Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Christian Carnival 137

Christian Carnival 137 is up at Brain Cramps for God. My favorite post this time around: A book review, of all things, by Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian on A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature. I don't remember ever linking a book review before ... but the book has an interesting approach.

Ethics and Violence: Forgiveness, Confrontation, and Limits

This continues our look at ethics and violence. I'll pick up with some of the comments on turning the other cheek and then move on to other passages about confrontation, forgiveness, and breaking ties with those who refuse to give up evil.

Turning the other cheek: follow-up
In the comments on the previous post in the ethics and violence series, there was mention of times when turning the other cheek enables the violence to grow worse. Of course, turning the other cheek was not meant as a guarantee of stopping violence. It was meant to undercut evil in a radical way, to confront, to startle, to risk doing good to those who hate us. It communicates a message to the wrongdoer: "I do not fear you. I have no hatred of you or wish to harm you." It may even send the message, "I have not given up on you," or even "I stand with you against the evil inside you." But it was never a guarantee of safety. In fact, it is the risk involved in turning the other cheek that makes the move so startling. Make no mistake: when you turn the other cheek, there is a very real chance that you will get pounded. To borrow a phrase from another context, count the cost before you do it. Our redemption depended very much on when Christ did the same for us.

I've spent a certain amount of time on turning the other cheek for two reasons: first, because some camps distrust it so much that they nearly deny its rightful place in Christian life and ethics; second, because some camps misinterpret it so badly that they take it for a permissive stance towards evil, which only results in evil run amok. Still, it would be a mistake to think that turning the other cheek is called for in all circumstances without exception.

Turning the other cheek is somewhere between difficult and impossible to apply in certain circumstances. For example, sneak attacks, anonymous attacks, or attacks organized by those in hiding are difficult to meet with "turning the other cheek" in the fullest application. This is because turning the other cheek actually involves a direct confrontation with the one causing harm. If the evildoer sneaks off before anyone recognizes him or hides at a safe distance, it makes it difficult to arrange a confrontation. Also, when Jesus discussed "turning the other cheek," he named an attack where no serious or lasting harm is done. I do not believe it would be a fair application of "turning the other cheek" to stretch it to obligate anyone to allow more serious attacks such as deadly attacks. For example, there is no hint in what Christ said that, if someone murders your son, then allow him to murder your daughter as well. First, we are not invited to offer up another person for attack. Second, there is a level of harm which we do not have the authority to knowingly permit; it crosses over into negligence. That much said, let's look at some passages about other ways of confronting evil.
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your own people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
In general, much of our response to evil can be summed up this way: ineffective. All forms of evil require a confrontation. Before we get to the part in this quote about rebuking evil, I'd like to point out the context. It is surrounded by commands not to hate but to love, not to bear a grudge, not to seek revenge. Of all the things we might need to hear when we consider facing down an evildoer or rebuking someone who has done wrong, these have to be the most applicable for a time like that. Too easily we tend towards arrogance, smugness, or superiority; the danger to ourselves is never greater than when we have caught someone else -- especially someone we dislike -- in a fault. Here is one of the most widespread abuses of religion: to pursue gleefully a chance to humiliate our enemies and at the same time pat ourselves on the back, descending into a morally nauseating pride, all the while convincing ourselves that we are holy. (If I ever found some of those odd chapters of Screwtape that appear on the 'net every now and then, I wonder if I'd hear Screwtape explaining his moral superiority to God. Would anyone here doubt that he is convinced of it?)

The Scriptures instruct us to rebuke evil frankly. If we do not confront evil, if we know what is being done but do not oppose it, we share in the guilt. Before a fuller discussion of that, I'd like to add one more passage to the conversation:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15)
I will not quote this passage in its entirety because I expect that most of my readers are familiar with it. Here again we see that a Christ-like response does not mean ignoring the fact that there was an offense. Turning a blind eye to active, unrepentant evil is not an option. Forgiveness must not be confused with permitting evil or becoming complacent about it. So again, when there is an offense, we are called to confront it. And again, our confrontation is to be blameless in that it begins with a kind, private rebuke that does not have the goal of crushing, defeating, or humiliating the person who wronged us, but of winning back the one who is in the wrong. If this is not successful, we are instructed not to drop the matter but to escalate it. In this way the evil does not continue and the offender has a chance to reach repentance. Repentance includes recognizing the wrong and rejecting it. If a person returns to what is right, the number of times we are to receive him back is basically unlimited. But if a person is hard-hearted about the wrong and simply will not listen, Christ says that friendly relations are dropped after a few attempts. There is an end to the chain of our pursuing reconciliation with someone who does not want it, or does not want a relationship on just terms. There is a point at which, if the other person is neither listening nor responding, we are called to end our futile pursuits of a peace which the other person does not desire.

