When I Get to Heaven

When I was a kid, I had a mental list of questions to ask God when I got to heaven—things like, what was there before time existed, and are there aliens, and how did you think of sight, and how is it that even things people create, like sports or art, have real rules about what is quality. Now, my questions are more whys than whats. Why did Jesus have all male disciples, and why do some people live whole lives feeling desperate and hopeless—where’s the intervention, and why the Bible, when it’s so easily used for evil, and why doesn’t God write “I love you” across my ceiling when I want him to, or just show up and sit on my couch and have a conversation.

I think there’s a subtext to all my adult questions—“are you good?” Explain yourself, I want to say. I’m not in an I demand answers mode with this; what’s really going on in my head, I think, is more like this thing makes me afraid that you are not good, and I want you to be good. I’m not sure anymore that I care even a little about the answers to my questions; they are just a shadow of what I want to know. I don’t think those things will come to mind when I’m with God. I want to know if aliens exist much more than I want to know why Jesus’ disciples were male, and much less than I want to know what God is like.

I feel like maybe when I get to heaven, even if by that time I am a spiritual superstar who only doubts God’s goodness once a day instead of every time “Blurred Lines” comes on the radio, I will just take one look at God and be like, ahhhhh. And then I think we’ll talk about aliens.

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On being White

I have never put much thought into being white. I’ve thought a lot about other aspects of my identity—my femaleness, my Christianness, my Americanness—but my whiteness somehow escaped introspection until this past winter, when a speaker in one of my classes had the students get together with a partner to discuss the prompt, “what makes me proud about my ethnicity and my physical appearance.”  My partner was a Korean woman, who quickly named her black hair as a point of pride. I sat there in a stupor, staring at her hair, realizing that I had never, ever thought about this before, and that I didn’t particularly want to be thinking about it now. I was drawing an uneasy blank on any points of potential ethic pride. When it came time to report our discussions to the class, the white students all expressed similar discomfort with the exercise. One blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman voiced what I was thinking: she felt guilty talking about her ethnicity or appearance in positive terms, because people who looked like her had propagated so much evil on people who didn’t, because they didn’t.

After the class, I continued the conversation online with a couple of classmates, one of whom was eager to reassure me that I carried no guilt for the sins of my ancestors. I hadn’t enslaved anyone, he said; I was against racism. I had done nothing wrong. All races have done evil things, he said; white people are not uniquely racist, uniquely oppressive, or uniquely violent. And white people have done some remarkable things as well as some horrifying things; white people built a system of government that is, as he put it, the envy of the world. White people walked on the moon. White people fought the Nazis.

I put mental asterisks by the items on his list. White people built the American system of government on the backs of slaves, in the wake of genocide. White people walked on the moon because they were still the only people in the country with the resources to get there, 200 years post-slavery. White Americans fought the Nazis because Hitler declared war on the United States—and anyway, millions of non-white Americans fought in WWII. And I hadn’t enslaved anyone, but as the progeny of people who did, I benefit from a system that was birthed in a racism that favors people who look like me.  And for reasons that feel inaccessible to me, I’m uncomfortable with the kind of individualism that assumes that I bear no responsibility for the sins of my foremothers and -fathers.

But I’m equally uncomfortable, I’m coming to realize, with the blanket acceptance of guilt and self-hatred that seemed to me, until a few months ago, to come with the territory of being a white American in the 21st century. One part of my classmate’s response did strike me as shockingly true: white people are not uniquely racist or uniquely oppressive. White people are not inherently bad. White people are not bad. White people are not bad.

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with four friends over dinner, and our conversation turned to race at one point. I was with two black women, a Korean woman, and a white woman. As I began talking about my experience with being white, I found that I was throwing qualifiers out left and right (as in, “It feels off-limits, as a white person, to talk about the difficulties of being white…but I’m sure it’s nothing, in comparison to the racism you’ve experienced”). It feels awkward to speak about there being anything hard about being a white person in the United States in 2012. It feels like a cultural given to me that whiteness is easy—easier, perhaps, than it should be. And of course, it is easy. But it’s also hard, and I want to break through my self-imposed moratorium on talking about its hardness. It took me six months to write this blog post because I didn’t want to spark responses espousing the kind of quick, unthinking support for the goodness of whiteness that seem inevitable and which seem to me to come from a defensive pride (which is rooted, somewhere, in fear) in white racial identity. But I hate equally, now, the quick, unthinking condemnation of whiteness. There has to be a third way. I need some kind of paradigm for understanding what it means to be a white American, a paradigm that rejects with equal fervor shame and pride, a paradigm that is in equal parts compassionate toward and understanding of the other and the self. It seems to me that both false paradigms rob us of love—shame, because self-acceptance is the birthplace of genuine other-acceptance, and pride, because our struggle to be thought valuable is completely self-focused (and conceals our fear that we are not).

