fbpx

Why We’re So Prone to Exclude

0

“Us” and “them” isn’t just a problem to fight against, it’s a universal human experience. In fact, you could argue that this is necessary to belonging: you can’t be part of a group without drawing a line around it. Exclusion is inevitable, and demonization follows on its heels.

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God, which is resonating with me on this topic. Keller presents a summary from the philosopher Miroslav Volf on “four ways that we can assert and bolster our self-worth by excluding others” (from Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace). These are wonderfully descriptive and convicting.

(1) The most blunt and effective means of bolstering self-worth by excluding is either killing or forcing someone out of our living space. It seems barbaric, but American history and politics show we’re not above this. On a personal level, this might look like moving to a new neighborhood or joining a different church to avoid interactions with someone.

(2) Volf also lists assimilation as a means of exclusion. In this approach, you can have your arms wide open to newcomers, but the price of entry is complete assimilation. I’ll love you as long as you become just like me, adopting my values, culture, beliefs, and enemies. Keller quotes Volf: “We will refrain from vomiting you out…if you let us swallow you up.” This one stings, both as an American and as a Christian.

(3) Next is dominance. We will accept people who are different than us as long as they remain consciously inferior, allowing us to be dominant. You can belong, but only if you play your role. Keller’s examples include: only working certain jobs, only receiving certain levels of pay, and only living in certain neighborhoods. We’ve definitely seen this at work inside and outside of the Church. This makes me think of some of the crap Beth Moore has had to deal with, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

(4) The last approach to exclusion that Volf identifies is demeaning and ignoring people who are different. You can tolerate them, but you’re still disgusted by them. You ignore their opinions, needs, and contributions. Volf says we like this approach because it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.” As a Christian, are you ever proud of the way you “tolerate” weak or sinful Christians, or do you find yourself grieved that many aren’t making the same choices you do? If so, this one is yours.

I find this list convicting because it accounts for those who consciously exclude and demean, but it also leaves room for people who do this with subtlety, perhaps even unconsciously. But it’s not just the WAY in which we exclude. Some suggest that exclusion is NECESSARY for the formation of a personal identity. That honestly terrifies me! Are Ryan and I just the biggest jackasses of all (probably) for calling attention to something we just need to accept and move on with as politely as possible?

Is there no solution for this? Can we really not have an US without a THEM?

Volf (with Keller’s elaboration) explains that there is, of course, one solution to this. It’s Jesus. It’s the gospel.

Think about the absolutely game-changing power of the gospel. If it’s about finding the US who share something fundamental in common and excluding the THEM who aren’t like us, then all that binds us together is our similarity. It’s what Kierkegaard calls a PREFERENTIAL LOVE—we love the people we prefer, the people who bring us joy.

But Jesus offers us something different. He offers us humility, whereby we are freed from the compulsion to believe that we are better than everyone else. He offers us self-sacrificing love, whereby one person can put another’s best interests above their own, even incurring pain so that someone else doesn’t have to. He offers us forgiveness, whereby when an offense enters the relationship, peace and wholeness can be restored. He offers us God’s very Spirit, who transforms us from the inside so that we become a conduit of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

“Just as Christians spent decades copying ‘secular’ music and adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be appropriating the vitriol around us and adding Bible verses to give it a Christian twist.”

Don’t underestimate this. Human beings are wired for “othering” in a fallen world. As Christians, we are not exempt from this. But as Christians, we claim to be transformed by the very thing the world needs in this regard. As society around us “bites and devours one another” to the point that they are “consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15), we don’t have to play along.

I’m not convinced that we realize this. Just as Christians spent decades appropriating the musical styles of the best “secular” bands, adding a Christian veneer, so we seem to be taking the vitriol, the polarization, and the arrogant superiority that flies all around us and adding a Christian twist. We fight the way everyone else does, but we attack each other with Bible verses!

It’s gross, and it needs to change. Thank God he has given us a path forward. May we stop with all of the exclusion and lean into Jesus. He is the only hope we have.

Read “Love Over Fear”!

0

I was introduced to Dan White Jr. through one of his tweets:

“Reflecting on pastoring for 20 yrs:

With a therapist, I cataloged all the folks that have ghosted me (almost 100 over the years).

Spent time in their homes, baptized their kids, cried with them in pain, counseled them through crisis. Then vamoosh they’re gone. It’s a weird job.”

I read that and instantly knew that Dan White Jr. and I have a lot in common. I too have been in ministry nearly 20 years. I too have been ghosted by countless friends. I too need to talk to a therapist about it.

If you like Jackass Theology, you will devour Love Over Fear. Dan’s latest book, just released by Moody yesterday, confronts the epic problem of polarization in our culture.

I’ve noticed after doing ministry in the same place for many years that some people leave the church because it isn’t meeting their families needs. Many leave the church because they have not figured out how to be comfortable with people who are different than them. Conservatives can’t coexist with liberals. Young can’t coexist with old. MacArthurites can’t coexist with Rob Bellions. Rich can’t coexist with poor. It seems that everyone thinks the solution is to find a community of people that feels what they feel and practices exactly the way they do.

