Monday, December 8, 2014

Rodrigo Mendoza and Agape

(NOTE: This is a passage from the closing paragraphs of chapter 4 from a book I am writing)

   So what is the way forward? Is there a better way to approach issues of sexuality? “The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind” … solo agape. There is a great scene in the classic movie The Mission (1986) with Robert de Niro. DeNiro plays a Spanish slave trader and mercenary, Mendoza, consumed with guilt over the killing of his younger brother in a duel.  The Jesuit Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) challenges him to a strenuous act of penance by climbing the forbidding water falls while tied to his armor and weapons.

 Through much pain and effort, Mendoza succeeds in making it to the top of the falls with his heavy load of weapons and guilt. 

The Guarani Indians, the very people he formerly hunted and enslaved, decide to spare his life and cut him loose from the heavy pack his was dragging behind him (and symbolically from his prison of pride and guilt). Mendoza breaks down in weeping and laughter as he is set free from himself. 

In a subsequent scene, Mendoza asks Father Gabriel how he can thank him for all of his help. Father Gabriel tells him "don't thank me, thank the Guarani" and gives him a copy of the New Testament. Mendoza is surrounded by nearly naked native women with beautiful bare breasts who are in the process of tattooing him as a sign of his induction into their tribe. The view wonders what will happen next. Will Mendoza take advantage of his new found popularity with the tribe and sleep with one (or several) of the native women? The next scene finds Mendoza slowly and thoughtfully reading from 1 Corinthians 13. 

 (Robert DeNiro reads 1 Corinthians 13)

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body [a]to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails … 

1 Corinthians 13:1-8

In the end, Mendoza does not take advantage of the innocence of the native women; he gives his life in the attempt to defend them from the encroaching Portuguese troops. His character has been transformed by mercy and divine love. Agape love becomes his moral guide. Instead of attempting to impose an abstract moral code of categorical imperatives on people, the way forward is to teach, preach, demonstrate and impart the Love of God. Those who internalize the divine agape love will, in the end, make the right choices, because since God IS love, they have internalized God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Social Construction of Reality and Facebook

In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of knowledge called “The Social Construction of Reality.” The idea behind the book was that our worldview is largely determined by our social milieu, our social context. People who are raised in Islamic cultures turn out to have a Muslim worldview, people who are raised as Catholics largely have a Catholic worldview, etc. I have found this to be true in my own life.
I was raised in a working class, union household and my father’s worldview was both Christian and conservative Democrat. I remember that I was the only kid in High School who supported Lyndon Johnson for President over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (my High School was solidly conservative Republicans, but I didn’t have many friends, so my family commitments trumped my friendship commitments).
In the ensuing years of the 1960s, my friends were largely counter-cultural hippie types, and by 1968-69, I broke with my family values and moved further to the left, protesting the Vietnam War and eventually joining the Trotskyite Socialist Worker’s Party in Providence, Rhode Island. Che Guevara was my hero (hey, Churchill said that if a young man was never a socialist, he has no heart!).
In 1974, I met my wife to be, a sweet Baptist Sunday school teacher and we were married. At some point soon after that, I had, what we call in Religious Studies, a “numinous” experience, which I interpreted through the evangelical Christian lenses of my wife, my family and their friends. I soon found myself in a VERY conservative Christian context. Although there were some innovative things about their practice, they were conservative politically. Soon after, I voted for Jimmy Carter for President, not only because he was a Democrat, but because he claimed to be “born again.” From there, it was a short step to Reagan Republicanism (along with many other blue dog democrats), despite the fact that Reagan never claimed to be “born again.” Nevertheless, he knew how to engender support among the Moral Majority Christian movement and used the Christian vote to get elected.
After I returned to the university to earn a master’s in Latin American studies, I began to be exposed to more liberal thinking again. I tried to think critically, and keep myself as unbiased as possible. By the time I earned a PhD in Latin American history (and had gone through the death of my wife and seven years of struggle with cancer), I distanced myself from the reflexive and uncritical conservatism of my life-long Christian friends, and had developed a large network of liberal friends, both GenXer’s and Millennials as well as Baby Boomer professors. My new friends influenced my thinking profoundly, but instead of swinging radically again to the left, I tried to balance my views by maintaining the conversation with many of my conservative friends, especially those who are thoughtful, reasonable and open to considering new ideas.
I confess I am an avid networker; I am constantly making new friends and I love a good conversation! But at the same time, I am very loyal to long lasting friendships. So it was that I found myself in the last few years with a unique opportunity to maintain dialogue on national and world issues with both conservative and liberal friends. A few years ago, I went through my 1200 “friends” list on Facebook and counted how many liberal and conservative friends I have as FB "friends" (I also confess, I do not view Facebook as a medium for “friendship”; I see it as more of a contact database).
 It turns out that my Facebook friends list broke down to about a 55/45 split between liberals and conservatives, although enough conservatives have “unfriended” me (or I, them) that it is now closer to 60/40.  This has given me a unique opportunity to engage both sides of the severely polarized ideological divide in civil (for the most part) discourse. I think this is strength and a blessing for me that helps me avoid partisan thinking and helps me maintain a relatively unbiased critical thinking. In other words, I can see both sides of most issues with help from my conservative and liberal friends. On some issues (especially social issues) I find myself thoughtfully coming down on the more liberal side. On others (especially fiscal issues) I lean toward a conservative or libertarian view. On military issues, I have returned to my non-militaristic, peacemaking Quaker roots.
If you have hung in there with me this far dear reader, please bear with me two more paragraphs--here comes the punchline! 
What concerns me the most is that the majority of my liberal friends do not have any conservative friends at all. The same is true for my conservative friends. They have isolated themselves into a conservative Christian ideological ghetto. Conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh, Scott Hannity and watch Fox News and Bill O’Reilly. Liberals watch MSNBC News and enjoy the biting social commentary of Jon Stewart and social satire of Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher. In other words, Conservative and Liberals have locked themselves into self-reinforcing information feedback loops and get no external input that seriously challenges their worldviews. There are two totally opposing perceptions of reality that have been constructed and never the twain shall meet.
This is not good for our democracy or for the future of our civil discourse. I would like to suggest a thought experiment. If you are a Liberal, go through your Facebook friends list and count how many conservatives are reading your posts (if any). Do the same if you are a Conservative. If you are opposed to gay marriage, do you have any gay friends? If you are in favor of higher taxes for social spending, do you have any friends who are small business owners and entrepreneurs? I would suggest that you need both conservative and liberal voices in your life to keep you relatively unbiased (absolute freedom from bias is probably not possible) and allow you to find and plant yourself the reasonable middle ("Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall have their eyes clawed out" ~ Bible teacher Bob Mumford). Moderation has become an extreme point of view in our current discourse and moderates are excoriated by both sides of the ideological spectrum in current policy debates. In other words, if you value yourself as an “unbiased critical thinker,” then get some new friends (and by all means, keep the old friends!) The future of our Republic may depend upon it!
Heed the ancient wisdom which says: "love bears all things."

