Sunday, June 28, 2015

Resisting Hate-bait: Guarding against the tendency to dehumanize "the enemy"

I've seen it -- and have been appalled by it -- in political rhetoric, where opponents are said to "slither" (snakes aren't human, and are venomous into the bargain), or speakers to opponents' groups are portrayed as "throwing red meat" (as if to dangerous animals, again: not human, and dangerous). I've seen it in certain groups' rhetoric against Jews, teaching their children to regard them as "pigs" (again not human, and filthy). It's interesting that the animals to which "the enemy" is compared tend to be cold-blooded, or dangerous, or filthy. Not every animal comparison is meant as an insult; someone might be compared to an animal that is majestic or loyal or cute with no insult intended. But if the comparison is to an animal perceived as ugly, stupid, dangerous, or dirty, it is likely that the comparison is intended to dehumanize.

Why dehumanize the enemy? In the political realm it's not just cruelty, it's strategy for marginalizing individuals or groups. Animals aren't smart or rational enough to have considered opinions; they don't deserve the dignity of conversation. You don't have to justify why you won't listen to an animal. It's a waste of time, and dangerous, too. You don't have to justify the fact that animals don't have rights. And, more darkly, you don't have to justify killing animals; they aren't human. That has happened now and then in human history. And it begins with treating people like dangerous, stupid, or dirty animals.

Here I want to talk about how our culture starts very young, in teaching children to dehumanize others. It flies under the radar too often, and here I want to start simply by making people aware of the problem. Notice how a famous children's author cues her readers which characters they are supposed to hate by referring to the characters in sub-human terms -- that, is, by dehumanizing them. The animal comments are often even less subtle than having them perform animal actions like slither or snarl or waddle.

Some early introductions from book 2 of a series:

  • Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony.
  • Dudley was blond, pink, and porky. 
  • Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros ...

From book 3:

  • Aunt Petunia, who was bony and horse-faced
  • Uncle Vernon snarled
  • Dudley came waddling down the hall

From book 4:

  • her lips pursed over her horse-like teeth 
  • ."You," he barked at Harry. [Vernon again]
  • Dudley was crammed into an armchair, his porky hands beneath him

In book 5, I expect we could look up the introductions of Harry's relatives again, though the new villain of the book might add some insight as to how an author dehumanizes a character, and does it in a way calculated to cause revulsion:
He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat, with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue. 
The character of Dolores Umbridge is almost entirely hate-bait, one of the characters introduced in order for the audience to despise them, and to be glad when something bad happens to them. Even Voldemort is given a more sympathetic backstory than Vernon Dursley or Dolores Umbridge.

An author can tempt -- or manipulate -- hatred from her audience. One of the standard tools for doing that is to dehumanize a character. And of course it's just fiction. That doesn't make it one bit smarter to accept hatred as part of how we react to people.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Parallel parables: wheat/weeds, and unmerciful servant

The kingdom of heaven is like ...

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed, but found something else growing. He planted wheat, so he had good reason look for wheat and expect to find wheat. He found weeds among the wheat. Somebody else had planted that.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who forgave another man a large debt. He showed mercy, so he had good reason to look for mercy and expect to find mercy in the other person. Instead he found pettiness and a hard-hearted, self-righteous self-interest. Somebody else had planted that. The other person hadn't recognized the mercy as redemption or as peace or as reconciliation. He hadn't recognized it as an act of compassion or love. Had he imagined that mercy was rightly due to him? To himself, and nobody else? Ingratitude is a close neighbor to arrogance.

So those two parables of the kingdom of heaven are parallel to each other in some basic ways.

Is every act of God a seed that he plants? It would explain why, if God is holy, his people are called to be holy, if he is merciful then his people are called to be merciful. It would explain how righteousness is rooted in the character of God. And how, because of God's love, the world can know Christ's disciples by their love.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How marriage became a piece of paper, and what Christians could do to strengthen it

As my children get closer to the age where they might, some day, marry, I think about some of the objections I hear to marriage from their generation.

One of the objections against marriage these days is that it is "just a piece of paper". A genuinely Christian marriage is more than that. But legally, is there some truth to that charge? Under current law, it seems as though an apartment lease or home mortgage has more legal consequence and binding force than a marriage. Under the marriage laws where I live, if two people are married, one can leave the other for any reason at all -- even if the person being left has done nothing wrong, even if the reason for leaving is to run off with a new romantic interest -- and not only do they face no legal consequences for leaving, but can lay legal claim to half the other person's financial assets. With no-fault divorce, someone can leave a marriage without consequence, possibly even with financial gain, even if the other person has worked to hold up their end of the marriage. When marriage is no longer a vow, and not even legally binding to a large extent, that accusation "just a piece of paper" has some truth to it.