What is the difference between the person Jesus says we are to forgive 70 x 7 times and the person Jesus says we are to regard in the same way as an idol-worshipper or a tax collector? Both are sinners, just like we are. But the one we are instructed to forgive in such an open-ended way is repentant: he recognizes and rejects the wrong. The other is unrepentant: he neither recognizes nor rejects the wrong. The repentant person may be weak, he may fall into the same sin again, he may succumb to temptation, it may even be a habit; but he recognizes evil and fights against it, however imperfectly. The unrepentant person rejects correction, rejects the truth about being in the wrong, rejects the call to love God or love others.

There is a chance that the person is committing a sin in ignorance. A respectful confrontation will clear up things like that. But if it has become a matter of the person rejecting the right and choosing the wrong, there is no obligation to continue in a relationship with the other person. Some would say there is an obligation to break off relationship with the other person if they have become hardened in a willful sin.
But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:15)
We cannot afford to be hateful or arrogant. Even if we regard someone in the same way as an idol-worshipper or a tax-collector, that does not mean with malice. We all need forgiveness from the same judge who will judge us all. Jesus' teachings about forgiveness often assume that the offender is sorry, sometimes even begging on her knees with tears of regret. In light of what we are taught about forgiveness, I would not wish to say we can afford to withhold forgiveness. But we should remember that letting sin go unchecked, unconfronted, unanswered is itself a sin. The goal of forgiveness -- and confrontations -- is a restoration which is impossible as long as the sin continues. Leave it to us sinners that we can mess up anything. "Forgiveness" itself can be done badly if it glosses over the sin without restoring the sinner, if it makes no comment about the continued bad treatment of others. After such pseudo-forgiveness, the relationships are still broken, the evildoer hasn't given a second thought to his evil, and injustice triumphs. Again, this kind of "forgiveness" is less than justice, not more than justice. God's forgiveness is better: it confronts the sin and restores the sinner.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

God's Love in Action: Houston's "Border Angel"

"Paper Houses" is what he calls his organization. If you've ever been to the poor areas of Mexico, you'll know exactly what he's talking about: the large number of families who live in once-discarded cardboard boxes, now fashioned into very crude houses. Paper houses is right. I don't expect the homes survive rainstorms very well.

While it's easy to get caught up in the political angles of the problem -- how much responsibility each should the governments of the U.S. and Mexico take for the welfare of the citizens of Mexico? -- the fact remains that the most obvious division of responsibility there leaves vast numbers of people living in really stunning levels of poverty, living in cardboard houses and wearing pieces of old tires for shoes. Given that the problem has resisted all political solutions, Bob Decker (25-year veteran of the Houston Police Department) has started helping the only way he can. He spends most of his off-duty time in the shantytowns along the border, channels his spare money to food kitchens and medical care for the people there. He is a self-starter: saw the need and did something about it. Nothing was going to stop him.

When I see his dedication, honestly I'm ashamed of myself for not doing more. When he asks himself, "What can one person do?", he answers himself, "Let's find out."

The phrase "Border Angel" is a nod to a write-up that Mr. Decker was given in the September 2006 edition of People Espanol, where the article "Angel en la Frontera" (pp. 200-205) is dedicated to Mr. Decker's Houston-based organization.

Previous in the God's love in action series:
Society of St. Andrew's Gleaning Network

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Turning the Other Cheek

The previous post touched on self-defense and just war. Next we have far more difficult material: turning the other cheek. After clearing away some misconceptions about turning the other cheek, we take a hard look at justice and mercy, strength and weakness, and loving our enemies.

Turning the other cheek: whose cheek?
Does turning the other cheek mean letting other people trample on your rights? I can't really see any way to let someone hit you twice without their trampling on your rights. But does "turning the other cheek" have limits?

First, it's your own cheek you're allowed to turn; you can't demand that someone else subject themselves to bullying and abuse. Someone else may possibly suffer mistreatment graciously for the love of God; but that is not something we can demand of each other. The only person who can accept suffering is the one who is suffering; it cannot be demanded of someone else that they endure injustice. If we see someone suffering unjustly, it becomes our responsibility as a matter of justice to protect the innocent and suffering. We cannot take turning the other cheek and transform it into an obligation for anyone being wronged to continue enduring injustice indefinitely. To take seconds on mistreatment is a decision a person may take upon himself; it is not a decision that can be decently forced on another person.