Friday, September 19, 2014

Social Media: banality, horror, anger and angst, brutal terror and tragedy liberally mixed with generous portions of useless opinion

2014.09.19 empathy and tragedy

I was working out on a machine in the gym this morning when the news (Good Morning America) came on and spoke of a “family tragedy.” Although the sound was turned off, the captions were on, and as they began to zoom in to a horrible traffic accident, I instinctively turned my head and looked the other way. As an afterthought, I realized that most Americans are hooked on a constant stream of banality, horror, anger and angst, brutal terror and tragedy mixed with a liberal portion of opinion on TV and social media. One only has to scan down the Facebook timeline to confirm this.

Once upon a time, a person could spend their whole lives in a rural village, and the only tragedy that one might ‘see’, or hear about, would be one’s own neighbors and family.  Then came modernity and newspapers, and one could read about tragedies on a national scale, but even that was far different from actually SEEING it happen in real time.

Now, with social media and 24-hour news coverage, one can literally watch tragic, horrible and brutally terrible scenes unfolding all around the world in real time with one’s own eyes. I am convinced that many people are hooked on “the tragic and horrible” like some of my students get a “buzz” out of watching a horror flick.

The problem with the constant mental consumption of all of these sources of dark and toxic emotions is that they eventually “color” our soul and can even get downloaded into our physiology in the form of serious illnesses. We all only have a limited amount of true empathy to give to others. I pretty much used mine up for Debbie when she was dying of cancer. Since then, I find myself shying away from other people’s tragedies, especially if there is nothing practical I can do to help.

I politely suggest that one should not over expose themselves to faceless tragedy and online horror that defies any real attempt to “do something” compassionate. It will eventually make you very, very sick and possibly shorten your life, as well as strip you of the ability to impart real empathy and compassion to those close to you who need it the most.

A wise man once said the following, and I try to incorporate his advice as much as possible on a daily basis:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:8-9).

So, excuse me if you post a video of someone being beheaded, or of someone being beaten by police, or an angry rant against our President, Congress or political system, if I do not “like” it or bother to watch or read it. I would rather look at pictures of cute kittens (banality), or better yet, read a good book!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

stop it!, please, just STOP IT!

Wise words by Gandhi for our contemporary situation .... why should we allow history to continue to repeat itself?

 I am calling on my fellow citizens to please stop beating the war drums for intervention in Iraq. We tried that already, it didn't work the first time around and it will not work the second time around...


