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Friday, August 29, 2014

Race and My Place

I live in a neighborhood that is a fairly good representation of the city of Cincinnati in terms of its character and racial makeup. I love living in my neighborhood. Not everyone looks alike, not everyone acts alike. In all honesty, there are probably safer places to live.  I feel comfortable having my family here. We are part of this neighborhood and we interact respectfully with our neighbors. Sometimes, I get the impression that many white Christians throughout the U.S. would feel very uncomfortable living in my neighborhood. They may even downright avoid my neighborhood because of its racial makeup. I believe this is a tragedy.

Ferguson has been on the minds of most Americans in the past few weeks.  I have no idea if we will ever know what actually happened the night Mike Brown died. There have been commentaries on both sides of the issue that paint either the cops or the black community as villains in the struggle.  I have no desire to take part in such petty arguments.  Why is it petty? I am not a person living in the community, I am not a business owner in the community, and I have neither lost or gained anything because of this ordeal. Most of the people who are casting judgment on the situation have nothing to gain directly or indirectly by what has happened in Ferguson. Instead, the gains made by such people are usually on an ideological level although it does not escape me that language may be used to subjugate (in various ways, through various methods) people who are different than the speaker.

Why would I bring up such a point?  I want to take more responsibility for my actions as a white man of privilege. I recognize that I have certain privileges merely because I was born a man who was white.  This is what Ferguson has brought to my mind with all the arguing.  As a white person, I have never known what is like to be profiled by the police purely because of my race.  I can go where I want to in this country with little to no fear of reprisal because of the the color of my skin. My skin happens to take on a slightly olive color which may be because of a great-grandfather of unknown ethnicity; he got off the orphan train from New York with an assumed identity and was adopted without a second thought into my family. Other than that, I am clearly a white man.  For years, I've had people share racist jokes with me with the expectation that I would laugh at those who were not of the white race. I don't laugh at those jokes  and they quickly go away because of it, but it is assumed that because of my whiteness I will share in the privilege and power those jokes embody.

The privilege doesn't end there either. Even within the church, I have doors open for me precisely because of my anatomy, sexuality, and gender (all of which happen to be interrelated but distinct things).  If I was a woman, I could not realistically hope to be an elder in the brotherhood I hold most near and dear to my heart. *

I could go on about my privilege and place in society, but I won't. Instead, I want to return to my responsibility. I must take on the role of servant.  This is my responsibility. Any power I have must be used to serve others. Admittedly, some of those people I serve include my family.  The people in my neighborhood are also those I must serve.

(Delacroix's Good Samaritan, which I do not own the rights to but show purely for educational purposes) 

Given the case of Ferguson, Christians must think in the same way. When Jesus was asked about those we are called to serve, he answered with a story.  If my anger is raised about the looting, vandalism, and rioting I must think about who I could serve.  If my anger grows deep and heated because of the actions of the police, then I must find a way to serve them.

Sin has left our society beaten, bruised, and robbed of the beauty God intends for His creation.  As the church, when we come across sin's effects and we react with indifference or angst we do a disservice to the cross of Christ.  We must find a way to serve and love those who are different than ourselves.  We must love them in a sacrificial way.

I am not a black person who was raised in this country. I am not a cop patrolling the streets.  I am not a business owner with a destroyed livelihood. I am a white man and I must love my neighbor.

The love expressed here is not from the principles of Old Testament sapiential literature.** Instead, this is the love of a savior who gave all. It is the love of someone at odds culturally with someone else who decides to sacrifice in order to partake in God's restoration and redemption of creation.

Paul sums up my feelings on responsibility towards race and service to others.

All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Philippians 3:8-11 The Message)

I have a place in this world, and it is wherever I can serve others.

*Some people in our brotherhood see a sea change happening with women's role in ministry and possibly in eldership.  At this point, I am trying to be faithful to scripture and not comment on anything other than the reality that women currently are not welcome as elders in our brotherhood. 
**I believe Christians can and should support the government in the way that Paul upheld in the NT, especially in Romans. However, I believe we are also paradoxically called to a life of subversion. This life is epitomized by Christ-like servant-hood to which is the essence of kingdom living.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tone and Timbre - On Christian Speech and Writing

I'm a guitarist. I've been playing for about 20 years now. It's a great instrument and I'm usually inspired when I watch professionals and artists play it.  Every once in a while, I'll find someone who is technically proficient, but I just can't stand to watch them play.  Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy players as diverse as Paul Gilbert  and Phil Keaggy in their approach to the guitar.   However, there are certain players who just seem to be obnoxious  when I hear them. 

