Thursday, May 25, 2017

Coexistence: A Cop Out

A Terrifying Concept

I have always loathed this bumper sticker, for a while I couldn't put my finger on why.    I actually enjoy talking with people of other faiths, or even those with no faith at all.   I learn about people, our world, and myriad of other things by engaging my neighbors with a different take on things than I have.   I have participated in interfaith dialogues, worship services and mission initiatives,  I have read about and often researched religions different than my own including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.  In this effort, I have found things to admire and things that I am not comfortable in every religion I have read about.   Each religion also has it's painful history as do those attempts to build atheistic societies.  I continually find evidence that we are all good and bad mixed up,  so why can't I just follow the herd, slap a sticker on my car and simply coexist?

The short answer is: I am a follower of Jesus Christ and that means coexistence is never enough.  My problem with the sentiment behind coexistence is its passivity.   Coexistence is an apathetic concept however you look at it,  morally, politically, sociologically, and biologically.  By apathetic I am using the concept as expressed by the 20th century Japanese Christian Theologian Kosuke Koyama.  He describes apathy in relational terms as refusing to connect to the other.  So when I coexist, I go about my day and walk right by you, ignore, avoid, or even hide from you.  What happens to you is not my concern.   It is the logical extension of the 20th century heresy "I'm Ok, you're Ok."

The Story of Jesus Christ is all about connecting to the other.   God wanted to connect to the world, so God became incarnate in Jesus to live with, walk with, eat with, laugh with, cry with and ultimately suffer with and for humanity. Koyama will describe this idea of connecting as "passionate." Koyama will not limit this concept to mere enthusiasm, but take it to its biblical roots.   To be passionate means specifically to love your neighbor enough to suffer for her, it means to risk pain for his well being.

To coexist literally means to simply exist alongside others.  It is deaf to the call of Justice.  In biblical terms love and justice are basically the same thing.  So in the late 1930's lots of Christian Germans coexisted with their Jewish neighbors as they were rounded up in the middle of night, packed in boxcars, separated from their families, and taken away to die.  Perhaps these people who embraced coexistence were not guilty of crimes that could be prosecuted in a court of law but they were devoid of love, which is even more terrifying.

The More Excellent Way

The only way will ever improve the quality of life in our communities is if we connect and engage with our neighbors.   We will need to take interest in our neighbors.   We will need to laugh with, cry with, walk with, eat with, have awkward moments with, and ultimately suffer with our neighbors who are radically different from us, religiously, ethnically, politically and culturally.   We are to become incarnational in our communities and passionate about our neighbors they way the good Lord has done for us.   We are called to be passionate toward our neighbor and that means relating with them, learning from them, sharing with them, and ultimately watching out for their well being as if it were our own.   The biblical word for this is Love.  It is both a virtue and a command.   The more we are able love the healthier we will all be.

In biology there is the concept of symbiosis.   This explains how separate organisms actually thrive and grow better when connected.   Ecosystems with high degrees of symbiosis are more healthy, resilient, and thriving then where organisms simply coexist.  So Christ's call to love is not only about improving the lives of others, by loving others we tend to our own well being.  

The allure of coexistence and its sister concept "tolerance" is that it seems so easy.  We will avoid pain by not bothering with the other and can salve our consciences that we are not causing the problems of the world.  However our spiritual procrastination will only allow the the divisive elements of our contemporary way of life to continue to infest our families, communities, nation and world.  In answer this problem Christ calls us to seek the narrow door and the harder road so that we can move beyond coexistence into compassion.   Our spiritual journey will then follow the course set by Christ who came to bring love to the world.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Thursday, May 4, 2017

When God Gets in the Way

The Dream of Babel 

Recently I while in prayer I was thinking about some dreams that I held when I was younger that didn't pan out the way I had hoped.  These were both personal and professional; for some of them, I worked hard and dedicated myself diligently to bring them to fruition.  However, as I reflected on the family, friends, and life situation I actually have today, I thanked God that these dreams were dashed. The implications of their fulfillment would have been disastrous for me and those I love. By standing in the way of my dreams God actually saved me.

