Love your enemies… really

I have long been a fan of the columnist David Brooks and this piece may be one of his finest. I know it is refreshing to my thinking right now regarding ISIS.

When I read “conservative” Christians respond to ISIS and the beheadings, the first thing I often hear is how evil Islam is… and the corollary that goes unsaid is unsettling. All that is wanted is a harsh military response and let’s get on with life. The unspoken corollary is often, “And we know Muslims aren’t worth saving. All of Islam is ‘radical’ Islam.”  (We won’t say that first part because maybe Jesus COULD save a few… but that’s up to HIM… not us.)

We don’t respond well to criticism or people lashing back at us on the internet. We really don’t respond well to ISIS and their treatment of prisoners. We’ve gone back to an “eye for an eye” mentality. So many “conservative” Christians think Jordan’s respond of hanging two prisoners for the one pilot ISIS burned is the “right” response.

Brooks does NOT back away from the needed military response to ISIS. But he DOES offer tough thoughts on what it means to be “civilized.” I think he gives us the opportunity to understand once again that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he just may have meant that.

These Islamic State guys burn hostages alive because it wins praise from their colleagues, because it earns attention and because it wins the sort of perverse respect that accompanies fear. We often say that terrorism is an act of war, but that’s wrong. Terrorism is an act of taunting. These murderous videos are attempts to make the rest of us feel powerless, at once undone by fear and addled by disgust.

We want to chest thump and match their barbarism. “You take a life, we’ll take out a village!” But that’s exactly the response they are looking for.

How should we respond?

The world is full of invisible young men yearning to feel significant, who’d love to shock the world and light folks on fire in an epic status contest with the reigning powers.

The best way to respond is to quiet our disgust and quiet our instincts. It is to step out of their game. It is to reassert the primacy of our game. The world’s mission in the Middle East is not to defeat ISIS, which is just a barbaric roadblock. It’s to reassert the primacy of pluralism, freedom and democracy. It’s to tamp down zeal and cultivate self-doubt. The world has to destroy the Islamic State with hard power, but only as a means to that higher moral end.

As citizens, we need to understand we can’t lose faith in a system we believe to be true: democracy.

As citizens of heaven, we need that understanding as well. While the “state” needs to deal with ISIS in a way that will deliver a fatal blow, that does not mean we need to live with this “eye for eye” mentality.

Psalm 23 is a constant reminder. He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. 

This is a hard way. It is not soft to talk of “loving” your enemy. It is the Kingdom way… and that way demands much of our soul.

Love your enemies… really. 

How we view government

A column by David Brooks had a great quote on how partisans often view our government from the inside:

Right now there is bipartisan inconsistency over the effectiveness of government. Republicans think government is a bumbling tool at home but a magnificent instrument abroad. Democrats think government is a magnificent instrument at home but a bumbling tool abroad. In reality, government is best when it chooses the steady simple thing over the complex clever thing. When you don’t know the future and can’t control events, bet on people. Support the good, oppose the bad.

Then there’s that whole debate on who is “good” and who is “bad”…

But, one thing at a time.

The Kingdom of God and severe reactions

It’s a bit of an odd world when, in the past few weeks, we’ve had some deep American need to “defend free speech” by going to see a very stupid movie about North Korea.

And now, it’s everyone claiming, “I am Charlie Hebdo” in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on a satirical newspaper. We’re defending the right to “free speech,” which was all about offending Islam and other major religions.

David Brooks quickly reminds us that “free speech” may be a great idea for a French magazine, but it wouldn’t exist on most college campuses in America.

Islamic fundamentalists have severe reactions as well. Kill opposition. It’s a new Middle Ages the world has been plunged into: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Therefore, you must die.”

The Kingdom of God MUST be different. In every way.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:21)

Christianity will continue to be ridiculed, just as Islam will be poked at. We must be different. We don’t firebomb newspaper offices or kill writers.

At the same time it is the harsh realization that Christians will suffer far more than just a stupid cartoon. It’s the crisis going on throughout the Middle East and some parts of Africa. They are simply killed and cleared out of villages.

It’s also important to note that we don’t overcome threats, real or perceived, by going to stupid movies or supporting poor speech. Free speech allows for poor speech, but that doesn’t mean you call free speech “good” speech. Satirists have a place in society, but as David Brooks points out, they don’t all get to sit at the “adult table.” Rejoice in free speech, but that doesn’t mean it’s “good” speech.

In the Kingdom of God, move toward “good” speech. Move toward blessing. 

It is a more difficult way that must be empowered by the Spirit… but as believers in Christ, THAT is our call.

The disgusting attributes of “party line”

David Brooks hits this one out of the ballpark.

I find more people involved in politics who REALLY say, “Well, if (name the other party) wasn’t in control, we could get more done.” (All while their political ads tout their ability to “cross party lines.”)

Even in the church, it’s easier to define who we are by party affiliation, or hard line political ideologies, than our belief in Christ.

It’s not Catholics marrying Lutherans that upset families anymore:

In a Bloomberg View column last month, Sunstein pointed to polling data that captured the same phenomenon. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party. By 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would mind.

We don’t have moral discussions anymore. We have political party line discussions:

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

Lately I’ve had this type of stuff thrown at me. For all the work I do to reach out to people, I still get ideologies thrown at me, NOT for how I’ve acted toward someone, but for what they think I believe (without even approaching the subject). They went with the identities and labels they had in their head, and IN SPITE of how I had always treated them, decided to treat me worse because of the arguments in their own head.

It has reached a point where it’s political talking heads who have “moral” discussion which are nothing more than bumper sticker ads for their party lines.