Turning the other cheek: what it is not
There are other things that, in this broken world, masquerade as turning the other cheek. There are people who, with confused self-hatred, cannot see anything wrong with their being injured. Those who cannot understand that they are actually suffering injustice -- who cannot understand that what is happening to them is genuinely wrong and worthy of outrage -- are not "turning the other cheek"; they are merely indulging in a morally confused self-punishment, devoid of both justice and grace. There are also those who are too timid to resist evil; these also are not "turning the other cheek" but displaying cowardice and covering it with a pretty religious cloak. Then there are those who are unable to turn the other cheek because they are still getting pounded; the other person simply will not stop abusing them. When evil overwhelms us, God may still bless the defeated, but there is no room for the choice to turn the other cheek, no room for the deliberate show of non-retaliation.

All of these examples of not really "turning the other cheek" share something in common: they make "turning the other cheek" into something less than justice instead of something more than it.

Turning the other cheek
Matthew 5:38-45
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, nd do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor ... and hate your enemy!" But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 6:27-31
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus' teaching to turn the other cheek; both record it along with his teaching to love our enemies. So if I hate the person abusing me, I have not turned the other cheek. If I see no point trying to stop them from abusing me, I have not turned the other cheek. If I see nothing wrong with being abused, I have not turned the other cheek. If I turn the other cheek to be a hero or a martyr rather than a blessing to those who curse me, I have not turned the other cheek.

Christ started by reminding us of the ancient laws of justice: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Consider that it actually is justice; consider that it also doubles the amount of harm done, the number of people harmed, and the number of people inflicting harm. And, after all is said and done, it may or may not stop the cycle of hatred and retribution.

Someone who truly turns the other cheek is not subdued; he is still acting of his own accord. He is not pretending that evil is not really wrong or does not need to be stopped. In fact, he determines that evil must be confronted, and that he will confront it here. Turning the other cheek is an act of confrontation, not an approval of injustice. If he ignores justice, if he ignores that there was a wrong done and merely bows before it, he has not been a blessing to those who are doing the evil; he has merely been an easy mark. Those who bow before evil are not a blessing to the world. Those who turn the other cheek do not bow before evil, they stand and face it squarely. After someone has been struck on one cheek, the fact that he is still on his feet makes it clear that he could fight back. Anyone who sees him raise his head and meet his attacker's eyes and turn his other cheek -- not mockingly or in provocation, but not in fear either -- he will know: everything about his stand condemns both the first blow and the next one (if it comes) as unjust. This is the kind of confrontation that stops evil, not by challenging the strength of the attacker, but by challenging the heart of the attacker.

This is the challenge to the attacker: Can you really attack someone who refused an open invitation to attack you in return? Can you really hate someone who has done you no harm, who has reason to hate you but is trying to bless you? Can you see that they keep from trying to hurt you, not from fear, but from love of God and hope for your redemption?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Murder, Self-Defense, and Rescue

I'm going to add occasional extensions to the ethics series, and thought the ethics of violence seemed like a timely topic.

To start with the obvious, violence tends to be destructive. This means that it turns to evil uses very easily; we would be foolish to ignore that. If the world were fully good at this time, I expect that violence would be categorically wrong. I'd like to explore what the Scriptures say about violence. This post is the first in what I expect to be a two-part series. In this part we look at the early books of the Bible; in the next, at the teachings of Christ and his followers.

The point of this post is not to sway anyone's opinion on Israel or Palestine or Lebanon or Iraq or Iran or any other conflict that has happened or may yet happen. The point is simply, as we live with more threat of war now than we have for awhile, to generate some thought and discussion about right and wrong when it comes to violence or "the use of force".

Examples from Scripture
Two early examples of violence given in the Scripture are Cain's murder of his brother Abel and Lamech's self-defense killing of Tubal-Cain (both in Genesis 4). It is said that God judged Cain and pronounced punishment, which at that point was short of death. On the other hand, no punishment is mentioned for Lamech's self-defense killing of Tubal-Cain, which is then implied to be in a different moral category than murder. Later, when a code of law is recorded for Israel, the law recognizes different categories of causing a death. Deliberate murder is punished by death and the law does not recognize any place of refuge where a murderer is safe. But those accidentally causing a death are allowed to take refuge from vengeance to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. The law also called for other injuries short of death to be punished. In all this, no punishment or need to flee is ever named for injuries or death that occurred in self-defense.

Another early example of violence given in Scripture is the capture of Lot and his companions after a battle near the Dead Sea. When Abram heard that Lot was a captive, he led an army and rescued Lot and his goods and the other captives, pursuing the defeated armies of the former captors until they were a safe distance away from their homelands and decisively defeated. (This is recounted briefly in Genesis 14.)