 I am not opposed to defending our borders or some strategic air assistance to regional allies. But this is THEIR war to fight not ours. In retrospect, we were wrong to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 in our thirst for vengeance. We could have invested a trillion dollars in enhanced border and homeland security and thousands of young Americans would still be alive, and 10s of thousands innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians who have been victims of collateral damage, would also be alive. There would be less terrorists than we have now generated (many are outraged relatives of dead victims of collateral damage). If we had not invaded Iraq, chances are that the Islamic State would not even exist. Violence only breeds more violence.

 We Christians had our religious wars from the sixteenth century from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572, 70,000 dead) through the Thirty Years War (1618-1648, the death toll was so great that the population of Germany fell from 25 to 40 percent) before Catholics and Protestants had their fill of bloodletting and nearly destroyed Europe. After exhausting themselves with religious killing, Christians of both persuasions came to the conclusion that a better system was warranted and created the modern nation-state system in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Separation of church and state and religious pluralism soon followed and we have our modern democratic systems guaranteeing individual and human rights (far from perfect, but better killing people you don't agree with). If Sunnis and Shia extremists need to “fight it out” until moderate Muslims have had enough come to the same conclusions that Christian civilization came to in 1648 (and later in 1776 with guarantees of religious freedom), then leave them alone and stay out of it, or give some strategic and limited assistance to whoever seems more moderate and committed to human rights (although I have my reservations about this).

But PLEASE, to my fellow citizens and most especially to my fellow followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, PLEASE stop whipping up fear and hatred, please stop beating the drums of war. We should have learned our lesson by now. PLEASE JUST STOP AND PRAY. If you don’t pray, then please JUST STOP whipping up the fear and hate.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Martin gets a haircut

Favorite Scene:

  • Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz):  "Martin, I wanted you to reform the church, not destroy it"
  • Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes): "When you sent me out so boldly to the change the world that day, did you really think that there would be no cost?"

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Thirst for Attachment (the truth of Tanha)

2014.03.21 thirst for attachment

From my lecture this week:
  • Buddha articulated the second noble truth, the truth of Tanha (thirst, craving, unsatisfied longing, the will to live).
  • Buddhists often use the analogy of a flame to describe the burning desire of Tanha.
  •  Tanha is also a thirst for attachment, ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions, beliefs
I am sitting at FIU taking a short break. I realize that my date with a very nice person last week caused me to open a little window of hope in my heart for a romantic attachment, and it quickly released an emotional floodgate, ultimately resulting in depression. It has been a rough week. Now I have to put the genie back into the bottle = let go of any attachment to outcomes and embrace being alone again, or non-attachment.

I have already gone through an excruciating process of letting go of my attachment to “ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions, beliefs” as well as ministry and mission. What else? My own personal “hero myth”? …. The Christian missionary action figure who saves the world …. (sigh …smh).

I have to let the thirst for attachment die in me …. How can I reprocess that? How can I change my focus?
This is good, I never thought that Buddhism could be so helpful for me on a personal level.
This reminds me of the conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman in the gospel of John, chapter 4

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Maybe there is more I need to learn about the living water which should, theoretically, be springing up within me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The 99 and the Lost Shepherd: A Modern Parable

....or maybe postmodern, I really don't know ....

Once open a time, there was a faithful shepherd who lived in a place called Churchville. The Shepherd’s job was to keep watch over one hundred sheep, making sure they had good pastures, clean water and protection from wild predators. He made very little money, but it really did not matter to him, for he lived simply and he truly loved the sheep. The truth is, he would have cared for them for free, such was his love for the flock.

Every night as the shepherd led the flock into the church-pen (there were several church-pens in Churchville) for their protection as they slept, he carefully counted them to make sure that all one hundred were there and none were missing. One night, he counted only ninety and nine. One was missing!

What was the shepherd to do? He didn't want to leave the 99 sheep alone and unprotected, but he worried about the missing one. What if it was in danger? What if it were stuck in a fence, or hanging over a cliff? He spent a terrible night of anxiety.  However rationality and the weight of numbers told him that it was smarter to protect the 99 than it was to put them at risk by leaving to go look for just one lost sheep that had foolishly wandered off.

 The next day, as he led the flock out to graze on the hill sides, he strained his eyes in every direction, looking for the lost sheep, but to no avail. That night, there were still only 99 sheep and he tossed and turned, fighting growling and biting zombie sheep in his nightmares as he searched for the one lost and helpless sheep.

The third night, he could stand it no longer, and after he got the righteous sheep settled for the night, he left and went looking for the lost sheep by the light of the full moon. He remembered an area with underground caverns with many holes and pits that opened up into the caverns called the ‘reelworld.’ As he neared the reelworld, he began to hear the bleating of the lost sheep calling for help. Just as he was about to lower himself down into the pit to go to its rescue, he was attacked by a half dozen of the strongest righteous sheep who had followed him curiously from the sheep pen. “Shepherd! What are you doing? Are you crazy? You cannot go down there, you might get hurt or worse, and we would be left helpless, with no one to feed us and protect us! For you own good, we must take you home.”