We live in a diverse world. A world with countless ethnicities and subcultures. Latino, black, white, gay, straight, suburban, urban, male, female, and questioning. The diversity is both an opportunity and threat. It is an opportunity to experience the elasticity of the Gospel, and see how the good news truly can be for everyone. The threat, as Dan puts it, is FEAR.

FEAR is powerful. Fear is at the root of nearly all sin. Adam and Eve feared missing out, so they ate of the tree. Cain murdered his brother because he feared the comparison Abel represented. The news and social media peddle fear like Crackerjack at a Giants game.

Fear demands an object. Do you fear snakes? Do you fear financial scarcity? Do you fear for your kids’ safety? Do you fear the impact of LGBTQ on politics? Do you fear a socialist agenda? Do you fear abuse of power? Do you fear having a bigot in the White House?

The only healthy source of fear, biblically speaking, is fear of God.

Fear can not simply linger as an abstract feeling for long. It must find a home in something tangible, someone or something or some event to blame. Fear is always searching for someone to blame. It’s this transfer, when human beings become the object of our fears, the reason for our concerns, that destroys our chances for peace, dignity, and love. Sadly, the person, people group, or villain we attach our fears to often carries far less responsibility than we imagine for our unsettled spirit, and their demise is absolutely impotent in resolving our inner anxiety. That’s the jackass part of it all. Blaming people for our fear.

White flight happened in neighborhoods when the simple presence of African Americans in the community enflamed fear of property devaluation. The “right” fears the agenda of the “left” and therefore they must find an embodiment for that fear: the stupid pundits of CNN, Obama, the LGBTQ agenda, or Colin Kaepernick. The “left” fears the agenda of the “right” and therefore they must find an embodiment of that fear: big business, Ann Coulter, abuse of power, the hatred of the religious right, or Trump’s 2020 campaign. The point is that fear has a difficult time remaining abstract. So our fear divides America, it divides families, and it divides churches.

The only healthy place for our fear is fear of God.

As Dan White Jr. brilliantly describes in his book, LOVE—which we all long for and all acknowledge is superior to fear—has the ability to overcome fear. But in order for fear to be overcome, it must be placed in the only appropriate object: God!

Dan’s book is desperately needed in our time. The entire second half of the book is devoted to practical ways we aid in love overcoming fear in our own lives. Read it! Check out his website. My prayer is that LOVE OVER FEAR becomes not just a book, but a movement.

The End of Religion

3

I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons. Every now and then, I have a conscious sense as I read that this particular book is changing me. Bruxy Cavey’s book The End of Religion did that for me. I’m convinced that it’s an important book. I’ve read it twice, and I’m confident I’ll read it again. Here’s why I’m so into these concepts.

Bruxy takes a cue from Jesus’ first public miracle: turning water to wine (John 2:1–11). This in itself should be enough to squash any picture of Jesus as a buzzkill: the dude made six 20–30 gallon jars of wine. I don’t know how many people were at the wedding, but after they ran out of booze, Jesus made sure they had an extra 1,135 bottles of wine to keep the party going!

But this isn’t the most significant part of that story. Bruxy points to a highly significant detail: These six jars of water were “there for the Jewish rites of purification.” So what? Jesus took a vital piece of religious tradition and transformed it into alcohol for a party. And John calls this “the first of his signs.” Immediately we are clued into the reality that Jesus is not interested in religion: he’s more interested in bringing people together to celebrate.

Some of you are already getting nervous, so let me say that it’s possible to use the word “religion” in a positive sense (James does this), but that’s not what Bruxy is arguing against. He’s arguing against religion as a system that tends to replace our relationship with God. (If his use of the word “religion” bugs you, you really need to read the book—it’s written for you. But you’re in good company, because I needed to read it.)

Think of religion as a cup that holds the true water of a relationship with God. The attractive thing with a cup of water is the water inside. But religious people have a tendency to focus on the cup rather than the water. So Bruxy says that when you find yourself licking the outside of the cup for refreshment rather than drinking the actual water, you’ve got a major (religious) problem.

There is so much in this incredible little book, so you really have to just read it. But two more quick thoughts. Jesus replaced religion with—drumroll please—himself. He is the actual replacement for religion. Bruxy pulls this out by discussing the first Lord’s Supper, where Jesus took one of the most significant religious rites of Judaism and reframed it to be about himself: eat my flesh, drink my blood, take me into yourself, I’m the one this whole thing is about. Bruxy goes through five key external characteristics of religion and shows how Jesus re-centers each around himself: Torah, tradition, tribalism, territory, and temple. (Bonus pastoral points for alliteration.)

