Monday, January 12, 2015

Freedom (of Speech) of a Christian

A handful of years ago, a new chancellor came to power in a European nation. His election followed a politically tumultuous time, and many people were excited about his promises of prosperity and justice in a country that had seen its fair share of conflict and economic problems. Two days following this election, a young nobleman took to the airwaves to share his opinion about this election, which was less than supportive of the new regime. His broadcast was cut off partway through, and he was not allowed to speak his piece. Later, as it became more and more obvious to him that this leader was bad for the people, he began to publish writings protesting him, and meet with groups of people who were of like mind. Frustrated with the lack of response, he left his home country for a while, but continued to see the plight of his people and eventually returned. Upon his return, he was not allowed to speak in public, because he was known to be spreading subversive messages by the government. He was a troublemaker. Finally, ten years after his first radio broadcast, the young dissident was arrested, though he continued to write and communicate with these underground groups in prison. Two years later, he was hanged.

If you know much about 20th century church history, you probably realized that the young dissident was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose tireless efforts to create a strong church body to resist the Nazi regime resulted in his death just days before the end of the Second World War. If you’ve been following the news from France in recent days, you have seen the debates about free speech/press and the many media outlets which are trying very hard not to lay blame on Charlie Hebdo while conceding that, yes, they probably did bear some responsibility for this incident. Charlie Hebdo is known for publishing outrageous religious and political satire, some of which takes a very offensive tone particularly to Muslims (though they published things about a variety of religions). This is seen as justification, by some, for the actions of extremists. However, as one author put it, allowing blame for this incident to be placed on the victims of this massacre allows Sharia law to reign. In other words, being silenced by terrorism, no matter how unpalatable you may find the content being censored, sends the message that it’s okay to use violence to silence voices you disagree with, the same way the Nazi party used silence to create an apathetic nation that allowed millions of Jews to be slaughtered.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fears some people have about this triggering Islamaphobia. Those fears might be legitimate, especially given the hysteria that tends to follow terrorist actions. But despite those fears, this issue is not, in fact, about Islam. Muslims all around the world manage to peacefully practice their religion in secular nations that would never dream of allowing a minority group to impose their religious beliefs on other people. These people practice a faith of love and submission to God’s will, and most of them are wonderful, kind people, like Lassana Bathily who saved several people during the shooting spree by hiding people in the freezer of the kosher market where he works. The religion practiced by the alleged shooters is no more similar to true Islam than the Westboro Baptist Church is to mainline Christianity. This is a fact that has been pointed out quite vehemently in every story that I have seen on the topic. Some people may be conflating Islam and terrorism, but the vast majority of the world understands that there is a difference between a fanatic and a faithful person. 

This is not just a freedom of speech issue, as it has been framed in the media. That is part of this, but it’s a problem that is further reaching than just free speech. It’s about freedom in general, and mostly it’s about justice. Regardless of whether to agree with a message, protecting the right to say it protects everybody who dares to speak out against injustice. Countless people were taken away to be re-educated during the first five decades of Communism in China and Russia. These were people who dared speak out, maybe only to their immediate family members or friends, and were found to be a threat to the power of the state. The first abolitionists who spoke out against slavery spoke a message very contrary to the powers that be, but they spoke it courageously at sometimes great personal cost. Martin Luther King Jr. utilized free speech and civil disobedience as a way to sway a public opinion vastly different from his own, and despite being imprisoned for that civil disobedience, he continued writing letters that turned out to be quite influential. It is vital to the freedom of societies and to those not in power that this right be defended. Living in the US or other free nations has spoiled us: we have forgotten how dangerous it is to be silenced.

The situation in France is different from the United States; there are legitimate concerns about the rise of extremist Islam. These people want to force others to live according to Sharia law, to punish people who offend their religious sensibilities. I find it surprising that the same people who defend the right of Satanists to erect statues of the devil in public areas as an ironic protest of the overreach of Christianity in the US government are opposed to political satire that points to a very real problem. This problem is bad not just for secular or Christian French people, but also for the millions of peaceful Muslims who want to live their lives without the imposition of extremism in their lives. Justice doesn’t happen if laws from one religion are applied unilaterally to everybody—we live under a common moral law rather than a religious law for exactly this reason. This is a lesson we are still learning in the United States, but we are trying very hard (as witnessed by the recent wave of challenges to and victories over the bans on same sex marriage around the country). Extremism is responsible for the suffering of millions of people, from Hamas’ unwillingness to negotiate to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and sacking of villages to Afghani and other middle eastern leaders that persecute less extremist Muslims, Christians, and everybody in between. Extremism is dangerous business in any religion, and it’s irresponsible to frame this as an Islam issue when it is an extremism issue. You can be sympathetic to our Muslim brothers and sisters and still defend the right of twelve people not to be brutally murdered for daring to differ in opinion.

Yes, we should pray for those who committed these atrocious acts. Yes, we should understand that they, like us, are flawed and broken humans misled into acts of violence by their probably earnest desire to obey their religion to the letter. Yes, we should most certainly recognize that Islam is on the whole a peaceful religion filled with peace-loving people. But I believe our call as Christians is to seek justice for all people and to call out those who are threatening it. The staff at Charlie Hebdo had a grave injustice committed against them, and the people of France face the threat of injustice both from extremism and from the xenophobic far-right groups gaining popularity in response to it. I cannot, in good conscious, give anything but condemnation to the actions of these people who chose to respond to words with murder.