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Kony 2012 and the Attack on Idealism

My experience with the Kony 2012 debacle started out as casual interest when the Kony 2012 video first began circulating, evolved into casual disgust when I began seeing the intensity of the criticism Invisible Children was receiving, and turned to utter horror when TMZ posted videos of Jason Russell’s breakdown and the criticism only intensified.

Invisible Children has been demonized for more reasons than I could list, but some of the main issues seem to be that Invisible Children does not have an external auditor and spends most of its money on marketing, it’s oversimplified the Joseph Kony narrative and has cast Uganda as a helpless child that the powerful United States needs to rescue, it monetarily supports the Ugandan military, and it’s convinced millions of uninformed young people that changing the world is easy and that they have the power to do it.

I’m mostly interested in the last point, because I believe it’s the key to the others (though I do want to mention that Invisible Children’s main strategy is marketing. Marketing is Invisible Children’s chosen vehicle of change. Criticizing a non-profit for spending the bulk of its money on its main purpose for existing is ridiculous). A leader in a Christian missions organization posted this meme on Facebook recently, and it pushed me over the edge on this issue:

The cynicism of this just kills me. The cynicism of all of this just kills me. The author of the anti-Invisible Children blog Visible Children wrote in a recent post that people shouldn’t support KONY 2012 “just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.” That’s an insightful comment, and it’s true. But this is clearly not one of those cases. Nothing is not better than something, when it comes to a man who has abducted thousands of children, forcing them into sex slavery and murder. This is just…so…not one of those cases. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that every one of the criticisms of Invisible Children that I’ve outlined above is valid. Let’s say Invisible Children wastes much of the money it raises, it’s exaggerated the atrocities or distorted the timeline of Joseph Kony’s actions, it’s imperialistic in its awareness-raising, it supports a Ugandan army that has its own problems with raping and looting, and it has convinced young people that changing the world is easy, when it is really very hard. Even if all of this is true, nothing is not better than something, in this case. A friend of mine wrote today, “There’s a quote floating around this world that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. But it seems that right now in our world, we would rather see evil triumph than see good men do something.” I couldn’t agree more.

It’s not that I think the basis of our disdain for Invisible Children is that we want to see children suffer at the hands of Joseph Kony. I think it’s that we feel above it all, above the impossible idealism that Invisible Children embodies. We are too world-wise, too afraid of being thought fools to have that kind of hope, so we latch onto anything the internet provides us with that can validate our sense of self-righteous condescension. I submit that many of us adopt the criticisms of the negative articles because of our inherent fear of looking foolish, because of the murderous intent we hold for idealism in our hearts, and not vice versa. We don’t move from reading the articles to being skeptical of movements like Invisible Children. We begin at that place of cynicism and adopt seemingly reasonable explanations for why we feel the way we do.

It is no easy thing to be an idealist. It takes a degree of bravery that I find increasingly rare. I wish every teenager would watch a thirty-minute video and become a social activist. I wish every human had Jason Russell’s activist, idealist heart. And I wish that every cynic could see that theirs is the path of the coward.

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On Discernment and Love

I listened to a podcast last year about an LDS man, “Eric,” who suffered from a disorder called scrupulosity – a moral-based obsessive compulsive disorder found most frequently among highly religious populations, according to the podcast. Eric is a devout Mormon who became consumed during his teen years with the moral imperfections he perceived himself to have. As he was preparing for his mission, he became obsessive about being worthy to serve.

During his teenage years, his concern over his spiritual state resulted in his being praised for being so pious. Bishops, fellow ward members, and even members of his family mistook his scrupulosity for righteous concern. When he confessed things to his bishop like feeling that he had kissed his girlfriend for too long (his standard was one second), the feedback he kept getting was “Eric, you’re doing well…you’re going to be a right, pure missionary, and you’re on the right track.” His thoughts and actions were reinforced by those around him for years.