This mainly seems to be the case when someone knows all the notes to play yet fails to take the time to make their guitar sound good.  Guitarists refer to this as a lack of tone and timbre.  Now, it's true that tone and timbre are a matter of personal taste.  There are still some basic rules to follow as you develop your own tone. A chief one is to never be so obnoxious that you can't blend with the rest of the band. In my opinion, Kenny Loggin's "Danger Zone" is one of the worst all time offenders in this respect. The guitar in this song is horrid. Somewhat ironically, the song was used to great effect by recruiters.  In music, sometimes a job will get done by the guitar, but it could have gotten done a lot more graciously.

This is where my thoughts went after reading a recent post by a certain Christian blogger. Although the particular topic he was addressing (i.e. Robin Williams' suicide) may have been an appropriate topic given the amount of time addressed to it in the media, he handled it without a real sense of grace.  If he was playing guitar, his tone and timbre would have been brash, in your face, and without a consideration for the rest of the band.  It's an ugly tone.

If this was the only time this blogger had written in this way, I may not be writing my own thoughts on the matter right now.  However, again and again this individual chooses to interact with topics in a bombastic, kick-in-the-door manner. I thought about linking to more of his blog, but decided against it since I really don't care to drive more traffic to his site.  He's the theological-blogger equivalent of someone who presents a possible theological truth in all the wrong ways to a grieving family.  For example, if a family was grieving with the loss of a young child, he appears to be the type of person who would say, "Well, just remember God has a plan and we just have to trust God." There may be some truth in those words, they may have even be intended to convey comfort.  They don't though. They are a miserable failure in terms of solace, empathy, and grace. 

Before I get accused of being a pot calling the kettle black, let me make clear my point here.  I don't know that blogger personally. I do know myself.  I do know plenty of other Christians.  I know quite a few Christians who are teachers or leaders who are responsible for sharing their ideas with other Christians. I don't intend to correct him personally. I do intend to help correct the possibility of making the same mistake within the group of people I know.  At least, I hope that this blog post will contribute to the discussion as we try to become more Christ-like. 

As James taught about the power of the tongue, he wrote, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" (James 3:11 HCSB). This is a reminder about the life-giving quality of our words. Specifically, he was talking about the power of our words as we teach and lead. The application turns us toward life and grace. When we speak and teach it should not just be done so that we are right. Our tone and timbre matters.

I mentioned kick-in-the-door delivery tactics. Such tactics are always more concerned with "truth" and proving a point than loving people or growing the kingdom. I say "truth" because facts are never just facts, objective truth always relates to a bunch of other things, like the people involved and the cultural context. Furthermore, there are several ways kick-in-the-door tactics employ logical slight of hand to accomplish their feats of intellectual entry.

First, logically valid arguments are assumed to be true (whether implicit, tacit, or focal) .  This is either devious or ignorant of the relationship between an argument and its premises.  It is completely possible to make a valid argument and yet be untrue. Consider the following 1. All refrigerators are made of titanium alloy. 2. All items made of titanium alloy are time-travel devices. 3. Therefore, all refrigerators are time-travel devices.   With this example, we immediately see the absurdity of the premises.  It is not always the case that we see the truth or absurdity of a principle or premise.  When this is the case, we must not assume we are telling the whole truth.  After all, a partial truth is also partially false. We need sound arguments where both the premises and the conclusion have at least a high probability of truth. 

Second, there are often other tactics used by those marshaling to barrel through intellectual doors. Some of these include equivocation. Equivocation is when two entities are made out to be the same thing.  Often, equivocation relies on the inability of others to distinguish between different types, tokens, classes, etc. Presumption is another tactic used by these go-getters. Presumption relies on underlying assumptions about the state of affairs as presented.  It is closely tied to equivocation in its application. 

What about our good intentions?  Doesn't it sound like I am the enemy of truth and justice and the American way? Good intentions mean very little if we do not consider our context.   As a Christian it must always be my goal to communicate life to others.   Are my words bringing life (not just what I think will bring life, but actual life, dependent on Christ)? If not, then I have failed to communicate objective truth. I have only communicated some "objective" ideas.

When James referred to our speech as either fresh water or salt water, I can't help but think James was thinking of Jesus (e.g. John 4:14).  My words, when spoken or written should bring fresh, living water to those who need it. Yes, it's true that my words may occasionally sting, as when water washes out an old wound.  I must gauge how I deliver those words though. Usually a power washer, and it's strong tone, is the wrong tool for delivering water to those in need. Sure, I can imagine a situation where it would be the proper tool. Most of the time though, the water will have a calm, musical sound to it as the clear waters of life are delivered.