Posts tagged ‘Protests’

The Cries of Those Lost

Credit: Sean Rayford / Getty Images

This has been another long week for our nation. There have been difficult, but critical, conversations about racism. There have been demonstrations. There has been violence and looting. There have been tears. There have been deaths. This past Thursday, there was new evidence presented in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was shot and killed in Glynn County, Georgia.

In a Brunswick courtroom, a judge found probable cause for pressing murder charges against Greg and Travis McMichael and William Bryan. According to evidence presented by the prosecution, the three men pursued Mr. Arbery in pickup trucks until they were able to corner him. Travis McMichael then shot Mr. Arbery three times, fatally wounding him. After his death, Mr. Bryan testified that he heard Travis McMichael utter a racial epithet over Mr. Arbery as he lay dying. Evidence was also presented that Travis McMichael had used this same epithet repeatedly on social media and in text messages. It was an alleged pattern of hatred that can only be described as wicked and vile.

In Genesis 4, we read the story of history’s first murder – Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. God, however, will not let such a heinous act go unchecked. He confronts Cain, saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). It turns out that even if the voices of our slain brothers can no longer speak, their blood still does. And God listens to their cries.

When the apostle Paul witnesses to the Athenians, he explains that, contrary to their fashionable polytheistic and religiously pluralistic sensibilities, there is only one God, who “from one man made all the nations” (Acts 17:26). In other words, ultimately, we are all brothers and sisters, for, ultimately, we all share a common ancestry and a common Creator. Ahmaud Arbery, then, is our brother. And our brother’s blood is crying out. And just like God listened to Abel’s blood, He continues to listen as more blood is spilled and speaks. We can listen, too.

This Thursday will mark 57 years to the day since President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation from the Oval Office and asked Congress to enact legislation protecting and promoting Civil Rights. As part of his address, he said:

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated …

The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives …

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. 

Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality. 

As a nation, it feels like we are walking through a deep valley over which death has cast its long and sinister shadow. But in this deep valley, we can stand together “recognizing right as well as reality.” In this deep valley, we can mourn the blood of fallen brothers, while also rejoicing in the blood of our risen Savior. In this deep valley, we can lift up our eyes to a hill called Calvary that shines with forgiveness and hope. As the old hymn says:

Abel’s blood for vengeance
Pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
For our pardon cries.

May Jesus’ blood pardon us in our sin, and keep the souls of the slain safe in His care until He returns to raise them – and us.

June 8, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Racism and Reconciliation

Our nation is hurting.

It was hurting when Ahmaud Arbery was cornered by two men in a truck who shot and killed him in Georgia. It was hurting when George Floyd died after an officer held his knee on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis. And it is still hurting as protests have erupted over the death of these two men.

Many of these protests turned violent and spread across the nation over the weekend – beginning and Minneapolis and then moving quickly to Atlanta, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and continuing to fan out across many other cities. Businesses have been looted and burned. Communities have been terrorized. In Detroit, one man was even killed.

Did I mention our nation is hurting?

It can be difficult to know how to respond as we watch all of this unfold on our TV screens and in our cities. I myself have grappled with what to say. I also know, however, that, as a Christian, I am called to offer hope to the hurting. So, here are four – admittedly limited and incomplete – thoughts as to how we can respond in the midst of a national inflection point of pain.

We can mourn.

When two men – along with, tragically, many others – die unjustly under racially tinged circumstances, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. When violent protests shatter communities, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. The apostle Paul reminds us that we should “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). To take a moment to feel with and listen to those who are hurting, angry, frightened, and confused should be a cornerstone of a Christian ethos. To not empathize with those who are hurting flies in the face of a God who would take on human flesh to experience everything we experience – including hurt, anger, fear, and death itself.

This weekend, I saw a post from a man who regularly walks with his daughter and dog through his neighborhood. He explained how he worries that, if he walks alone, he could be profiled in an unfavorable way because he is a black man. One commenter responded with a bevy of studies and statistics concerning how many African Americans are shot by police and implied that this man’s fears were unfounded. I am all for studies and statistics. They can help us understand trends and identify problems. But to criticize a man’s personal story of fear with studies and statistics strikes me as akin to criticizing mourners at a funeral by bringing actuarial tables to the service and explaining how their loved one’s death falls within a standard variance of mortality rates. Even if it’s statistically true, it’s also emotionally cruel. Let’s take the time to mourn with those who mourn.