Normally, we don't like to think about God this way.   Many times we pray for God to give us the things we ask for.  We hope for the god who will give us what we want and we think it will be for the best, but this god as candyman theology may not work out so well in the end.

Provocatively, the Bible also shows us that this God who stands in the way, deals not only with our individual wants, but also the collective wishes of our culture.   In Genesis 11, creation is just getting back on track after the flood and the people gather in Mesopotamia to say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4 NRSV)

With all due respect to my Sunday School teacher back in the day, the problem with the dream of Babel really wasn't that the tower would reach heaven.  There are actually two problems revealed in the text.   The first is the self promotion "make a name for ourselves" the second is the fear of being scattered upon the earth.  I know that it might be hard for us to see these as problems at first, one may ask what is wrong with making a name for oneself?   Or, shouldn't we try to keep everyone together?

Perhaps some of the excesses in our culture can help us see the problem with our dreams of Babel.   In our current age, self-promotion is regarded as a crowning virtue, our political leaders,business executives, celebrities and sadly even some church leaders who we look up to embrace these values. However the extreme cost of self promotion lies at the heart of many of our ills.   Our leaders in government, business and society can often put their privilege before their responsibilities of service to others.  There are those who use their positions in government or business to create systems that are self-perpetuating and do nothing for society at large.

The left fears inequality and the right fears moral decline, but both are driven by the engine of self promotion. Consider the teenager trying to be cool and get more likes on whatever social media platform is hip these days.   They may be willing to risk bodily injury, sexual humiliation, or emotional shame to be popular.  Others will indeed look to perpetuate these evils on thier peers to show how worthy they are of clicks, likes, and attention, thus the vulnerable are exploited for the amusement of the cruel.

The second problem of Babel, the fear of being scattered upon the earth, actually contradicts God's command at creation and after the flood, where people are called to fill the earth. It manifests itself today in the suppression of genuine diversity.   By this I do not mean the pop-liberalism of the Pepsi generation but the actual hard work of working toward the dignity of those who are genuinely different than us.  The dream of Babel, of everyone speaking the same language, working on only one goal to say "hey we're great" is actually the nightmare of the monoculture.  Biologists will tell you that the weakest ecosystems are those that are monocultural. They have little resilience and are prey to disease and even slight environmental changes.  

No wonder God looked down at Babel and said  “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (Genesis 11:6 NRSV) So God confuses the languages thus multiplying them.   This creates a diversity of humanity that is able then to multiply and fill the earth.  God stops the dream of Babel dead in it's tracks for the good of all. Humanity is richer, more resilient, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

The Promise of Abraham 

In the narrative of Genesis, the tower of Babel shows how human sin will continue its destructive path thorugh history unless God intervenes. It is the final universal origin story. It sets up God's salvation plan for all which begins in the very next chapter with God focusing on a particular family, the family of Abraham. We read in Genesis 12:3 "I will bless those who bless you... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (NRSV)

The contrasts with the dream of Babel are informative.   Abraham will be made great by God, he will not do it alone.  His greatness will not be an end in itself but given in order that others may be blessed.  God will work his plan through Abraham's and his descendant's failures perhaps even more than their successes.  What God prevents will be as important as what God empowers. Abraham will mess up often but still walk with God.  It communicates this simple truth; who we really are is not defined by ourselves alone, it is also defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is God's work through Abraham that will create the blessing.   Genesis demonstrates futility of self-promotion at Babel with the fruitfulness and blessing of God-promotion through the life of Abraham and his family.  

It is a call for all of us to tend to our relationship with God and resist the temptation of trying to go it alone.  The Apostle Paul would write in Romans 4:16 "For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of all of us, (NRSV) The Bible teaches us that those who we walk with are more important than our dreams and fantasies and that if we walk with God and those God put in our life well, we too will be blessed.

Keep the Faith,
Pastor Knecht