Good and Bad Uses of Violence?
What makes Lamech's self-defense killing different than Cain's murder of his brother? Cain wanted to take life, Lamech wanted to defend it. Cain destroyed peace, Lamech wanted to restore it.

And again, what makes Abram's army's attack on Lot's captors any different than that army's original attack? Abram wanted only to free the captives, restore property to the original owners, ensure peace. Lot's original captors were the ones taking property and captives; they created the injustice that Abram wanted to set right.

Holy Violence in Religion?
These days the West has lost perspective on its own culture. So I would like to start with an example of the West looking at another culture. In the old TV series Kung Fu, the monk Kwai Chang Kane was a religious ascetic who trained in the martial arts -- which is to say, fighting -- in a monastery as part of his religious training. The martial arts were honored as a way to defend the weak and defenseless and to protect self and others from unnecessary harm. It was recognized that violence is part of the world; it was also recognized that there was a time to impede or even defeat some particular evil. While nobody underestimated the problem of remaining pure of heart while employing violence to stop evil, this was not seen as a reason to allow evil to win. Neither was any cheap moral equivalence made between those who used violence to destroy the peace and those who used violence to restore peace, between those who used violence to oppress and those who used violence to restore freedom to the oppressed.

None of this is to comment on whether the old TV show Kung Fu was an accurate portrayal of Chinese philosophy and ethics, or its spiritual aspects as they apply to force and violence. It is just that the East and the West have done perspective-checks against each other, and when we look Eastward, we see other cultures wrestling with the same problems that gave rise to knights (and the legends around them!) in our own culture. Many cultures have a tradition of the holy defender of the weak, such as the samurai or the knight.

Reason to be uneasy at the thought of "holy violence"
In case you're uneasy at the thought of "holy violence", you have reason to be. If you're not uneasy, re-read this sometime when you're in a different frame of mind, maybe after checking the world news some night, or after reading a history book that doesn't pull its punches. One problem is that most people assume their own favorite side is holy. Another problem is that most people assume they themselves are the oppressed, not the oppressor. And once people are convinced that what they're doing is holy, they're very difficult to stop, and very difficult to persuade to listen to the opinion that they may not actually be on the right side. That's a good thing if you're the Seven Samurai; it's not a good thing if you're a homicide/suicide bomber. And even the "good guys" can be tempted to cross lines that should be left un-crossed, so even if one side is definitely in the right, we still have to watch for our fallible humanity becoming twisted into something evil along the way.

Here are some warning signs that apply even to the "good guys":
  • If you are eager to kill, that's a bad sign;
  • If the death of the other side is no longer seen as a regrettable necessity, but is now seen as a good end in itself, that's a bad sign;
  • If you are controlled by hatred, bitterness, anger, rage, or malice, that's a bad sign;
  • If you cannot name the good you are trying to restore, that's a bad sign;
  • If you have never given thought to the redemption of the other side, that's a bad sign.
There are a number of other bad signs -- feel free to add your own in the comments box -- but those will do for starters.

To be continued ...
Next ... considering Christ and his disciples

Sunday, August 20, 2006

God's Love in Action: Society of St. Andrew's Gleaning Network

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. (Deuteronomy 24:19)
The Society of St. Andrew has strong ties to the United Methodist Church, but the volunteer operation it runs is ecumenical. What is the operation? Gleaning farmed fields after the harvest to collect the food missed by the harvesters and coordinate its delivery to the hungry. They coordinate gleaning operations all over the U.S. in the lower 48 contiguous states and mostly need plenty of willing hands at certain times of year.

In this series I am basically wrestling with these questions:
  • How do I help serve God's world in a larger way?
  • Can I help the needy without leaving my job and adding my own family to the number of the needy?
  • How do I help care for other peoples' families without abandoning my own family?
  • Is there a "gateway" ministry for those who, like me, want to serve more, but have not yet quite found our calling to where we belong full-time?
Society of St. Andrews came to my attention year before last in a write-up in the Houston Chronicle and found their way into my scrapbook of ministries in which I would like to participate. They have piqued my interest in whether a satellite group can be started a little closer to where I live in Texas, or whether something similar could be arranged with peoples' backyard fruit trees which are often forgotten or neglected. Whether or not the Society of St. Andrews ever makes inroads into the Greater Houston Area where I live, they're a ministry worthy of mention for those looking for ways to serve.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Reality of Living in a Broken World

After posting about paradise for awhile, I expect that it stands out very clearly that our day-to-day lives are not paradise. We need redemption. But too often we Christians discuss the brokenness of the world in generalities. Are we embarrassed to admit that our own lives and families and neighborhoods are a mess?