It wasn’t until he began confessing sins he’d never committed that people started realizing that Eric had a problem. On his mission, Eric confessed to sins that his mission president knew he hadn’t committed. He had a compulsion to confess and feel clean, and he became convinced of that, for example, if a part of him had merely brushed against a person or even an animal, he’d had some kind of sexual encounter with them. At one point, his elbow barely touched his mission president’s wife, and he became convinced that he had touched her inappropriately and confessed this to his mission president, out of concern that he wouldn’t make it to heaven if he didn’t.

A striking part of this podcast for me was the fact that because Eric’s behavior fit the picture that many people in his religious context had of someone who was living righteously, his thoughts and actions were reinforced by those around him for years. They say that one of the worst worst things people can do for someone with scrupulosity is reinforce his or her obsessive-compulsive worldview, but because his behavior fit a kind of cultural ideal, those around him remained unaware of its source.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this podcast over the past few weeks, because I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to be praised within evangelical culture if you know the right lingo and appear to be the evangelical cultural ideal. I used part of Eric’s story only as a jumping-off point; I wanted to give an (admittedly, extreme) example of what it can look like for a person to meet a cultural ideal while operating from a very unhealthy place. I’ve grown increasingly concerned both about our ideals within evangelicalism and about our lack of discernment–and our lack of value for discernment. Eric’s story is as good as any to show why discernment is so vital to the health of the church. His being LDS is inconsequential; his story could happen within any religious context. I believe someone with scrupulosity could flourish quite easily and be praised up one side and down the other within evangelicalism, and it would be both to their detriment and ours.

But people need not suffer from scrupulosity for similar situations to occur in the church. I’ve been involved in enough churches in my 28 years to have watched quite a few people show that their character cannot sustain the responsibility that was given to them because of their reputations. And it is both to their detriment and ours that we have so readily promoted them.

When people express opinions that we feel passionately about or behave in ways we approve of, we have a tendency to assume that it could only be because they are godly; and we think this because we believe that it is because we ourselves are godly that we have these opinions and behave this way. Our cultural conditioning can blind us to what’s beneath the surface of people’s culturally-affirming lifestyles. We fail to understand that evangelical culture is a culture, and that there are benefits, within the culture, of living according to the cultural mores.

I spent some time with the Westboro Baptist Church this summer, and because of that, I’ve had several conversations with fellow evangelicals about the WBC. One thing that consistently surprises me (but rarely fails to be the case) is that evangelicals talk about them as if they are a part of “us,” because they consider their beliefs to be Christian–even though they always denounce what they perceive to be Westboro’s downfall: they don’t feel that they’re loving. Because they consider the WBC’s doctrine to be orthodox, however, evangelicals tend not to question the church’s Christianity. I find it shocking that evangelicals can value love so little and doctrine so much that if they believe a church has the latter but not the former (but not vice versa), they consider it to be a Christian fellowship.

We seem to have forgotten Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

I don’t know how we’ve gotten so far away from this.

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On Harold Camping

I’m not embarrassed by Harold Camping. I don’t find it ridiculous that he thought he’d be raptured on May 21 or that people believed him. And I don’t think the biggest lesson we have to learn from all this is not to trust people who say they know when the world will end.

Ever since Harold Camping and company gained national exposure, most evangelicals have been eager to distance ourselves from him and our faith from his. We use words like “embarrassment” to show that we recognize his wrongness and take no part in it. We speak of being concerned that Camping and his listeners will make Christianity look foolish, that he will give people one more reason to reject the faith that has, in recent years, not done so well in the American media.

But we can learn something much deeper from Harold Camping than to not be taken in, to shelter ourselves from the embarrassment of being wrong. Deeper than accepting at face value Jesus’ words that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. We can learn to flee the pride that threatens to destroy us in all our being right about Camping’s being wrong. We can learn to accept Harold Camping as one of our own without qualification, as a person who loves Jesus and who frankly just has a flawed approach to the Bible. We can learn that God is not interested in our saving face.