So they pulled a bag over his head and tied his hands and dragged him back to the church-pen.

For several days he tried to forget about the lost sheep. He understood the 99’s reasons for fearing the reelworld and for not wanting to risk losing their shepherd. Nevertheless, only with great difficulty was he able to put the lost sheep out of his mind. Finally, he could stand it no longer and decided that, if he was to be worth his salt, he had to try once again to save the lost sheep, if indeed it was still alive. So, again, but this time more quietly and stealthily, he slipped out of the church-pen and went off to find the lost sheep in the reelworld.

This time, he arrived alone at the same location and managed to climb down into the pit of the reelworld where he found the lost sheep, emaciated, dirty and unwashed, but miraculously alive. Rejoicing, he was able to free the sheep, feed it emergency rations that he had brought with him, and climbed out of the pit and set off with the lost sheep over his shoulders back to the church-pen in Churchville.

As the sun was rising, he arrived at the entrance to the church-pen. The way was blocked by some angry looking sheep. “Shepherd! Where have you been? You gave us such a scare!”

“Yes but look,” cried the shepherd, “I have found your sister, the precious lost sheep, and I have brought her home! All the angels in heaven are rejoicing over this one lost sheep that was lost but now is found!”

The angry sheep looked warily at the lost sheep, disheveled and torn, emaciated with matted hair, and they wrinkled their noses in disgust. “She stinks! Who knows what nasty things she has done in the reelworld? She looks like she has parasites! She probably even has STDs! She cannot come in to our church-pen”, she will make us ritually impure!”

The Shepherd looked at them in shock, his mouth dropping open in stunned disbelief.

The 99 sheep rushed the shepherd and tore the lost sheep out of his hands, and drove her away with many harsh blows and nasty words. The lost sheep ran weeping, now more miserable than ever. The shepherd was absolutely broken-hearted. His soul was ripped in half and his whole carefully constructed theological worldview was crashing down around him.

When the 99 sheep returned, they decided to have a serious talk with the shepherd. They exhorted and counseled him, they prophesied to him, they read to him from scripture. They even laid hands upon him and some prayed in tongues over him. One or two sheep even rebuked the devil in him. They decided to pay for him to get counseling and to possibly set him up in a twelve-step accountability program to help cure him of his obsession with lost sheep and the reelworld.

That night, after all had gone to sleep. The shepherd, broken hearted and depressed, managed to slip away one more time. This time as he left, he broke his shepherd’s staff over his knee, and removed his shepherd’s tunic. He renounced his shepherd’s calling and decided to lose himself in the reelworld like the lost sheep that he had formerly sought.

He came to the pit and lowered himself down into the reelworld, where he found there were other lost sheep from other church-pens. He decided to stay with the lost sheep and become one of them, and they welcomed him with open arms and he cared for them in the reelworld, and in return, they lovingly cared for him as well.

Matt 23:13

THE END (for now)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Faith vs. Ideology? What is the difference?

Below is a paragraph that I wrote a couple of years ago when I was reading through some literature about ideology for my dissertation. How can we distinguish between godly faith and political ideology in the public square? 

"How can religious ideology be distinguished from religious faith? Ideology contains certainties; faith contains mysteries. Ideology promotes militancy; faith promotes humility. Ideology must be implemented with energetic human force; faith rests in the providence of God. Ideology produces antagonism between opposing parties; faith produces love for one’s enemy that bridges oppositions."

Holding a political philosophy or ideology is not necessarily wrong, in fact, it may be necessary in order to participate in the public square. But how do we keep our political ideology distinct from our faith? How do we make room for brothers and sisters to share our faith (one faith) but respect them if they choose to identify with the opposing political ideology?  

How do we advocate for our political ideology in the public square without confusing the public about our faith? 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

David Fitch "Christian Nation"

Here is the chapter on the "Christian Nation" from Dave Fitch's book The End of Evangelicalism?

He is focusing on the problem of the merger of Evangelical faith with political ideology. The idea of a Christian Nation is one of the "master signifiers," in his view, that serves as a unifying symbol for the conservative Evangelical political ideology. (Fitch is theologically conservative). His overall point is that by tying Evangelical faith to a political ideology (and even a  political party) which is now in trouble in the public sphere, as the ideology falls on hard times, Evangelical faith falls with it. Especially among the emerging generation of young adults.

I hope this does not sound too harsh, but this particular issue reminds of Jesus' words in Matthew 23:


13 “I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.
(emphasis mine)
If you would rather download the PDF file and read it, you can access it on my Scrbd account