The marriage laws were, in earlier generations, a protection against that kind of injustice rather than an empowerment of it. There was a culture-wide agreement about what a marriage was, how it was built and strengthened, and that there were very few legitimate reasons to leave it. Those agreement were part of the law. In some times and places, the legitimate reasons to leave a marriage were limited to the insanity of the other person, or their unfaithfulness. Some consideration might be given for abandonment (where the other person has moved out). One of the additional reasons considered at various times was physical abuse. There is a lot of difference between that and a no-fault divorce. In a Christian marriage it might be permitted for the innocent party to divorce an adulterer, but it would not be permitted for the adulterer to divorce the innocent party and claim half their financial asset into the bargain. It is understandable that there are people who are skeptical of marriage. And those with financial assets to protect, these days, often have prenuptial agreements in recognition that current marriage laws provide little or no legal protection.

What if there was an agreed prenuptial agreement to strengthen the current marriage agreement into what previous generations would have recognized as a marriage? Would Christians consider signing prenuptial agreements that the marriage was not revocable by divorce except if there had been a violation of the marriage by the other party, with the specific circumstances described such as a diagnosed serious mental illness, adultery, abuse or abandonment? What if there was a provision that, if a court should overthrow the binding nature of the prenuptial agreement or that a divorce should somehow be attained outside of its provisions, that the party in violation of the agreement was, in that act, giving up all claim to the financial assets of the other? What kind of prenuptial agreement would it take for the next generation to be able to have the legal protections on their families that previous generations took for granted?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Celebrating my daughter's graduation

I took this weekend off from posting because of my daughter's graduation. I'm intending to go back to regular posting next weekend.

Take care & God bless

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Testing if a theology is from God: Reasoning from the fruit of the Holy Spriit

As a corollary to the previous study of the Holy Spirit, it also seems to follow:

a) the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,

b) the fruit of a certain theological system in our life is something besides love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,

then it follows that 
c) that theological system is not formed by the Spirit of God. 

Now, some people don't try to have their theology informed by the Spirit of God, which is its own problem. But for those who do, here the Bible has given us another way to test the spirits. Or as The Man once said, by their fruit we know them. 

We probably all have some work to do. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

What God is like: Reasoning from the nature of the Holy Spirit

Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except his spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (I Corinthians 2:11)

If we receive the Spirit of God and Paul says this is God's Spirit in the same way that our own spirits know our own thoughts ... then it follows that we can understand the things of God and the nature of God by this Spirit.

What happens if you take that idea and connect it with the fruit of the Spirit?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

If that is the fruit of the Spirit, and if the Spirit is the mind of God, then the mind of God naturally produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. The reason that God's Spirit produces them in us is that these things belong to God's nature. It is what God is truly like.

All things that fulfill the law are things that restore in us the image of God. Love does no harm to its neighbor and love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the nature of God. We have seen before how God is holy and so his people are called to be holy, how God's people are called to follow his paths, how salvation is being restored in the image of God. From the nature of the Holy Spirit, it should follow that the nature of God includes everything that is named as fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God is good.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit: understanding

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him: The Spirit of wisdom and understanding ... (Isaiah 11:2)
This may seem obvious -- and sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we overlook. (Really, being proficient -- more than a beginner -- in any skill, means having become so accustomed to certain basic things that we no longer have to think about them any more. And so we don't. Every level of expertise carries its own blind spot, in that way.) If I look back on every conversation I've ever had, and look forward to every conversation I expect to have, all those conversations share one thing: a common language. The other person and I could understand each other, if we tried. Every long-term friendship I've ever had was with someone that I could talk to, or write with, in a language that we both understood. I've had some casual interactions with people who don't speak the same language; you can get a certain distance with signs and body language and facial expressions. But there is only so far we will get without a common language.

At Pentecost, the gift of languages was a gift of communication, a gift of understanding, a gift of including all people. It is a gift of fellowship ("the fellowship of the Holy Spirit") which begins at the basic level of understanding each other.

Like all the great gifts, even understanding must take its direction from love or it becomes unwelcome. Consider how much Amazon and google "understand" us from keeping close track of our actions, and how much Big Brother "understands" us from our communications, for examples of how someone can "understand" without any real understanding of us as people, or any wish to understand us as people. I do not mean to start anyone worrying about Amazon, google or Big Brother; I mean to mention that in our own small way, we're hardly any better if all our understanding is without love. As a follower of Christ, I want to understand my neighbor in a way that helps me see them through the eyes of love, so that my understanding is a gift. We all desire that kind of understanding. May God grant that the Spirit of wisdom and understanding help us.