We can work for justice.

In his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his faith in justice even as he called for justice:

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Later in his speech, he quoted these words from the prophet Amos:

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

When injustice is perpetrated, we cannot make excuses for it. We cannot minimize it, rationalize it, or justify it by claiming that there are other injustices that have been worse, so the current injustices we are facing must be no big deal. And we certainly cannot ignore injustice because it doesn’t affect us personally or fit our interests politically. The Fifth Commandment – “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13) – was meant to protect Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd just as much as it was meant to protect any of us.

We are a nation whose creed is “liberty and justice for all.” If the liberty of any person is compromised by murder, manslaughter, or any other untoward act that leads to death, it is an injustice that should concern and upset us all.

We can call for peace.

In the same speech that Dr. King called for justice, he also described how he worked toward and fought for justice:

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr. King knew the struggle for justice is not best paved by violent deeds.

The scenes of violence that have erupted across the nation have hurt many innocent people. They have taken eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth, but they have not recovered or restored the lives of Mr. Arbery and Mr. Floyd. Their families are still grieving. Their sons, husbands, and fathers are still not coming home.

In His Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It is important to understand that peacemaking can be quite different from peacekeeping. Peacekeeping can sometimes imply simply covering for or overlooking sin so that no one gets upset. In other words, peacekeeping can often be an exercise in little more than keeping the status quo. Peacemaking, however, means calling sin what it is and then working to restore peace from the ground up – not with excuses, but by repentance, and not with hatred, but by forgiveness. This is the kind of peace toward which Christians are called to work.

We can love.

Racism is rooted in hatred. To stand against racism, then, we must address the hatred endemic to it. How do we do this? Jesus shows us the way:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

During these months of pandemic, a refrain has arisen: “We’re in this together.” This refrain is similar to the one uttered by Dr. King on the Washington Mall all those years ago as he was fighting the racism of his day:

Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

Dr. King is right. We cannot walk alone. So, let’s not. Let’s stand shoulder to should, side by side, and arm in arm. Our race may be a part of our humanity, but it is not the sum total of our humanity. Our humanity also includes:

Being somebody’s son or daughter.

Being somebody’s husband, wife, mother, or father.

Being somebody’s friend, coworker, and neighbor.

And being made in the image of our Creator.

These are the ties that bind us.

In a press conference on Saturday, Minnesota’s governor not only mourned acts of violence, but highlighted acts of love. He talked about protestors who had come out not with firebombs, but with brooms, shovels, and wheelbarrows to help their neighbors clean up their communities. They refused to let their neighbors walk alone. They walked together – both to protest injustice and to love each other.

We can, too.

June 1, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Venezuela’s Long Fight for Freedom

SEE IT: Armored military vehicle plows into protesters as violence breaks out in Venezuela

Credit: NTN24

In a scene reminiscent of the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, last Tuesday, a Venezuela National Guard vehicle ran over a group of protestors who were supportive of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, after he called upon members of that nation’s military to rise up against President Nicolás Maduro.  Nicholas Casey reported on the situation for The New York Times:

It was the boldest move yet by Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s opposition leader: at sunrise, he stood flanked by soldiers at an air force base in the heart of the capital, saying rebellion was at hand …

In the streets, anti-government demonstrators clashed with forces loyal to the president amid reports of live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas. A health clinic in Caracas took in 69 people injured during the day. An armored vehicle rammed protesters, but it was not immediately clear how many people were hurt … 

Since January, Mr. Guaidó has run what amounts to a parallel government, counting on support from more than 50 countries, including the United States, even as Mr. Maduro remains the country’s leader. Despite Mr. Maduro’s low popularity, however, the opposition’s momentum has been sapped as Mr. Guaidó has failed to depose the president or solve the shortages of food, medicine, water and power that plague the country’s 30 million people.