So I'd like to start with a quick run-down of people I know, either in my family or neighborhood, and the realities of it all. In this small group I find:
  • Two former alcoholics
  • One diagnosed psychotic
  • One former drug addict
  • One high school dropout
  • Two people who have been divorced
  • Two women who have been raped
  • One teenager who started life as a crack baby
  • A father who has children by three different women, none of whom he ever married
  • An unmarried mother who is a drug addict and, when short of cash, a prostitute
  • A girl being raised by her grandmother because her mother somehow cannot manage and her father did not stay around
  • A former drug addict recently released from prison, trying to straighten out her life
  • A young boy who had his first sexual experience at age seven, courtesy of a more experienced girl who was ten years old
Basically, right around me I find more people who are struggling with life than you could count on your fingers. And that's just family and neighbors I know fairly well.

The point? We all struggle sometimes. Nobody walks through this world and comes out completely clean, untouched by the sin in ourselves or in our loved ones. How in the blazes someone can dream that Christianity is irrelevant is beyond me. How someone can look at such a broken world and think that a clear sense of right and wrong is oppressive rather than liberating, or that redemption after a fall is unneeded -- that kind of fiction is only possible in a world where we put on blinders to the aching realities around us.

So I would just like to offer some encouragement for us along the way. We never need to be ashamed of knowing right from wrong. We never need to wonder whether we are needed, and whether a kind word is helpful, in the middle of that amount of brokenness. We never need to wonder whether redemption and a clean slate and forgiveness for the sake of Christ are really good news. And we never need to pretend that it doesn't touch our own lives, our neighbors and our families and ourselves. When we pretend it doesn't affect us, we lose our effectiveness. We relate to weakness because we've all been there.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Participating in Paradise: For the Glory of God

Photo credit: thanks to LutheranChik (gardener and bloomblogger among other things), a photo of phlox, used by her kind permission.

Creating a vision of paradise is not reserved for the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. All kinds of people participate in bringing paradise to their corner of the world. Gardeners -- and bloombloggers -- do what they can to demonstrate the beauty of God in the world. Cooks do what they can to re-create the feast of paradise. Needleworkers and painters and artists of all types recognize the paradise hidden in various places in the world. Home decorating, gardening, cooking -- at their best, all show evidence of the human hunger for paradise. And a quiet place where someone offers gladness, love and acceptance is a paradise of its own sort. God's act of creation is the inspiration for our own acts of creation. Our desire for beauty is desire for God, and for paradise is for fellowship with God.

Over the past few posts in this series I've mentioned some of the famous figures of our culture -- great artists and authors -- who have shown us a vision of paradise. To some extent, these people earned their reputation precisely because they have shown us paradise. It takes a soul of depth and breadth, along with mastery of the artistic medium, to make a believable and desirable paradise against the backdrop of some of the dark realities of this world. Some see the vision of paradise as escapism, others as nourishment. At any rate, it is refusing to let those dark realities dominate our minds and dispel our hopes; it is refusing to let those dark realities dominate the world in which we live. For the rest of us, our homespun attempts at paradise are modest enough. But they are a small measure of Eden, a foretaste of the feast to come and a measure now of the fellowship we will share. These expressions of paradise in our lives are living extensions of our faith and hope. Seeing paradise awakens love for God and for each other and in turn expresses this love again. It sustains us through difficult times. We each participate in some way with our own lives.

As a closing thought, I'd suggest that one reason the Christian authors, artists, and musicians have been among the most creative in the world is that the vision of paradise is completely at home in Christian studies, Christian thought, and Christian hope. This same vision of paradise has spread further throughout the world because of these masters of their craft, and more desire for paradise has been opened up in other lands. It is a legitimate way to let our light shine before the world so that people may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. "Good works" is usually taken to mean morally good, and "morally good" is often restricted to the dry ground of being ethically praiseworthy. But considering Christian artwork opens up new territory, more fertile and creative ground, on our "good work" causing others to glorify God. As C.S. Lewis once said he thought before his conversion to Christianity, he'd rather read Christian authors: they may be wrong (he thought at the time), but everyone else is boring.

This is the final post of the Visions of Paradise series. Starting next Sunday I will begin a series on moderns in our culture who commit their lives to service to the needy, showing the Kingdom of God on earth through compassion to the fallen. This is for people like myself struggling hard to find a way to grow in service. While I will not make much of the point in the future series, there is a connection between the visions of paradise and service. The vision of paradise is bringing God home to a corner of the world where paradise triumphs; it follows God's lead in creation. The work of service is bringing God home to a corner of the world where paradise has all but disappeared; it is following Christ's lead in redemption.

