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Sectual Sin

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“The sect system” is a “grand disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism, and which must be considered…more dangerous, because it appears ordinarily in the imposing garb of piety.”

This is a sentence we could easily have written last week. It aligns with so much of what we’re trying to address at Jackass Theology. Our propensity to divide and attack—to form sects—is eating us alive. As Paul warns, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).

But we didn’t write those words. They weren’t even written in our current cultural climate. Those words were written 174 years ago by the prominent Protestant church historian Phillip Schaff. While Schaff was not describing what we’re experiencing now, his cultural moment was much closer to the root of the tree whose fruit we’re tasting now. So I’m going to quote several statements from Schaff’s 1845 book The Principle of Protestantism (from pgs. 107-121) to explore the implications of his uncannily prophetic take on where things were going. (To be clear, I’m not anti-Protestant whatsoever, nor was Schaff, but we can’t pretend we have no weak or destructive tendencies.)

While I think we have a modern tendency to divide over increasingly minor doctrinal disagreements, Schaff says this wasn’t the case in 1845. He saw groups in very close alignment theologically, but opposing each other based on structure and methodology. The controversies he saw “turn not so much on doctrine, as on the constitution and forms of the Church. In place of schools and systems we have parties and sects, which in many cases appear in full inexorable opposition, even while occupying the platform of the very same confession. “

I think we’re seeing a lot of this now as well. Churches and groups with nearly identical statements of faith find it impossible to validate what God is doing amongst a neighboring church or group. Schaff exposes the laziness of our excuse that we’re “just being bilblical” or that we’re “just standing on our convictions.” The problem is, there is no robust structure for church presented in Scripture. We’re left with a lot of freedom. Anyone who says there is a clear blueprint in Scripture that we can follow in crafting a modern church is not challenging his own assumptions. You’re filling in a lot of blanks with your cultural assumptions. And that’s ok. Necessary even. Just as you can’t have a soul without a body, so you can’t have a church without structural forms. Schaff: “The Scriptures are the only source and norm of saving truth; but tradition is the channel by which it is carried forward in history.” We’re all trying to honor Scripture in what we do, but we all make decisions in the stream of a given tradition.

We’re tempted to say “just follow the Bible and we’ll sort out every disagreement, but Schaff says it doesn’t work like that. This may sound off, but I’m convinced he’s right. “The Bible principle, in its abstract separation from principle, or Church development, furnishes no security against sects.”

Martin Luther: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

From his vantage point in 1845, he foresaw this trajectory would lead us into dangerous places: “Where the process of separation is destined to end, no human calculation can foretell. Any one who has…some inward experience and a ready tongue may persuade himself that he is called to be a reformer…in his spiritual vanity and pride [he causes] a revolutionary rupture with the historical life of the Church, to which he holds himself immeasurably superior. He builds himself of a night accordingly a new chapel, in which now for the first time since the age of the apostles a pure congregation is to be formed; baptizes his followers with his own name…”

Dang! Those are strong words. But was he wrong? Have we not seen this happen time and again on large and small scales?

“Thus the deceived multitude…is converted not to Christ and his truth, but to the arbitrary fancies and baseless opinions of an individual…Such conversion is of a truth only perversion; such theology, neology; such exposition of the Bible, wretched imposition. What is built is no Church, but a chapel, to whose erection Satan himself has made the most liberal contribution.”

Leaving room for a genuine work of the Spirit from time to time, I think we need to hear Schaff’s strong language. Do we think God is pleased with our constant excommunications and “farewells“?

Schaff says we should be seeing a Church that is characterized by the attributes of love that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 13. But instead:

“…the evidences of a wrong spirit are sufficiently clear. Jealousy and contention, and malicious disposition in various foams, are painfully common.” Instead, each sect is “bent on securing absolute dominion, take satisfaction in each other’s damage, undervalue and disparage each other’s merits, regard more their separate private interest than the general interests of the kingdom of God, and show themselves stiff willed and obstinately selfish wherever it comes to the relinquishment, or postponement even, of subordinate differences for the sake of a great common object.”

That is absolute fire! Is it untrue?

To those who foster a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and are quick to divide, Schaff says: “Not a solitary passage of the Bible is on their side. Its whole spirit is against them.” He then quotes passage after passage on unity.

“The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism…The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.” – Phillip Schaff, 1845

We may think we’re being biblical and standing up for truth, but Schaff warns that the opposite is true: “The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism, and nothing else.” He says, “The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.”

I don’t have a lot to add to this. I just want us to hear Schaff’s 19th century warnings and ask ourselves if we’ve been working to make his fears reality. If we’re not concerned about the fractured, embattled state of the Church, we should be. After his work in trying to reform the Catholic Church and (accidentally) starting the Protestant Church in the 16th century, Martin Luther warned his fellow reformer Melanchthon: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

God help us, indeed.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Mystery & Humility

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The great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Étienne Gilson, wrote these words about the world’s greatest minds trying to make sense of God:

“The divine Being eludes the grasp of our concepts. There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to Him. Every denomination is a limitation, but God is above all limitation, and therefore above all denomination no matter how exalted it may be” (Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 1936, 56.).