I hesitated writing about this issue, to be honest. I thought to myself “do I want to make this blog a political platform?” and the answer to that question is... yes. I don’t want this blog to be a place where I tell you what your political beliefs should be, or who to vote for. However, in the same way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work in forming the confessing church and resisting Nazi rule could not be separated from his theology, so are we people who must live in a political world based on our beliefs. But if I preach that I stand for justice and peace and yet stay silent in the face of what I see as injustice, I am a hypocrite. Maybe you have a different view on what is just and what is not. That’s okay. If you’re reading this, you’re probably lucky enough to live in a country where you are free to disagree with what I write here without threat of bodily harm or political repercussions, and who am I to argue with that? But I hope that you will consider that the freedom to “speak truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is the freedom to enact justice, sometimes subversively, sometimes outrageously, sometimes even offensively, and that it is a right we as Christians ought to take very, very seriously, lest we forget the cost of our freedom, both political and Christian.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

When Grace Hurts

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” -Ephesians 2:1-5a

Despite my innocent appearance and the well known saying about how clean preachers are supposed to be, I can be kind of a jerk. You should see me in bad traffic. We all can be at times, and unfortunately, the closer we are, the more likely I am to be a jerk to you. My husband can certainly attest to this; I’m a real grump before I’ve had my coffee. A couple days ago, I groused at him endlessly before food and caffeine had made their way into my blood stream, and like the amazing, sweet guy he is, he let it go. Later, he groused at me in a similar fashion because he was very tired, and I got unreasonably mad. It wasn’t until he was hugging me with love and forgiveness that I really realized what a jerk I had been. The grace that should have made me feel better actually made me feel worse in that moment, because it so fully convicted me of my wrongness.

This is something that I’m sure you have experienced at least once with a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. There doesn’t even have to be a huge fight over it. You might snap at somebody and find they are apologizing to you for it, and suddenly you feel like the world’s biggest asshole. Grace is a funny thing that way. I know I’m guilty of this too: talking about grace as if it is an amazing, magical thing that cures everything. Why are we still acting the way we act? Don’t you know the good news of God’s love for you? But grace isn’t always a happy thing. Sometimes it’s a reminder that we have screwed up, and bad, and sometimes it surfaces all of that shame about our worth that we work so hard to hide.

Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting. You know the one, where Will’s therapist has been working with him for weeks on breaking down his defenses, and suddenly starts telling Will that the abuse he endured as a child isn’t his fault? It’s funny how he reacts to a statement that absolves him of his guilt for his inability to be vulnerable: he defends himself. He pulls away, backs up, actually swings at his therapist in an attempt to make him stop “attacking” with the words “It’s not your fault.”

There’s something really visceral about this scene, which is brought wonderfully to life by two great actors, but I think it truly hits us because most of us know how this feels. Even if you don’t know the context of the movie, you can still see the rawness of the shame and pain that this absolution dredges up for Matt Damon’s character. That’s because when we are told we are good and holy and beloved, it comes directly into conflict with all of the bad things we believe about ourselves. We are so full of shame sometimes that we don’t even realize it. I’ve written on this before, but we often spend our lives defending ourselves against the ‘not enoughs’ that are thrown at us. You’re not beautiful enough, thin enough, smart enough, talented enough, wise enough, important enough. We build up walls around that to protect ourselves. “I know I’m smart enough! How dare anybody suggest otherwise?” The crux is that when we finally hear the opposite, that we are good or smart or worthy or lovely, we don’t truly believe it. We may have everybody else fooled, but we know that deep down we just don’t buy it, and hearing “God loves you” when you think you’re a worthless sack of crap only makes you confront those feelings and fears about who you are.

Once when I was in graduate school, my first advisor in my long-ago psychology program told me that I needed to stop being so self-deprecating because I wouldn’t be here if the school didn’t think I was smart and able. I ran out of his office crying, and switched advisors a few days later, and until recently I couldn’t have told you why. I thought it was because he had embarrassed me by calling me out, and I said it was just a personality clash, but in retrospect it was because he was saying to me that I was smart and worthwhile, and that hit me deeply because I knew that in my heart of hearts I didn’t agree. It’s the same when you find yourself unexpectedly met with the graciousness of friends or family giving you money when you’re broke, or giving you forgiveness after you get drunk and start a fight about gun control at the holiday dinner table. Unconditional love challenges our very fragile sense of conditional worth.

I decided to write about this topic for two reasons. The first is that I think we often find it baffling when people refuse our overtures of love and care. Maybe there is a person you’ve been trying to love back to life who just doesn’t get it, who keeps on engaging in risky behavior or doing irresponsible things or continues to be way too hard on themselves. Sometimes you just want to scream: “WHY DON’T YOU ACCEPT MY GRACE DAMN IT?!” But I want to encourage you to be patient with those around you who just seem to never get it. I’m not saying that you should ever stay in abusive or dangerous relationships, but you never know how the love you give to those who are hurting, alone, or lost might surge back to them when their hearts are more receptive to receiving it. Understand that your love and care can be a painful thing for them. Love them anyway, in whatever ways they can accept, and slowly their hurts will be healed by grace. Give it time.

Secondly, I’m writing this for you. All of us have places where we don’t feel like we are enough. Maybe you think you aren’t a good enough provider for your family, or aren’t an active enough mom for your kids. Maybe you think you are working crap jobs and that reflects somehow on your worth. Maybe you were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused and you secretly think you must have somehow invited it. In your head you know those are lies, but I know that in moments of weakness your heart sometimes disagrees. For you I write: be loved. Because regardless of what that voice says, you are beloved. Carry on through the pain of confronting those beliefs. Talk to that voice inside your head with strength and courage and tell it: “I am enough.” Take it out of your head and imagine someone saying those things to your best friend, spouse, or child. Would you let somebody say: “Boy, you’re really stupid and worthless” to your best friend? Then don’t let you say it to you. Hear the words I’m writing for you today and hold them close when that voice comes to you. Grace is hard work sometimes; not getting it, but accepting it. But God’s love is a powerful thing that can and does heal our shame, and it is and has always been for you.