of that from Clinton.

Finally, I’ll quote Jesus again: “You will know them by their fruit.” The best example of fruit that I see are their eponymous foundations. Both have had problems, but, from what I can see, the Clinton Foundation is focused on spending money on what the Clinton’s see as real problems, while the Trump Foundation seems to have more room for self-dealing and bribes.

Image from Wikimedia Commons by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0).

How should we treat others?

Jesus and the Samaritan woman1A year or so ago, I came across the following quote: “other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs.

I copied this to my twitter feed and someone responded with a comparison to adultery and a story Philip Yancy told in a book he wrote about a person who excused his adultery with God’s grace saying, in essence, “God will forgive me.”

The story about Yancy’s friend raises a good point. Sin can hurt other people.  The person who sent me the story said “sexual sins hurt so many people”.

Yes, it is obvious that some sins have the power to really hurt other people. But I’m not sure that adultery is the same as homosexuality in this sense at all.

Adultery is not a sexual sin so much as a breaking of vows, and as a result, destroying trust and confidence — causing real and lasting harm. I’m not sure how adultery can really compare to a mutually exclusive homosexual relationship.

Adultery as a sin is not even about sex. Someone could have a non-sexual relationship with a co-worker and cause jealousy in and harm to his life-long partner (for example, his wife) if it began to compete with his relationship with his partner.

Sex is definitely a powerful urge and we can easily fool ourselves into doing things that are painful to a lot of people if we are not careful with our sexual desire, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that God picks “sexual sin” out as a special category deserving of careful consideration.

Jesus summed up the Law and prophets with two commands: “Love the Lord … Love your neighbor”. I can see making an argument from the perspective of purity that homosexuality violates the first commandment, but I don’t think homosexuality itself violates the second. Adultery, on the other hand, definitely violates the “Love your neighbor” bit.

Still, the first commandment (and the purity argument) is ignored every day. A couple of examples are in order:

First, America has an obesity epidemic. (I’m a “victim” of this epidemic if you use BMI to measure it.)  Obesity can be evidence of gluttony — a misplaced desire for food, and one of the deadliest sins — definitely a violation of the purity argument.

And, while times are changing, we still treat people who take God’s name in vain — one of the ten commandments, arguably more important than anything the Bible says about homosexuality, and another argument from purity — with more humanity than homosexuals.

This brings me to this bit from St Issac:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Too often we confuse zeal for purity.  Even if we are pure as the driven snow, pride — another one of the deadliest sins — can creep up on us and we’ll become zealous in our pursuit of purity and start ignoring the admonition to “Judge not”.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an “excuse” for sin. I’m no more excusing my friend’s sins than I am my own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride.  But just as I pray for God’s mercy and hope in it, I hope for God’s mercy for others.

It is true that there are prophets in the Bible who pointed out other people’s sin.  And maybe you are like John the Baptist who zealously pointed out Herod’s sin, but I prefer to follow St. Issac here and emulate Christ’s gentler example.

Christ sat down with the woman at the well even though he knew she wasn’t pure and said “I do not condemn you” to the woman caught in the act of adultery. He said “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

I suppose it is just a sign of my lukewarm ways that I’m more comfortable trying to be like Jesus here than John.

You are Not so Smart — Priming

[photocommons file=”Armored-car-Manila.jpg” width=180]Derren Brown has produced a number of British TV Shows about priming that are really fascinating to watch. Even though he is a public figure, he is able to use priming to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, including, in one show, robbing an armed car.

I just started reading You are Not so Smart, and the first chapter was on priming, appropriately enough.

Priming is all about the subconscious — the extra-rational — something that, over the millennial, religions have adapted to. In the West, though, we don’t really seem to value things we can’t reason our way towards. You can see this in Christianity before the Enlightenment and even before the Protestant Reformation — even before the advent of Thomism — in the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

The Church saw “This is my body” and dogmatized the premise that made that statement literally true. Eastern Christians, who have been more comfortable with a mystical understanding of truth, simply accepted the statement as true without the need for philosophical and dogmatic exercises.

Over time, I’ve come to the opinion that the different directions the Eastern and Western churches took on the idea of what has come to be known as the “real presence” are reflected in a lot of other areas — including what I have been calling the modern Cult of Reason.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological priming?

Priming is what happens when you act in a way that is largely influenced by your extra-rational mind. Priming is dependent upon cues that come from your environment. Derren Brown is adept at creating these sorts of cues for people, but you can also see these cues in the Liturgy of any Eastern Church. The smells, sights and sounds (which have all been developed over the centuries) all prime the person and provoke an extra-rational response.

In the West, many protestant denominations explicitly shy away from creating this sort of “heavenly” environment. Many Mennonite churches, for example, explicitly shy away from any environmental cues. While they certainly are not as explicit in their rationalism as others – Presbyterians, for example — they’re like so many in the West who don’t seem to see any use in anything that cannot be rationally explained.

But, as You are Not so Smart makes clear, even in the first chapter on Priming, we are not the rational, thoughtful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.

My one-man crusade against the rebirth of the Cult of Reason

[photocommons file=”Alter_of_reason.jpg” width=”180″]I recently read When Atheism Becomes Religion under its more provocative original title: I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

The author, Chris Hedges is becoming one of my favorite authors. The first book that I read of his, The Death of the Liberal Class was a great history of classical liberalism — something that all political ideologies today could learn from.

Chris Hedges is a fascinating writer and the perfect author for a book that offers a critique of the modern Cult of Reason. (It is important to note that the use of the word “cult” here reflects the thinking in this footnote of that article: The word “cult” in French means “a form of worship”, without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English; its proponents intended it to be a universal congregation.)

In fact, although I had this blog post in mind, it wasn’t till I started looking for a picture to accompany it (the Alter of Reason was perfect) that I learned about the Cult of Reason from the time of the French revolution.