Venezuela is in trouble.  And anyone who has been watching knows that Venezuela has been in trouble for a very long time.

President Trump has been a strong supporter of Mr. Guaidó’s opposition movement, decrying Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian rule.  As news of the protests broke, the president tweeted:

I am monitoring the situation in Venezuela very closely. The United States stands with the People of Venezuela and their Freedom! 

The freedom of the Venezuelan people is indeed critical.  How to attain such a freedom, however, is complicated.  When President Maduro first came to power in Venezuela in 2013, some people saw him as a national savior, following the disastrous presidency of Hugo Chávez.  They were most certainly wrong.  His crimes against his people are many and well-documented as he has continued his predecessor’s legacy of economic and humanitarian oppression.  As is often the case, politicians who promise to save a nation often only wind up becoming authoritarian and crooked.  To use the famed axiom of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt.”

Ultimately, freedom cannot be given by any man, whether that man be Nicolás Maduro or Juan Guaidó, for freedom is not the property of any man.  But freedom can be celebrated and protected by every man.  This is why the framers of our Constitution were not so interested in enumerating the powers of our government as they were in limiting the powers of our government.

Venezuela’s struggles remain.  And it will take humble people who hold power lightly – instead of dictators who wield power recklessly – to begin to truly address the country’s ills.  The exercise of power must yield to the practice of compassion.  Venezuelan lives depend on it.

May 6, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The U.S. Moves Its Embassy

This past week, a piece of legislation first passed in 1995 under President Clinton was finally implemented.  The Congress at that time passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognized Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and made plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.  Since that time, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have delayed the move, citing national security concerns.  President Trump decided it was finally time to make the move.  So, a week ago Monday, the new U.S. embassy opened in Jerusalem.

While celebrations were taking place at the new embassy, only miles away, along Israel’s border at the Gaza Strip, members of Hamas were protesting the move, seeking to storm the border into Israel while flying incendiary kites across the border into Israel.  50 of these rioters were killed by Israeli forces.  Some other Palestinians were also killed, including an eight-month-old girl.

The antipathy between the Israelis and Palestinians is nothing new.  Both groups claim rights to this region and look suspiciously at the intentions and activities of the other.  The terrorist provocations of Hamas serve only to heighten tensions.

To some Christians, unalloyed support for the modern-day nation of Israel by the U.S. is a theological necessity, for they believe that anything less is a direct affront to the covenant that God made with Abraham to give him and his ancestors land in this region.  Other Christians, among whom I would include myself, do not see a one-to-one correlation between the ancient theocracy of the people of Israel and the modern democracy of the nation of Israel.  The true heirs of Abraham are not ethnic Jews living in a particular region of the world, but all those who, by faith, call on Abraham’s God – whether these people be ethnically Jewish or ethnically Gentile.  Abraham’s true heirs do not so much concern themselves with a particular piece of land in the Middle East as they do with an all-encompassing kingdom of God.

This second view does not mean, of course, that Christians should not be concerned with the events that are unfolding in the Middle East.  It is standard practice for sovereign nations to be able to name their own capitals and it is standard protocol for other nations to respect and recognize these capitals and place embassies in them, as the U.S. has now done with Israel.  Geopolitically, Israel’s status as a democracy in a region that is widely known for oppressive regimes is an important and stabilizing influence.  It is also essential to have a safe haven for ethnic Jews in an area of the world that has proven to be widely and often vociferously anti-Semitic.

At the same time, we cannot forget or overlook the struggle and suffering that many Palestinians face.  Living under Hamas has never been easy.  The small number of Christians in this region are doing yeoman’s work as they open their churches and homes to their Muslim neighbors who have been displaced by riots and bombings.  They are shining examples of Christ’s love in an area of our world that is regularly marked by hate and unrest.  These faithful people deserve our prayers and support.  They too need safe places to live and free communities in which to thrive.

