On my drive in to the church today I was reflecting on how to respond to the events that have made news headlines over these past days. There has been yet another deliberate shooting of the innocent, an attempt to take as many lives as possible. We extend our prayers and sympathies to the victims in Quebec City as well as to our Muslim neighbors here in Ottawa. That much is obvious. As the news is recounted on the radio connections are made to the way our southern neighbour is closing its doors to those who wish to flee violence in some of the most unstable parts of the world.
It occurs to me that just as violence can creep through communities of faith and co-opt their commitment and devotion, so too it can poison the love of nation or culture. In a better world a person’s willingness to kill for an ideology, a faith, a culture or a nation would trigger some kind of automatic shutdown. It would tell us that we have gone too far and it would force us into some critical self-reflection. It would tell us that when our love for something we believe is ‘ours’ demands the death of others we have stooped too low. In a better world we would always recognize the inherent, divinely-ordained dignity of the lives of others. Continue reading “Breaking Bread in Response to the News”
I used to teach an Ethics course to undergraduates. It was fun because conversations in the seminar would move from the highly theoretical to the intensely practical quick enough to give everyone whiplash. One of the topics that almost always got students riled-up was distributive justice. This is the classic question of who should get what. I can remember one particular seminar where a student was trying to make the case for a libertarian approach by saying that those who develop skills more valued by society should be financially rewarded more handsomely than those who don’t. He said that the free market is a fine instrument for working this out. As you might expect, another student brought up professional athletes. Continue reading “Living in Grace (123)”
Joanna waved from the café window. Henry was striding confidently over the winter sidewalk. He was thinking about how well he was moving for a tall fellow in his 80s. Optimistic thoughts like these had become an oddity for him. Henry had just raised is arm to wave back when he slipped. Everyone knows how this kind of slipping feels. Unanticipated. Your legs go out from under you. Continue reading “The Possibility of Falling Up—a short story*”
Not all Christians vote. I do. For me it’s one of those privileges I’ve been given that I don’t want to take for granted. I’m skeptical about what actual goods state politics can realize. I doubt, for instance, that our governing authorities can make us better people. They can’t do much to make us more patient, more loving, more honest or more courageous. I vote, though, because it’s a modicum of power that’s been given to me and I want to use it to help our communities be more just. Not everyone has that opportunity.
There are two passages that frame the possibilities of governments biblically. One in Romans 13, where Paul describes governing authorities as God’s servants. They keep chaos in check by preserving a basic civil order. For that reason they deserve our support. Then there is Revelation 13, where governing authorities are depicted as a diabolical beast. The beast is worshiped because of its immense power and its seeming invincibility. For that reason they deserve our skepticism.
I vote, but I don’t think that’s the most ‘political’ thing I do. This evening I meet with the committee that plans our congregation’s worship life. It will be a political meeting. We will talk about allegiance and sovereignty. We will talk about how to cultivate certain virtues and ways of being. We will talk about economics and global alliances. We will do all that without mentioning a national government. It will be political, but it will have virtually nothing to do with a state. My point is not that state politics don’t matter—of course they do. My point is simply that Christians always hold more than one form of citizenship.
Today the delegates for Mennonite Church Canada have voted to create space and leave room for churches that want to fully welcome gay and lesbian persons, including those in committed same-sex relationships. The vote was to do that while at the same time not revising the Mennonite Confession of Faith that, more or less, defines marriage in a traditional way. It’s an interesting path forward. In effect it continues the practice already in place but now gives it the official sanction of the national body. This decision isn’t so much about sexual ethics as it is about a way of being church. In the floor discussions today there was a strong affirmation of the importance of unity, a unity that runs deeper than unanimity. The various churches represented here do not see these issues in the same way but most of us do think it’s possible to remain together in spite of that. The recommendation was affirmed by something like 80% of delegates, far exceeding the 50% plus 1 requirement. Continue reading “Experimenting with Heterogeneity”
I’m at the national Mennonite Assembly in Saskatoon held at Generic Convention Centre XYZ900. It’s the usual suspects that gravitate to the mic at these sorts of events—not entirely but mostly. Person A, seemingly bent on being the hero of the traditional way, steps to the mic and goes through the usual litany of thumping Bible references. Everyone has heard these before. We learn nothing, except that person A now feels released from some sense of prophetic guilt. Then person B, seemingly intent on taking an epic stand in the opposite direction, steps up to another mic and reaches for a King-Gandhi-Luther (insert other moral hero here) reference. Again, we learn nothing, except that now person B feels released from some sense of prophetic guilt. Then there is person C, who says it’s all about love, and person D, who says we just need to pray more, and person E, who says it’s all about unity, and, of course, person F, who says unity is impossible because many have already been hurt and have left. The conversation around Christianity and same-sex marriage has been rehearsed so many times in so many places I wonder why there are still those out there who think there is a ‘solution’. Continue reading ““Betwixt and Between””
Last month an essay of mine was published in the Journal of Brethren Life and Thought. Since that journal is probably not one that will be showing up in your mailbox anytime soon, I thought I’d included a bit of it here. The piece is based on a presentation I gave some years back; I’m happy to see it in print.