…straight moral discussion has atrophied. There used to be public theologians and philosophers who discussed moral issues directly. That kind of public intellectual is no longer prominent, so moral discussion is now done under the guise of policy disagreement, often by political talk-show hosts.

It really has reached the point where I have not cared one bit about this election cycle. I’ll still vote because it has been ingrained in me to do a civic duty. I encourage people in my church to vote. But more than that, I encourage people in my church to think. And to think prophetically. 

One party will not own me. And here is where I am theologically on this right now. (Check with me next year for a theological update.) Tying ourselves to one political party (and it doesn’t matter WHAT PARTY) doesn’t make us prophetic as a believer. It makes us pathetic. 

God help us to live larger than a party system!

Gettysburg — Why They Fought

Another excellent piece by David Brooks in The New York Times today. It is a reflection on the difference in soldiers from the Civil War to today. The language, the letters, the thoughts, are so completely different. We look so small today in comparison.

In our current era, as the saying goes, we take that which is lower to be more real. We generally believe that soldiers under the gritty harshness of war are not thinking about high ideals like gallantry. They are just trying to get through the day or protect their buddies. Since World War I, as Hemingway famously put it, abstract words like “honor” and “glory” and “courage” often seem obscene and pretentious. Studies of letters sent home by soldiers in World War II suggest that grand ideas were remote from their daily concerns.

But Civil War soldiers were different. In his 1997 book “For Cause and Comrades,” James M. McPherson looked at the private letters Civil War soldiers sent to their loved ones. As McPherson noted, they ring with “patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood and community.”

The mentality of the soldier in the Civil War era was not only different, but their language was different. Nothing was short. No “text” language. And they were not afraid of their feelings.

One of the most famous letters was written not at Gettysburg but on July 14, 1861, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer from Rhode Island. Ballou had lost his own parents when he was young and, having known “the bitter fruit of orphanage myself,” he declared himself loath to die in battle and leave his small children fatherless.

“My love for you is deathless,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

It’s not just love of country that impels him, but a feeling of indebtedness to the past: “I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”

Truly a different era. Our era of special interest politics looks pathetically small to the thoughts of these young men in these letters.

Language Shifts Indicate Cultural Shifts

David Brooks has a column today reflecting on language shifts over the last 50 years. His observations are interesting. 
Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. 
And this:
On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.” 
Brooks has some interesting conclusions on this matter:
Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
Those are his observations, and certainly can be argued. True or not in the culture, those are things that should be of concern in the Church. Cultures shift and moral awareness does shift and even fade. This is a place where the Church should be different. The sad news to me is that we are often as unaware as the culture.  We too often seem to be drifting along. 
Brooks makes some conclusions as to what this means for conservatives and liberals in politics. That may all be well and good as well, but the conclusions for the Church need to be considered as well. In my opinion, we SHOULD be doing better.  

The Oppressed and Spree Killers

The shootings in Aurora, CO, shock us once again. It is absolutely horrifying that someone plans that much detail just to kill as many people as possible. We will keep asking “Why” and the “why” may never come.

We will have conversations about gun control and violence and so many more things. Well, we won’t actually have any real conversations on those things… but we’ll fake it for a few weeks.

David Brooks in his column today tackles these types of conversations. Then, he aims deeper. He’s good at that. There are things I don’t agree with him on in this column (which is rare for me), but his main point is very… um… convicting. The need is for every one of us to pay attention to people around us. Not only pay attention, but respond to other people.

I think of Aurora, CO, and other spree killings. The response of people who knew the killer is almost always the same: They were quiet. They kept to themselves. They seemed pleasant.

We are reading the Gospel of Mark this week in our church as part of our “Eat This Book” project. There are two episodes that stand out as I think about the Aurora shootings and how we react. Both of them deal with men who were demon possessed. One was in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28) and the other was the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). These stories always intrigue me… and they always convict me.

In the synagogue is a man who had been tormented by demons for who knows how long and no one had done anything about it until Jesus showed up. They had tolerated the man. He probably wasn’t as demonstrative as the Gadarene demoniac. You know… he was quiet. He kept to himself. He was pretty introverted. He was quirky.

Something like that.

The Gadarene demoniac was another story altogether. Yet, the people were more afraid after Jesus healed him. They wanted Jesus out of their territory. They recognized something more powerful was in their presence and they preferred the crazy man they could contain somewhat to the Savior who was not going to be controlled by them at all.

The conviction in my own heart out of these stories, especially in the first story is that someone who was tormented was among “the people of God” and they did nothing. It was only when Jesus walked in that things “got out of hand,” but then the man was healed.

Brooks’ point at the end of his column is something we need to hear as the Church today. Pay attention to people. That means it’s not about us! That means we find out what is going on in the lives of others and respond to their presence in our lives.

In other words… we ARE our brothers’ keeper.

And that makes us uncomfortable.

I will bet money everyone who knew of James Holmes was just fine with him being quiet, keeping to himself, and being a little quirky. It meant it required nothing of them. It meant they could go on with their lives while he went on with his life.

I know that’s how I feel too much of the time. I have to confess my own laziness here. There are times when I need to be stretched. I need to reach out to someone. I need to have them tell me their story. But I want to be alone, or I want to keep moving on in my own life. I am too content to simply pray for them quickly as  I think of them while I’m driving. The answer may be that I need to pick up the phone and call them. I may need to spend a few minutes listening to their story.

It’s not to stop a spree killer. It’s to let someone know that Someone is watching over them. Someone knows they are there. They matter.

If we will just pay attention, we may save someone from the silent torment they face every day. It won’t make headlines. It won’t be a great Facebook posting. It will simply matter in the Kingdom of God.