That period of time is a great precedent for what happened since September 11, 2001 in the New Atheist movement.

Some people saw religion itself as the cause for the violence inherent in the terrorist attacks. If religion didn’t exist, the movement seems to say, no one would have an excuse to slaughter any group of people.

Chris Hedges’ book is a powerful antidote to this fantasy. Not only does he remind us that the greatest genocides of the 20th century were secular in nature, but he also asks us to consider human limitations in any solutions we propose: No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations.

Humans — whether created by God 6000 years ago, or just some random chance of the universe — have some very stark limitations. Making religion a demon while deifying reason will not solve anything.

I came across another book today while browsing the bookstore, You Are Not So Smart, that really began to drive home the point of our limitations. As the book points out, Even when we think we’re being rational and thinking things through carefully, our emotional brain, our subconscious, is the one really running the show. (I’ve requested a copy of the book from my local library, so I’ll post more about it after I’ve read more.)

Amusingly, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was nearby and I had time to read the introduction where he talks about the humility of Atheism. He’s right: we should all be able to say “I don’t know”.

But he says that saying “I don’t know” makes you an atheist and here I disagree. I know we haven’t done a great job of celebrating doubt, but even as great a Christian as Mother Teresa had doubts. That didn’t make her less of a Christian — it was simply part of her humanity. You have the chance to say — like Christopher Hitchen’s did — that this makes her a fraud, but I prefer the title “human.” Not knowing, doubting is a fully human thing to do.

It is fine to celebrate everything that reason gives us — and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot through the use of the rational mind — but, as Hedges rightly points out in When Atheism Becomes Religion, as much as reason has helped us reach new heights, it has empowered evil to new depravity.

There is no scientific utopia and efforts to create one only end in destruction. Achieving Utopia must mean destroying everyone that you can’t convince to join you. St Isaac the Syrian put it this way: “If zeal [using passion to convince others of the truth] had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did Jesus use gentleness and humility?”

Fr. Men

Today I got my copy of “Fr Alexander Men; Martyr of Atheism”.

Since I like to read this sort of book with my kids, I sat down with them and we read the first chapter.

The book starts out with a broad overview of the history of the Church in Russia to provide a context for Fr Men’s birth and life. This is good for those, like me, who are mostly ignorant of history. As I’m sure many of you know, the Church in Russia did not have an easy time.

As is clear from the first chapter, the Church became dependent upon the State and then had to cope when the States protection disappeared.

My curiosity was piqued, though, by mention of the aborted Council of Moscow in 1918. The author says it had potential to be Russia’s Vatican II but, instead, became a dead letter. Research is needed!

If you don’t work…

Today, someone quoted Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians in which he says “if any would not work, neither should he eat.

This quote (or at least, this sentiment) is used a lot to support welfare reform in the United States, so I was amused when I found that the Wikipedia article “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” was part of the Socialism Portal and included quotes from the Soviet Constitution:

In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

In this presidential political season, the term “Socialist” has been bandied about a bit too easily by the president’s critics. My wife pointed out, though, that it is a good thing Jesus didn’t read Paul’s admonition before feeding the multitude of irresponsible adults with food from a (relatively) responsible child’s knapsack.

Fasting begins, but…

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this week is Cheesefare week and last Sunday was Meatfare Sunday — the last Sunday to eat meat before fasting begins in earnest.

What struck me this year, though, were the first two sentences of the Epistle this Sunday:

Brethren, food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

Right when I could get bogged down in legalism and judging others, they have to give me this thought: I’m no better off.

They really know me.

Related to this, Fr Stephen writes about the scandal of the Gospel in a way we don’t often think of it:

…the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything…

Still don’t get Cox’s definition of “faith”

This is only a small aside from Cox’s chapter on the Bible: “Meet Rocky, Maggie, and Barry”.  For the most part, I find this chapter fairly un-controversial — which is not to say that people aren’t going to argue with him, just that I don’t feel the need to. But the one thing I stood out was at the bottom of page 159 where he says: But here “faith” is once again debased into accepting as true something for which you have no evidence. The problem is that this is exactly how the word “faith” has been used for centuries — at least since the author of Hebrews wrote: Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. So what Hebrews calls “faith”, Cox calls “debased”.  No wonder I’ve been struggling with The Future of Faith so much: he’s re-defining a clearly understood term and expecting everyone to play along.  I imagine I’m not the only one confused.

After slogging through his history, I begin to agree with Cox

Since I couldn’t get to sleep, I read some more of Cox’s Future of Faith.  Since I have read through most of his take on the early church (which I found especially hard to swallow — because of where he chose to put his emphasis and the frame that he used to present the history), I found the reading much easier. Perhaps it was also because I decided to read it as a Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather than, as the title suggests, a grand vision for how people of faith should live. Since, in these later chapters, I don’t feel the need to argue with him, I found myself agreeing with his assessment of where Christians are, for the most part, and where they need to go.  As I read about his encounter with Ratzinger in “No Lunch with the Prefect”, I found myself agreeing with his vision for the role the papacy could play in Christianity. He clearly doesn’t understand the inertia of social systems — at one point he seems to expect the Catholic church to make a dramatic course change because we now “know” that Peter himself didn’t teach Apostolic succession, though almost all of his successors did.  And his claim to “understand” fundamentalism because he spent a couple of semesters in college in <a href=”http://www.intervarsity.org/”>IVCF</a> is pretty shaky (though, he is right that he probably understands it better than those who lack even that exposure). But in these later chapters I find that I’m agreeing with him a lot more than in the earlier chapters.  I don’t like his view of history and I think he could benefit from some more exposure to Eastern Christianity, but when it comes to where Christianity is at present, I don’t think he is far off.