The unrest and violence that has been sparked by the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a reminder of the volatility in civilization’s cradle and the fragility of human life.  Every U.S. president for the past 70 years has sought to broker peace in the Middle East and, sadly, every U.S. president has failed.  This is because, more than a president, we need a Prince – a Prince who knows how to bring peace.  He is the One in whom Israel once hoped.  He is the One who Palestinian Christians now proclaim.  And He is the One the whole world still needs.

Last week, a president kept a promise to move an embassy.  On the Last Day, a Prince will keep His promise to bring peace.  That’ll be a day to behold.

May 21, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

_____________________________________

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

Killing Racism: When Self-Preservation Meets Self-Sacrifice

Charlottesville Violence

Credit:  Getty Images

When James Alex Fields killed one person and injured nineteen others by purposely plowing his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters at an event called “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, which itself was protesting a decision by the city to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, racial animosity once again bubbled to the top of our national headlines and discussion.

President Trump, in the least controversial of his three statements on this tragedy, declared:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

As Christians, we can agree that “racism is evil.”  But it is evil not just because, as the president noted, it is an affront to the dignity that is inherently ours by virtue of the fact that we are created by Almighty God; it is evil also because it is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian gospel.   One of the hallmarks of the gospel of Christ is its power to reconcile us not only to God in spite of our sin, but with each other in spite of our differences.  The apostle Paul explains:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household. (Ephesians 2:11-14, 19)

Paul here identifies two groups of people – Jews and Gentiles – and says that, in Christ, the things that once separated them have now been destroyed.  The faith they share trumps any racial and cultural differences they might have.

This theme of different groups being brought together in Christ is not unique to Paul.  This is the centerpiece of the day of Pentecost where “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) all hear the gospel declared to them in their own languages.  This is also the centerpiece of eternity itself, as people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) come together in worship of the Lamb of God.  It turns out that it is awfully hard to have a Christian view of and hope for heaven while espousing racism, for, in eternity, all people of all races will be glorified as precious and redeemed in God’s sight.  Heaven has no room for racial divisions.

With all this being said, we must now ask ourselves:  how do we fight the racism that continues to plague our society?  Perhaps the best way to fight it is to strike at its root.  And although there is no singular root, I agree with Ben Shapiro when he argues that identity politics is one of the primary causes of many of our modern-day manifestations of racism.  Although identity politics is classically associated with the political left, Shapiro notes that groups like “Unite the Right” engage in “a reactionary, racist, identity-politics…dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate victims of the social-justice class and therefore must regain political power through race-group solidarity.”  In other words, it is the drive for self-preservation that fuels much of the racism we see today.

In order to confront our modern-day manifestations of racism, we must take our tendency toward self-preservation and exchange it for something else – something better – like the beauty of self-sacrifice.  Thankfully, the call to self-sacrifice is one that Christianity is perfectly poised to make, for we follow a Savior who sacrificed Himself for our salvation and who reminds His disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:35).  Jesus calls us to lives of self-sacrifice.

What does self-sacrifice look like practically?  The Declaration of Independence famously claims that “all men are created equal.”  But in order to truly adopt this claim as our own, we must clarify what is meant by “all men.”  In many people’s experience, “all men” includes two groups: “us men,” meaning those who are like us and share our background and beliefs, and “those men,” meaning those are unlike us and conflict with our background and beliefs.  Human nature tends to prioritize “us men” over “those men.”  In other words, even if we believe, in principle, that “all men are created equal,” we tend to concern ourselves with those who are like us – “us men” – before we stop to consider the needs of those who are unlike us – “those men.”  Christianity calls us to flip this order and first consider “those men” before we attend to the concerns of “us men.”  The apostle Paul makes this point when he writes, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This, it should be noted, is precisely how Christ lived.  For Him, every man belonged to the category of “those men,” for He alone stood as the God-man.  No one was like Him.  And yet, rather than preserving Himself, He sacrificed Himself for us.  Christ is the very essence of self-sacrifice.

Last week, I came across an article written several years ago by Bradley Birzer, a professor of history who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.  In his article, Professor Birzer tells the story of a priest named Maximilian Kolbe.  The story is so poignant and compelling that it is worth quoting at length:

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, as had been vast number of his fellow men, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. The Nazis seemed to avoid discrimination when it came to state sanctioned murder.