His statement is not at all controversial. God “eludes the grasp of our concepts.” Do any of us really believe we know everything about God? Do we believe any of our categories or concepts are sufficient? There is so much mystery in play anytime human beings speak or even think about God.

We’ll all acknowledge this. But in my experience, our acknowledgement of the mystery of God does not usually come with the humility that ought to accompany such an acknowledgement.

If God is indeed mysterious, then why are we not more humble about our limited perspectives?

Gilson says that every denomination is a limitation. Isn’t that so? Denominations are not inherently bad. But they are inherently limited. At the heart of every denomination is the insistence that God is like this, not like that. Differentiation is good, categorization is helpful, and absolute truth exists. To be human is to be limited. To form a denomination is to embrace specific limitations. This is not the problem. The problem is our tendency to take the box we draw around our denomination or camp or position and then insist that the box accurately represents God is his fullness.

There is mystery when we talk about God! Does this not require us to be humble in our statements about God? Should we not acknowledge the limitations of our perspectives? Should we not be open to hearing others speak about God in ways that sound foreign to us?

Many of our denominations are good. None of them is sufficient.

Think of the people who are part of your church. You worship and serve regularly with people who hold a variety of views about who God is and what he does. God is bigger than what any one of you thinks about him.

But what about the person in your church with whom you have firm theological disagreements? Or the person in the other church or denomination whose theology you can’t accept? Is it true that “there is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God?” I’m not suggesting we treat wrong as right. I don’t endorse going against God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. I’m suggesting that our understanding of God is limited, and that perhaps we should view each other in this light.

“There is no single idea at our disposal which does not break down in some way when we attempt to apply it to God.” – Étienne Gilson

Gilson goes on to say that “the only adequate expression of God would be God.” I love that. Anytime we break down some part of God and try to explain him, we’re inherently mistaken—not necessarily through inaccuracy, but through incompletion.

Flannery O’Connor said this about writing fiction: “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (Mystery & Manners, 73). She quotes John Peale Bishop: “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.”

In other words, we have a tendency to want to summarize art, but it doesn’t work like that. She says: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making a statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully” (96).

When speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” – Étienne Gilson

What Flannery O’Connor says about art also (mysteriously) applies to God. As Gilson says, when speaking about God “our poor human words express only a part of that which has no parts.” This is okay, because this is the way God has designed it. What’s not okay, however, is when we discard the humility that necessarily accompanies mystery. When we do this, we’re not being theological, or helpful, or godly, or biblical, or faithful. We’re being jackasses.

Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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You might think we fight so much because we all care too much. But I’m convinced it’s the opposite. And it’s a Kierkegaard quote that makes me think this. In one of his journals, he wrote:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know… It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? …What use would it be if truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know…to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Kierkegaard makes me wonder if a major problem in our discourteous theological debates is that we don’t care enough. Maybe that sounds crazy. Our debates seem passionate. The level of disagreement and our unwillingness to budge or consider where someone else is coming from seem to be symptoms of caring too much. But I wonder…

Maybe our problem is that we treat the truth as a thing that “stands there before us, cold and naked.” In this paradigm, the truth is something purely external, something set off to the side. It can be seen, acknowledged, assented to, but it’s not within us, doing the difficult work of transforming us. If the truth is like a list of rules printed out and displayed on a wall, then it can be applied and wielded legalistically. Weaponistically. In this model, we look at the truth externally as we sit around referencing “common sense” and criticizing everyone because “only an idiot could see things differently.”

Here is precisely where Kierkegaard’s pursuit could help us so much. Because truth is not meant merely to produce an “anxious shudder” within us. It’s meant to produce “trusting devotion.” It’s not about finding the cold, dead list of words that we will judge everyone by. It’s about finding a truth that so shapes our internal lives that it is true objectively, and also subjectively. It is true in reality, but—significantly—it is also true FOR ME. That’s not relativism, that’s heart-appropriated, deep-seated ownership of the truth. It’s the refusal to be a “hearer of the Word” only, but rather a “doer of the Word” (see James 1:22).

What if we stopped policing comments and diving into debates over matters where the truth has not so purchased our souls that we are being shaped by it at the deepest level? What if we disciplined ourselves to have fewer opinions and instead threw ourselves into growing more passionate for the realities of Jesus and his gospel?

“I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity.”

I honestly think this would change the Church. I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity. We’re not confident in our view of the truth, we’re worried that someone else is going to see things differently or devalue our perspective, so we lash out because we’re afraid a simple explanation of our beliefs won’t be enough. But so what if it’s not enough? Why do we need everyone to agree with us? The answer is that we don’t. If the truth matters so much to us in a certain area that it has changed and is changing us, we can share that truth winsomely without the desperation and aggression that characterizes the fearful.