Simplicity strikes many of us as a good, if occasionally naïve, thing. In his “A Salutation of the Virtues” the thirteenth century saint, Francis of Assisi, cast Simplicity as a courtly sister to Queen Wisdom, outranking Lady Poverty and Lady Charity. In the twenty-first century we may well be intrigued by Simplicity but we probably lack the saint’s solemn devotion. Consider the TV reality show “The Simple Life,” which cast socialite Paris Hilton in the role of a farm worker. The foibles of the out-of-place heiress generated spinoff shows around the world. The irony of simplicity’s attraction in a complex and fragmented time is captured in Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s marvellously titled book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. There Weaver-Zercher explores the growing American fascination with “bonnet rippers.” She relates that in 2002 only two such books were published. In 2012 there were 85. This growth betrays, she thinks, a desire on the part of readers to be transported from a hypermodern and hypersexualized present to a simpler way of life. Weaver-Zercher is not alone in her analysis. Sociologists Donald Kraybill and Carl Bowman offer a corroborating conclusion about our cultural fascination with plain living. In a book about Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren they write,
Despite all our comfort and convenience, the possibility that [members of these plain communities] are happier haunts, indeed, torments the postmodern soul. Continue reading “Haunted by Plain Folk: Why Simplicity Should be a Christian Virtue”
I flipped open a magazine today and noticed an advertisement for a Christian university here in Canada. The ad, set against the backdrop of an artist’s hand, asks if you think a brush stroke can change the world. This particular university thinks it can (or at least their publicity department does) and wants to be at your elbow as you do. Given the criticism of this sort of modern ambition in recent theological work, I was surprised to see it from a university.
I’ve recently read James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. Part of the case he tries to make is that this ‘let’s change the world’ ambition is characteristic of Christian engagement with the broader culture in North America. Before seeing this ad I didn’t think his analysis applied in Canada. According to Hunter, contemporary Christians have the impression that if they can just latch onto the levers of power they can fix things. One of the results has been a politicization of the Christian life and the conclusion by many that the best way to express their hopes and values in public is to do so through the mechanisms of state power. Hunter, a Christian and professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, thinks this is a pretty serious problem. I have a few hesitations about Hunter’s analysis but here are a few of his insights worth mulling over: Continue reading “Should We Try to Change the World?”
In his book Allah: A Christian Response Miroslav Volf argues that the faith of Christians and Muslims is directed toward the same divine referent. That is not to say that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about God. However, just as Christians and Jews assume they worship the same God, even though they disagree about key doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, Volf argues Christians and Muslims should admit that they worship the ‘same’ God despite their deep differences. Volf’s book is valuable for its nuance and logical rigor. It’s a fairly readable volume too. He make a careful and charitable case, while not falling into the silly “we all believe the same thing” nonsense.
Volf has recently written a timely piece on a related topic in the Washington Post. There he writes in defense of the suspended Wheaton College political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins was recently put on administrative leave for making a claim similar to Volf’s as part of her explanation for choosing to wear a hijab during Advent. Christianity Today summarizes that situation here. In the Post Volf argues convincingly that the college seems motivated by “anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology.”
It is not far from the hill on which Herod’s temple sat, the temple Jesus and his followers knew, to the hill cloaked in olive trees. To call either a mountain, as they are sometimes designated, is a stretch. That being the case, the distance between the two and the short climb required to reach the top of the ‘Mount’ of Olives is enough to make one want to rest. Jesus and his disciples did so under the shade of the trees. The temple was still within their view. In fact, it was hard to miss. Continue reading “In the Dappled Light of Providence (sermon detritus #82)”