Christianity will not be destroyed by Christians looking foolish. Some will always find a crucified Christ foolish. But Christians will be destroyed by foolishly failing to name and reject the pride that keeps us in bondage to maintaining our public image. We are in far greater danger of failing to love one another—the love by which Jesus said we would be recognized—than we are of failing to appear wise and rational.

Image-wise, we have nothing to lose from embracing Harold Camping, because nothing–image-wise–is at stake that’s worth holding onto. To the extent that Christians value being accepted more than we value being holy, we are submitting ourselves to the bondage that will always, without fail, accompany the pride we are cradling in our scramble to create distance between us and those we fear will drag us down with them.

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Hell

A few weeks ago, Rob Bell’s promotional video for his new book set off a series of responses from evangelicals who were upset about what they perceived to be his universalism. I am disturbed by a lot of the reactions he’s getting, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this is striking so many people at the core. Here are my thoughts.

I feel that evangelical culture is driven, in many ways, by a fear of hell–hell being a future state of complete separation from God. Much of our evangelism is centered around hell and trying to keep people from going there. “You have to tell people the bad news before the good news sounds good” is something I heard growing up. Translation, for non-evangelicals: “You have to tell people what their problem is (that they’re sinners and on their way to hell) before the good news, the solution (that Jesus can save them from sin and hell), will sound good to them.”

Sharing the gospel has become synonymous with telling people that without Jesus, they are hell-bound. If we didn’t have a hell to appeal to–if the stakes were not eternal damnation–we wouldn’t know how to talk to people about Jesus. Do we know Jesus as the good news who transcends where we will be after we die? Rob Bell’s alleged universalism strikes not just at the doctrine of hell and who we think will be there. It strikes, for many of us, at the gospel itself. At our fear-driven, hell-focused, afterlife-centered gospel.

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The Appearance of Wisdom

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about squelching. Squelching (according to dictionary.com, “to put down, suppress, or silence, as with a crushing retort or argument”) is, in my opinion, one of the most detrimental habits people can adopt. But squelching usually sounds good–like wisdom–so it often isn’t recognized for what it is. It masquerades as common sense, as a voice of reason, or as the other side of the coin–as something as worthy of consideration as the side being presented. But it is none of these things.

Squelching rears its ugly head in all sorts of situations, and the people doing the squelching seem to be oblivious to their squelching ways, likely because their admonishments really sound like wisdom. Squelching often takes the form of warnings–warnings against perceived danger, against foolish choices, against heresy, or against any number of things. For example, if someone expressed her newfound appreciation for meditation to me, and I responded, “Well, you have to be careful about meditation–there’s a real spiritual world out there, and you’re opening yourself up to it by meditating,” I would be squelching. I believe there are healthy forms of meditation, just as there are unhealthy forms of it, but if my tendency is to jump immediately to warning about the possible negative effects, I’m killing her momentum and shutting her down. This is something that’s common to squelching–the person doing it may very well agree with what someone has just said, on some level; s/he just also feels that another perspective is needed, and it’s nearly always a negative one. But why do we think this? Why do we jump to the warning, rather than embracing what we can and allowing people their excitement? I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly what the issue is, but I think it lies somewhere between fear and control.

When people squelch, it is common for others to join in with something like, “Oh, yes, that’s a good point too–you shouldn’t go overboard with that/you have to consider both sides of the issue.” Squelching is contagious, and it knocks the breath out of excitement and crushes the vulnerable. Squelching is the drug of the cynical and of people who operate out of fear.

My working hypothesis is that squelching resides as a nearly-unexamined (because it skates by nearly unnoticed) habit in the lives of those who practice it. The more we observe squelching, or the more we have been squelched ourselves, the more likely we are to pick up the practice. Squelching can be as culturally embedded as anything else, and it can quickly become one’s default way of interacting with the world. It is easy (it takes no thought), safe (for the squelcher), and almost always elicits a positive response from conversants besides the squelchee.

I’ve thought a lot about this passage of Colossians 2 with regard to squelching:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” have “an appearance of wisdom,” but it is false wisdom, and squelching is just a variation on those themes. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and squelching’s goal is to shut that freedom down, to squeeze the breath of life out of every good thing that enters a person’s life. Squelching would like nothing more than to see people stagnate, so afraid of being thought foolish that we cease venturing into uncharted waters. Earlier in Colossians 2, Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” Amen, Paul.

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