On the last day of July 1941, a prisoner had attempted to escape the terror camp. As punishment, the commandant called out ten random names – the names of those to be executed in retribution for the one man trying to escape. One of the names called had belonged (or, rather, had been forced upon) a husband and father. As the man pleaded his case, Father Kolbe came forward and offered his life for the one pleading. The commandant, probably rather shocked, agreed, and Kolbe, with nine others, stripped naked, entered the three-foot high concrete bunker. Deprived of food, water, light, and toilets, the men survived – unbelievably – for two weeks. Madness and cannibalism never overcame them, as the Nazis had hoped. Instead, through Kolbe’s witness as priest and preacher and as an incarnate soul made in the image of Christ, grace pervaded the room. When the commandant had the room searched two weeks later, only to find the men and Father Kolbe alive, he furiously ordered them all to be injected with carbolic acid.

The man who removed Kolbe’s body offered a wondrous testimony under oath. Kolbe, he said, had been in a state of definite ecstasy, his eyes focused on something far beyond the bunker, his arm outstretched, ready to accept the death of the chemicals to be injected in him.

Father Kolbe lived a life of self-sacrifice, even when a life of self-sacrifice meant offering himself unto death.  As he awaited his fate, he preached the gospel, which burnished in his bunker-mates love for each other instead of competition against each other over the meager resources of the Nazis’ concentration camp.  And because of Father Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice himself, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans were able to stand together.

Do you want to confront racism?  Just live like that.  It is difficult to be racist when you put others before yourself, because instead of being suspicious of others, you learn to love others.  And love and racism simply cannot coexist.  In fact, love, when it is embodied in self-sacrifice, not only confronts racism, it kills it.  And it’s much better to kill an evil like racism than to kill a person like in Charlottesville.

August 21, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Last month’s heavily publicized protests at the University of Missouri are tragic for several reasons. The racist slur that ignited them is tragic. The fumbled response of the University President is tragic. The threats from a member of Mizzou’s Department of Communication toward the media, calling for “some muscle” when an ESPN reporter was trying to cover the student protests, is tragic. But so is the response of the students. Their protests quickly spun out of control – moving from a specific instance of racism to outrage over everything from systemic racism to sexism to patriarchy. When others with differing viewpoints tried to engage Mizzou’s students on these important issues, the students blew up.

What happened at Mizzou has revealed just how incapable some college students are of having a conversation with someone with whom they disagree. Or, to put it a little less charitably, perhaps these students aren’t so much incapable as they are intransigent. It could be, I suppose, that they simply refuse to listen to viewpoints that differ from theirs. Indeed, the now famous student “safe spaces” are unapologetically touted as places of refuge where students can flee from any idea that triggers in them any sort of emotional distress. In fairness, it should be noted, as The Wall Street Journal rightly points out, that safe spaces are not just cloisters for the thin-skinned:

All of us seek “safety” from genuinely rancid views – how many of us would stay at a party where someone dominated the conversation with overtly racist bloviations? These students have merely overextended the bounds of the conclusively intolerable.[1]

It is true that there are some fools whose foolish viewpoints do not need to be answered according to their folly. The problem is not that students refuse to engage with a particularly rancid viewpoint. The problem is that some students refuse to engage with almost any viewpoint that does not mirror and mimic their own. Even a mildly disagreeable viewpoint, to some students, is an aggressively hostile and morally repugnant viewpoint.

Mizzou’s riots have brought to the forefront a hard reality.  For many people, it no longer matters in any significant degree whether someone who has a viewpoint that opposes their viewpoint has a point. Categories like logic, truth, and prudence – particularly on moral and ethical issues – have been shuffled into the sunset as quaintly archaic interests. What matters most now is how someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel. And if someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel threatened, even if, according to the aforementioned categories, the point should be well taken, it is rejected out of hand. Philip Rieff proved to be quite prophetic when he wrote in 1966, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.”[2] What matters is not whether something is true. What matters is whether people are pleased by it.