Previous in the Visions of Paradise series:
Children's Literature: C.S. Lewis' Narnia; F.H. Burnett's Secret Garden
Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece
Tolkien's Lothlorien
Coleridge's Xanadu

Sacred Art Established Under the Sinai Covenant

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is Abraham Historical?

This is an old post back from the days when I used to post over at CADRE Comments. In light of a recent discussion over at Thinklings, I thought I'd dust it off again.

It’s an ongoing question in Christian circles how far back Genesis is to be taken as historical. Here I will briefly cover some points that weigh on the historicity of Abraham in particular.

First, there's the Hebrew account of Abraham from the Bible. Where the Hebrew accounts bear on Hebrew history, most of the record have been kept by the Hebrews (understandably enough). But the Hebrew records do also record things of interest to other surrounding nations, particularly Arabia. Some of these points are as follows:
  • Abraham was son of Terah (son of Nahor, son of Serug, etc., Genesis 11);
  • His firstborn son Ishmael was by his Egyptian maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16).
  • While Ishmael was still very young; Abraham’s wife Sarai mistreated Hagar and she fled into the wilderness. Hagar was distressed; God (or an angel of God) showed her water. (Similar accounts in Genesis 16 while Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael and Genesis 21 after Ishmael was weaned have led people to speculate whether these are the same account recorded twice, or two different instances of seeking water in the wilderness.)
  • When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him beside Isaac’s mother Sarah (Genesis 25).
  • Ishmael had 12 sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jedur, Naphish, and Kedemah (Genesis 25).

Different camps of scholars give different dates for the Torah, but it is written at soonest several centuries after the events recorded for Abraham’s life. Is there anything to corroborate the Torah’s record? On this point the Arab traditions bear mentioning. According to the Arab traditions:
  • Ibrahim was the son of Tarih (son of Nahur, son of Sarugh, etc.)
  • Ibrahim’s son Ismail was born of a woman named Hagar, who was an Egyptian.
  • Mecca was founded at the place where Ismail drank water shown to him by an angel of God when he was a small child accompanied by his mother. (This well is considered sacred to this day and is visited by Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.)
  • Ismail had 12 sons: Nabit, Qaydhar, Adhbul, Mabsha, Misma, Mashi, Dimma, Adhr, Tayma, Yatur, Nabish, and Qaydhuma. The Arab tribes trace their descent from these sons of Ismail.
  • Ismail was buried beside his mother Hagar in what is now Mecca.
  • The Arabs recognize the same site in Israel as do the Hebrews as the final resting place of Ibrahim/Abraham.

Arab culture has historically depended heavily on oral tradition. The earliest written record for which I have an English translation is far after the date of the events: Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, from after the days of Mohammed. It preserves traditions of early Arab history and of the genealogy of Mohammed and of Arab tribes. It must be mentioned that this book was written millennia after Abraham; it claims, for this part of the record, to be reporting ancient traditions. The date gap should not be dismissed without consideration. Is there any reason to accept either record as authentic?

The foremost reason to accept the accounts would be the fact that they agree so largely with each other, especially when there is little reason to expect that these peoples would agree on anything unless they knew it to be true.

If someone were to argue that the Arabs borrowed from the Hebrews, it would mean that the genealogy-conscious Arab society forgot or replaced their own ancestry with an adopted Hebrew version of their ancestry. As unlikely as that seems, it would also raise the question of why they would have ancient burial sites of Ismail and Hagar in Mecca if they had not had their own traditions about Ismail and Hagar, and why they would “borrow” or even recognize the Hebrew records that Hagar was not buried with Abraham, which is less than flattering to their own culture. More historical dating and older records may become available as translation efforts continue, but for now it seems unlikely that the Arabs copied the Hebrews.

On the other hand, if someone were to argue that the Hebrews borrowed from the Arabs, the same types of issues can be raised as to why a genealogy-conscious culture would adopt someone else’s version of their ancestry. It also becomes difficult to explain why the Arabs recognize the tomb of Abraham and Sarah in the ancient homeland land of the Hebrews, as opposed to locating it in Arabia next to the burial places of Hagar and Ishmael. This is difficult to explain unless we consider the most obvious solution: that the tomb is authentic.

Is any of that conclusive? “Conclusive” is too strong a word for many peoples’ inclinations, especially with the translation work that remains to be done and the time gaps involved in the records. But the history of the people involved, the available records and traditions and historical sites, and the fact that two enemy cultures both agree so closely, all make more sense if the history is genuine.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Paradise in Children's Stories: Lewis and Burnett

If the vision of paradise awakens desire, then successfully creating a vision of paradise ensures a place amongst the classics.