I have always loved a certain line in Francis Schaeffer’s book Art and the Bible. After detailing the biblical case for making art that doesn’t need to be overtly religious, he says “When you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear. And with this truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” He’s talking to artists, but I think it fits here as well. When we begin to see the ways a certain truth is true not just in general, but specifically in me, then there comes the freedom of confidence and security.

We need to start caring more so we can start fighting less.

Kierkegaard & the Cure for Jackass

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The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is without question one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tended to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published many books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” We only have different camps of scholars who tend to hold the same general view of how it all fits together.

I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could be the cure to jackass? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens by dismantling our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Piper or Wright or Lewis. My thinking is binary (good author or bad author), and my mind is typically made up on a snap judgment rather than careful consideration. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

“When you read Kierkegaard, you’re never quite sure where he’s heading or what it means to ‘agree with Kierkegaard.’ With each argument you must decide what you think. “

Why do I feel compelled to side with some authors and against others? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away better informed and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with important concepts? How does it help me to be able to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you’re never quite sure where he’s heading and you rarely get a clear picture of what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself” (to use a Kierkegaardian phrase). With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. Your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian reading of everything. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by following your tribe’s voting guide. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

If you want to start on a super healthy journey, I encourage you to read some Kierkegaard. You can do it. I recommend you start with his masterpiece: Works of Love.

Memorial Day’s Lesson for Our Polarized World

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I’m not the best one to write about Memorial Day. But as I grow increasingly disappointed with the polarization of seemingly every aspect of our world right now, Memorial Day seems almost shocking by comparison.

I’m not pro-war by any stretch. I have major questions and concerns regarding my country’s spending on and general approach to war. Honestly, I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll refrain from saying anything ignorant. But with Memorial Day, we remember military personnel who died while serving in our Armed Forces. In other words, we’re celebrating people who laid aside their own self-interests. I don’t believe I need full confidence in the righteousness of every military campaign to recognize the goodness of a person sacrificing themselves. (Isn’t this how a whole generation felt about the Vietnam wars?)

By contrast, it seems to me that our division stems from each individual’s unwillingness to concede a point. It seems that each person is demanding that everyone else agree with their perspective. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. Anyone who doesn’t belong to the party is an idiot or a nazi or an enemy of humanity. Everyone is demanding their own rights. No one acquiesces. No one is willing to live with tension or conflicting beliefs. When a person’s actions don’t fit our approach to life or politics, we mock them.

“When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.”

It should be shocking to us. In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed all humanity was united in a common experience. Now people are being mocked for wearing masks in public, even as people are being mocked for refusing to wear masks in public. We have lost the ability to see things from another’s perspective. To concede that they might have a legitimate concern or—even if we can’t understand where they’re coming from—to grant that it’s okay for them to do things differently. You’re a fool and an agent of evil if you believe and follow what the government says. Or you’re a fool and an agent of evil if you don’t believe and follow what the government says. And when the government changes policies, the shoe is suddenly on the other foot, and we make the same accusations that were just hurled against us.

When each demands his or her own way, everyone thinks they’re getting what they deserve, but what we’re actually doing is building our own hell.

Meanwhile, walk through a military cemetery. The gravestones are uniform, and unless you take the time to look at individual names, it’s a nearly-endless repetition of the same theme. And that theme is startling in contrast to our current political-social-theological moment. The theme is willingness to sacrifice oneself. Again, I’m not trying to make every fallen vet into a saint. I’m not trying to paint war as noble. There are plenty of others who will do all of those things for you. What I’m saying is that giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests feels like something from a distant past or another planet. It seems to me that most of those soldiers probably retained their will to live. But they weren’t demanding their right to live on their terms or at all cost.

“A military cemetery carries a theme: giving your life for something that does not serve your best interests. In this climate, that feels like a lesson from the distant past or another planet.”

There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We pour contempt on congress every time they vote entirely along partisan lines, refusing to work together for the greater good. But what indication is there that American society is any better in any way? Are we not repeating the party lines as delivered by the news outlets to which we pledge our allegiance?

I’m not saying I’m above any of this, by the way. Only that I’m convicted. And that I’d like to improve. I’d like to see an America where people can yield their rights for the sake of others. Where people are willing to serve rather than insist. Where we listen more than we protest. Where relationships matter more than party platforms (or at least are not chosen solely on the basis of party affiliation).

And as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that I’m also describing the many people who have been going to work in hospitals and first responder jobs every day and setting aside their best interests for the many people who desperately need their care. And the law enforcement officers in my own church who lay aside their political beliefs to provide crowd control for protestors demanding their political beliefs win the day.

I’m honestly not trying to paint anyone as evil here. We have a political process that allows us all to hold firm beliefs and express them. You have the right to do that, you don’t have to listen to me. But let’s also consider our opportunities to honor and serve someone else by giving up our rights here and there. We have cemeteries full of people who have shown that this is possible. Perhaps Memorial Day this year could be a reminder of a nobler element of society than we typically see in an election year.