It’s not just college students who have fallen prey to this therapeutic bias.  In 2011, Susanna Dilliplane published an article in the Public Opinion Quarterly titled, “All the News You Want to Hear: The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Political Participation,” where she laments how more and more Americans get their news only from outlets that share their own political views. It turns out that adults have their own “safe spaces” in the forms of cable news channels, Internet sites, and newspapers.

Even the media itself can fail to listen to viewpoints that differ from its editors. A recent article in The Economist asked, “Can porn be good for us?” Several contributors debated the question, almost all of whom accepted the premise that porn can indeed be good for us, a position which The Economist, if its own editorials are to be believed, seems to share. The debate was presented, at least implicitly, as closed. “Porn can be good for us.” But then The Economist posed the question to its readers. 80% disagreed with the newspaper. In one particularly tragic comment, a reader wrote:

Dear Madam,

Can porn be good for us? NO!! My husband has been trapped for forty years now. He stole “our” sex life used it all up for himself.[3]

The Economist thought the answer to its question was obvious. As it turned out, the editors spent too much time listening to themselves and not enough time listening to their readers. They got duped by their own sexually licentious safe space.

It’s time we begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. Have we become a people completely unwilling and unable to listen to those with whom we disagree? Have we become so impervious to arguments that threaten our worldviews that, even if they contain truth, we cannot concede that someone else who does not agree with us on many things may, in fact, have a point on at least one thing?  Have we blithely rejected Patrick Henry’s famed statement – “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it”[4] – preferring to believe lies that make us feel good instead of confronting truths that unsettle us?  Have we become so proud that we can no longer consider and humbly admit that some of what we say and think may, in fact, be just plain wrong, or at least incomplete?

Whether we are students on a college campus or adults with a daily dose of news or a news outlet with a suspiciously stilted question for debate, we seem to have become much less interested in informing ourselves with rigorous analysis and much more prone to amusing ourselves with tendentious pontificating. I fear, however, that we may be doing a little more than, to borrow a book title from Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”[5]

___________________________

[1] John H. McWhorter, “Closed Minds on Campus,” The Wall Street Journal (11.27.2015).

[2] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 24-25.

[3]Online Pornography: Can porn be good for us?The Economist (11.17.2015-11.27.2015).

[4] Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (Richmond, VA: St. John’s Church, 3.23.1775).

[5] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

December 14, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Scoring Points With Ferguson

Credit:  The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

One week. That’s how long it’s been since a grand jury did not find enough probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Following the grand jury’s decision, demonstrations were staged nationwide to protest the decision. Some were peaceful. Some were not. Some demonstrations were little more than thinly veiled excuses for looting rampages.

As I have been following this story over these past few months, I have been grieved by how the debate over Ferguson has unfolded. Everyone, it seems, has a particular point to make. Some are concerned for Officer Wilson. Why do so many refuse to believe a grand jury’s findings in spite of some pretty clear facts? Others are concerned with larger issues of racism. What has happened with Michael Brown, many say, is emblematic of the mistrust that the African-American community has with law enforcement, many times with good reason. Still others are concerned with widespread crime and violence within the African-American community. Generations of young black men have destroyed themselves through bad choices.

Here’s what bothers me about all of these points. They’re all, in some sense, legitimate. If Officer Wilson was only doing his best in a really bad situation, he should not be offered to protestors as a sacrificial lamb. The injustice of racism is not going to be solved or salved by more injustice against an officer. At the same time, we do have a problem with racism in this country. And we need to admit that. Indeed, it has choked me up to read personal stories of young black men describing what they have had to endure growing up. Take, for instance, this story. And this story isn’t from some bygone early 60’s era. Derek Minor was born in 1984. At the same time, widespread crime and violence within the African-American community – and in any community, for that matter – also needs to be addressed. Such sin is not always somebody else’s fault.  Sometimes, the blame rests at our feet.