C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia offers a wide variety of glimpses of paradise, from the creation of a new world to a midwinter dance involving snowballs to a dazzling underground abyss growing live gems at the bottom of the world. This glimpse of paradise is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader beyond the sea to the edge of the world, but here on an island not quite yet at the world's end.
"I am a star at rest, my daughter," answered Ramandu. "When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth's eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance."
F. H. Burnett's The Secret Garden is an exercise in paradise to itself, even if a little overdone for today's tastes. Though the garden itself is so enchanting that I can hardly read it without wanting to pick up my gardening tools, it also does an excellent job of picking up on the motif of the feast of paradise.
The morning that Dickon -- after they had been enjoying themselves in the garden for about two hours -- went behind a big rosebush and brought forth two tin pails and revealed that one was full of rich new milk with cream on the top of it, and that the other held cottage-made currant buns folded in a clean blue and white napkin, buns so carefully tucked in that they were still hot, there was a riot of surprised joyfulness. ... Roasted eggs were a previously unknown luxury and very hot potatoes with salt and fresh butter were fit for a woodland king ...

Previous in the Visions of Paradise series:
Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece
Tolkien's Lothlorien
Coleridge's Xanadu

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Why Calvinism and Arminianism aren't the only options

Hardline Calvinists and Arminians both seem firmly convinced there are only two views on the subject of the cause of our redemption, and that between them they represent the whole of the theological spectrum. They base this on whether Calvinism and Arminianism are the only two answers to a particular question.

But consider another question that only has two answers: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It is a classic example of a trick question. As asked, it only has two answers: yes or no. But in a typical case, both answers leave a wrong impression. "Yes" implies that the man used to beat his wife but then stopped; "no" implies that the man is still beating his wife. As the question is asked, there are only two allowed answers; typically both are wrong. In reality there is a third answer: the question itself is based on false premises. Maybe a man never did beat his wife, or is not married. So despite the fact that the question has two answers, there is a third possibility: that the question itself, as asked, is invalid.

Calvinists and Arminians frequently say that they are the only theologies on the block because they are the only answers to a particular question. But that doesn't make the question valid. The question is roughly this: "Whose free and unmediated will saves you?" The choices are "God's free and unmediated will" (Calvinism) or "Man's free and unmediated will" (Arminianism).

Here is what is missing from this picture of salvation: Christ. It's a major omission. Both Calvinism and Arminianism add on Christ at a later stage. And that is where the premise of the question is wrong. It is in Christ that God turns to us in grace. It is in Christ that we encounter God's grace and are changed by it. So it is in Christ that we turn to God and are restored to God's favor and grace. God's choice to show us grace through Christ was a free and unmediated choice. But from there, Christ is the mediator between God and man.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

To Codepoke on Egalitarian/Complementarian

Update: Codepoke has replied here. And he comes awfully close to issuing a challenge: if complementarians aren't complacent about abuse of women (whatever form it may take), then why isn't it on their agenda? (Kind of implying: if it's not on your agenda, isn't that the working definition of complacent?) So: complementarians out there: What do you say? (For anyone curious, I'm still reading the arguments back and forth between the egalitarian and complementarian camps; I'm asking questions at this point with an aim to keep the conversation going at least until I've heard more of what everyone has to say.)

I was typing up a comment in response to Codepoke on egalitarian views and found that my comment was way too long for the comment box. In the same circumstances I'd have told someone else to use their own blog. So here goes. Please read Codepoke's piece; it's worth the time. I'm responding to Codepoke as "you" throughout this post because it's in response to the linked article; other readers please don't take a reference to "you" personally during the course of this post. And fair warning, if someone doesn't care for the topic of rape at all, maybe you'd rather skip this post.

Reader's digest version of the part of Codepoke's post that I'm responding to: he hits some very good points about how culture is complacent about mistreatment of women in comparison to, say, the recent public scandal in which young boys were abused in certain dioceses in the Roman Catholic church. He has some disturbing examples of church (congregation/leadership) complicity in husbands mistreating their wives. But by placing the topic of sexual abuse within his argument, there's an implied link between sexual abuse and complementarianism (the view that women and men have equal humanity but different roles), and a stated link between wanting less sexual abuse and egalitarianism (the view that women and men have equal humanity and therefore equal roles).

There is also some mention in his post about how abused women react to abuse; this portrayal does not correspond to what I've seen myself and even seems potentially unfair to the women themselves -- which is where I start my response.