“Religion tends to codify the teachings of Jesus and then mandates that its adherents place their faith in a resulting ‘orthodox doctrine.’ But Jesus calls us to place our faith IN HIM.” – Bruxy Cavey

Perhaps the most significant concept for me is Bruxy’s discussion of the rules of religion. He gives the example of buying his daughter a new dress and telling her that she must keep it clean. But if his daughter encounters a little girl who fell off her bike into the mud, should his daughter follow the rule and keep her dress clean, or violate the rule in order to help someone who’s hurting? Your answer to that question reveals whether you’re about the cup or the water, religion or relationship with God.

Related to this, Bruxy addresses a tendency toward Bible idolatry in what is likely the most controversial argument in the book. I find it very helpful. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Bruxy affirms the value of Scripture and acknowledges its divine source. I don’t doubt at all Bruxy’s high view of Scripture. But he’s trying to help us see that the Bible is not the point of the Bible: Jesus is. So he calls us away from building religious systems on the Bible to instead focus on the point:

“The Christian religion tends to codify the teachings of Jesus and then mandates that its adherents place their faith in a resulting ‘orthodox doctrine.’ To question any doctrine is to question Christ. But Jesus calls us to place our faith IN HIM.”

Faith is primarily a who word, not a what word. God’s desire for us is relationship, not rules. The End of Religion beautifully states so many things I needed to hear, and that I know I’ll need to come back to. I’m not sure where you’re at or what you enjoy reading, but I think you should read this.

The Sin of Certainty

2

What a great title, right? I didn’t come up with it. It’s the title of a great book by Peter Enns, and it fits so well with the concept of Jackass Theology.

Enns argues that the Christian community has come to equate Christianity with correct thinking. It’s about signing a doctrinal statement. It’s about knowing what you believe and never doubting. It’s about doing more Bible studies and listening to more sermons and reading more theology books. And each of these things has their place.

But Enns argues that it’s less about correct thinking and more about trust in a person. Faith, he says, is not primarily a WHAT word. It’s a WHO word. It’s not so much about WHAT we believe, it’s more about WHO we believe.

It’s true that Christians have talked for a long time about “asking Jesus into your heart” and “the difference between a head knowledge and a heart knowledge of God.” But think about how nervous we get when we hear of a friend who is “questioning their faith” (cue horror movie music). Honestly, we’re more likely to talk about the sin of doubt than the sin of certainty.

We’re worried lest someone fail to recount the gospel according to our party’s nuanced understanding. We flip out when someone appears to be associated with a person we consider theologically suspect. When our pastor says something we’re not sure about, we rush to consult with John Piper’s blog or John MacArthur’s commentaries to determine whether or not we need to find a new church.

Okay, you may be saying, I can agree that certainty is not everything, but where does the sin come in?

Enns insists that trust means letting go of the need to be certain. If you need proof, you’re not trusting. If you wait till you’re certain, there’s no room for faith. That doesn’t mean we need to be illogical or intellectually lazy. But it does mean that God values trust over scholarship. Enns says:

“Letting go of the need for certainty is more than just a decision about how we think; it’s a decision about how we want to live. When the quest for finding and holding on to certainty is central to our faith, our lives are marked by traits we wouldn’t necessarily value in others: unflappable dogmatic certainty, vigilant monitoring of who’s in and who’s out, preoccupation with winning debates and defending the faith, privileging the finality of logical arguments, conforming unquestionably to intellectual authorities and celebrities. A faith like that is in constant battle mode…and soon, you forget what faith looks like when you’re not fighting about it.”

A healthy faith actually has room for doubt. Often, doubt is a symptom of life because it shows there is a wrestle, a tension, a process. If your intellectual belief is the kind of thing where you decide it once and then live your life without ever consider this in any greater depth, that’s not healthy.

“Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves from the force of Christ’s call through scholarship.”

And back to the sin. Our quest for certainty often makes us less dependent on Jesus. Often, we want certainty because we lack trust. When we’re certain, we’re unpersuadable. Any married person can immediately see the dangers here. Trust is relational; certainty is cerebral. God wants our brains, to be sure. But he wants more than that.

Kierkegaard wrote that just as a kid who’s about to receive a spanking pads his butt with a newspaper, so Christians insulate themselves through scholarship—building up layers of intellectual nuance so that we’re not hit as hard by the force of what Jesus is calling us to.

Sometimes I get frustrated at the way certain things in Scripture are worded. Honestly, if God wanted to, he could have said things clearly enough that we wouldn’t disagree over things like predestination and women in ministry and the best form of gathering as a church. That urge you are feeling right now to comment, “He has made it clear! Let me explain!” stems from the sin of certainty. Honestly, some things are less than clear, which is why Jesus-loving scholars and lay people have been arguing about these things for centuries.

I read a tweet from someone (I honestly have no idea who and have no idea how to track it back down) that said something like, “I sometimes think God left certain things in Scripture less than clear so that we would have to learn to love people we disagree with.” Amen.

Here’s to letting go of certainty and embracing trust. Let’s learn everything we can about God and his world, but let’s prioritize faith. Let’s give Jesus our heads, but primarily, let’s give him our hearts.