All of these points are, in some sense, legitimate. But all of them also have the potential, in some sense, to render themselves illegitimate. Here’s why. Far too often, when we try to make one of these particular points, we refuse to acknowledge that another person trying to make another one of these points actually has a point. Those who are trying to defend Officer Wilson can sometimes refuse to acknowledge larger issues of racism. Those who are concerned with the larger issue of racism can sometimes refuse to admit that Officer Wilson may have just been doing his job. Those who are concerned with problems within the black community can sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there may be things outside the black community that need to change as well. But when we become so obsessed with making our point that we fail to acknowledge someone else’s point, we damage the very point we’re trying to make.

So allow me to add my point to these many other points: We need to stop trying only to make our point and start listening to the points of others and acknowledge that others may, in fact, have a point. In other words, we need to start having constructive dialogue and stop trying to merely win a debate.

I’m wondering when and if and when we will ever be able to admit that situations such as these are much more nuanced and complex than a single point can ever make them. And I’m wondering if and when we will ever be able to stop making points and start having generative conversations. Because if we’re only interested in winning a point, we may just lose the truth.

Just look at Ferguson.

December 1, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

They are the protests that just won’t stop. The cries of activists in Ferguson, Missouri are loud and only seem to be getting louder. One cry in particular caught my attention. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was reporting from Ferguson when protestors began to throw rocks at him. Some of them yelled, “Tell the true story!” But one man shouted what I think is perhaps the most profound insight into this whole, sordid affair I have heard to date. “This isn’t about Mike Brown no more,” he said. “It’s a civil rights movement. It’s about all people.”

I agree with the protestor. Though they are often conflated, what’s happening in Ferguson today can and should be distinguished from what happened in Ferguson on August 9. This is not about Michael Brown anymore. This is about – be they real or perceived – civil rights grievances.

On the one hand, this is not all bad. This tragedy has ignited some important national conversations. On the other hand, in these conversations, we have taken the very real pain of two very real families – the Brown family and the family of the officer who shot him, the Wilson family – and turned it into an expedient talking point for rallies, protests, and cable news brawls. But their pain deserves more than our marginal mentions. We need to do more. We need to go deeper. We need to take some time to empathize with these families.

Empathy is when you take the human experience and personalize it. In other words, you use what you know from the human experience in general to try to understand one human’s experience in particular. What has happened in this case is the exact opposite. We have taken the personal experiences of two families and de-personalized them, hoisting their pain on our petard.

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become emblems. Michael Brown has become an emblem of racial tensions that have plagued Ferguson for decades. Darren Wilson has become an emblem of mistreated law enforcement officials. But these men are much more than impersonal emblems. Michael Brown was a son with college aspirations. Darren Wilson is a man with a family at home.

In an effort at empathy, I’ve been pondering what questions these families must be asking themselves as they watch all this unfold. I’ve been thinking about the questions I would be asking if was in their situation.

As I’ve been thinking about Michael Brown’s parents, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Did Officer Wilson really have to use deadly force to subdue our son? He has lots of ways to subdue suspects.
  • It was broad daylight! How in the world did the officer not know our son was not pointing a weapon at him?
  • Did Officer Wilson overreact because he was scared of a black man?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

As I’ve been thinking about Officer Wilson and his family, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Why can’t people understand how difficult it is to make snap decisions as a police officer?
  • Why do people always assume officers have the worst of intentions?
  • Don’t the protestors realize that their threats scare our whole family?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what questions they’re asking. And I would never claim to understand how these families are feeling. But empathy is not about claiming to know how somebody feels. It’s about caring how somebody feels. And we should care about and for these families.

To this end, I would ask you to pray for these families – both of these families – and for peace to be restored in Ferguson. Try to empathize with them – their pain, their fear, their confusion – and then pray that God would give them strength, comfort, and hope during this difficult time. Remember, these families are more than causes, they’re people. We cannot forget that.

Allow me to add one final note. Just because I seek to uphold the value of empathizing with the Brown and Wilson families doesn’t mean I don’t believe larger discussions around race are unimportant. But I pray we don’t have these conversations like it’s 1963. I pray we’ve grown since then. I pray our discussions are more civil, our thinking is more compassionate, and our hearts are more, well, empathetic toward those who have different experiences and perspectives. But for now, my prayers are with the Brown and Wilson families. I hope yours are too.

August 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm 1 comment


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