I know this is a delicate topic, and I'm going to mention something the men in general may not know. Those of us who have been abused or raped -- you were tactful enough never to mention the "r" word but I'll put it on the table -- I've been in on a good number of those talks that we have when the men aren't around. We're a sisterhood. And in all the talks I've been in on, I've never heard any of us say "boys will be boys". I've heard stunned amazement that someone could be that violent, heartless, ruthless -- but never heard a reaction that was dismissive, never heard someone who was even marginally accepting of that kind of outrageous crime. We give each other our shoulders to cry on, even share an odd laugh at the ridiculous situations we find ourselves in. (How the blazes do you get fingerprint powder off your windowsill? That stuff is stubborn, but it's not like in the Better Housekeeping tip books, y'know, right next to getting out grape juice stains or whatever.) Is it possible that someone somewhere has said "boys will be boys"? Oh, no doubt, all kinds of people say all kinds of things. But in my experience that's not typical at all.

You said, "Where is the outrage for the abused girls?" I'd really love for there to be some outrage from the men's side. It's usually this squirmy guilt-by-association reaction, to which I can only roll my eyes and say: hey, most of us take it for granted that decent men chase thoughts like that back out of their heads when they occur rather than act on them. I bet my life on that every time I go to the grocery store, without thinking twice about it, so about the "guilt by association thing" I think the average man (one without a record of perpetrating sexual abuse) should lighten up already.

So "where is the outrage for the abused girls?" Bullseye. And what outrage there is tends to take the form of wanting to kill the perpetrator in slow and nasty ways, which I think, my own opinion here, approaches zero on the helpfulness scale. ("Great. And the person who cares the most is either wasting his time or will end up in jail, and is turning himself into a revenge-crazed co-victim and posing in his hero cape, meanwhile never having offered me a shoulder or a hand-up.")

But I have to say too: I'm very suspicious of the topic of sexual abuse being used for political ends or to score points in an argument. (Don't even get me started about how the pro-legalized-abortion folks exploit rape victims politically to shame their political opponents into silence for the benefit of abortion candidates who are, as a group, 99% of them pregnant from sexual irresponsibility rather than sexual abuse. I don't want the 1% pregnant by rape to be forgotten, but I don't want other people piggybacking on our trauma for their political ends. It really ticks me off.)

I know all abuse -- including sexual abuse -- has a legitimate place in a conversation on human rights. I also agree that the topic is sometimes swept under the rug (though at other times it's overdone to where people really can get sick of hearing about it), and that whatever else we've achieved as a culture on this topic, a healthy level of discussion isn't one of them.

Does sexual abuse really and legitimately flow from a complementarian viewpoint? Nope. Do the egalitarians manage outrage? Mostly over complementarians. As far as outrage over sexual abuse, I haven't seen it yet, though I've seen lots of pious moping about how the problem is generally someone else's fault. I smell a rat whenever a person (or camp) locates sinfulness outside itself. That goes for both sides. Would the world be better off, from the standpoint of reducing sexual abuse, if all men thought women were of equal value? No doubt. Would the world be better off, from the standpoint of reducing sexual abuse, if all men took up the roles of protectors in light of women's (typically) relative weakness and lesser aggressiveness? Probably so there too.

When we look at our own culture's past, or other cultures around the globe now, it's really easy to cry "oppression" when looking at rules like "women stay home or else be accompanied in public" ... but the parts of the world that are so safe that even a woman with small children can go out safely are few and rare. It takes a remarkably well-ordered society for women to be safe alone outside the home; most of human history has simply not achieved that level of safety. If you lived in a place that dangerous, would you keep your daughter home or tell her to go out only with a male relative? If you picked "with a male relative", would it be oppressive? I think we should grant our forefathers the benefit of the doubt as to whether they were intending to oppress or to protect with some of these rules.

You know I'm still listening in the egalitarian/complementarian debate. I also know you never explicitly connected complementarians and a culture that fails to be outraged over sexual abuse of girls in the same way as sexual abuse of boys, though you did fairly directly connect egalitarianism to trying to do things better. I have no objections to trying to do things better! I have no objections to trying to make people more fully awake towards justice. But I don't think it's justified for the egalitarians to mark the "culture of sexual abuse" tally against the complementarians. I take it for granted that decent people everywhere are against sexual abuse. I also suspect that the original intent of some of the "oppressive" rules of the past was to protect from all kinds of harm including sexual abuse. If law and order ever collapse again in our lifetimes, I think the "oppressive" statutes of the past will make a whole lot of sense. It's still a fair question what makes sense here and now.

Take care & God bless