A Black Friday reflection…

cobalt Just a couple thoughts to offer today.  I’ve had a chance to think in the last year or so about this “freedom” Americans often claim our army is fighting for.  I hear it everywhere in our society as a phrase to clobber both naive pacifists and traitorous liberals with different ideas about how Iraq should have been handled.  As I’ve wrestled with what this is all about, I’ve done my best to keep my ears peeled eyes open for others working through this same issue.  I happened to come upon an interview online of one of my mentors-through-proxy (Internet and books substituting for face to face interaction) Stanley Hauerwas that shocked me. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as time has passed, it’s making more sense to me.  Check it out;

“In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term ‘American imperialism’ matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls ‘the loneliness of the American people,’ a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.’On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments,  Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. ‘Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.’  

‘Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but so were the people that supported the Nazis.’  Hauerwas said he worries about ‘how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence….most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.’  

While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives.  “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for. 

 

Before you get too upset (like I initially did), read the quote five or six times, then take a couple hours (or months) the chew on it from time to time.  I’ve come to see it as deeply insightful over time.  The question he raises is relevant; what does “freedom” represent in America, and at what cost is that American freedom perpetuated?  

Example after example in the last few months has proven to me Stanley’s suggestion that “freedom” in our society directly translates to “shopping.”  If it does not, what is the comparable conviction Americans have to bring that they’re willing to fight for?  The right to vote?  Maybe so, but check out the percentages of folks that exercise that right when the time rolls around.  Right to freedom of religious expression?  How many American folks are really, I mean really, deeply invested with the whole of their lives in the religion (often Christian) they claim? Precious few.

So what IS the mark of American (and by extension, Western) society that takes up most of our attention, time, energy, thoughts and dreams?

I’d suggest it’s cash money, the jobs it takes to get more, the marketing that competes for us to exercise our right to buy their stuff, and the sheer amount of stuff we can buy with that cash.    

Our “holidays” of Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of this.  If those who claimed to be Christian truly deeply valued and respected the two most holy celebrations of their year, they would be up in arms about the mockery our secular society has turned them into. Heck, witches and black-magic practicioners should be pissed at how secularism has changed the height of their year (Halloween) into an avalanche of candy and cute little costumes.  In short, consumerism has taken every day holy and sacred to competing traditions, subverted them, and marketed them under completely different pretenses and seeking different ends.  So now we have Santa Claus (the original Saint Nicholas has to be rolling over in his grave), The Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving football and excess amounts of turkey and stuffing, and Valentine’s Day (a boon for the diamond and Hallmark card industries) as examples.  More examples exist, and they all reveal the central value our society upholds; money, what it takes to get it, and (for marketers) more and more innovative ways to convince consumers they need to spend it on YOUR product. 

Which brings us to Black Friday, the official holiday of the hallowed First Day of Christmas Shopping, the most profitable day of the year for businesses and the height of capitalism.  The day where we consumers camp out at our Best Buys and Kohls and JCPenneys and shopping malls so that at midnight or 4 am or 6 am (whoever opens first) we may spend our money on things we don’t need.  But we have the right to!  

Nobody tells me where I can or can’t spend my money, not no A-rabs or dem Chi-nese or nobody!  

And THIS, my friends, is why Stanley Hauerwas is so spot-on in his diagnosis of our society.  We have nothing to fight for in our society but a vague notion of freedom in need of definition.  And the definition has come to mean the right to shop.  We claim freedom of choice, yet our naivete about our individual capability to make good choices as if we weren’t slaves to marketers reveals not only that we aren’t free, but that we’re overconsumed and cynical and bored.  The system keeps us entertained but unfulfilled, and we are shocked by the possibility that someone would give up that right and fight to recover another vision of what life is to be about.  It’s a clashing of civilizations, the dominant one secular (NOT Christian) and competing visions daring to suggest their commitment is more life-giving and worthy of sacrifice. 

This is a series of unfinished and slightly incoherent thoughts, I’m sure, but Black Friday in all its glory shoved me back to the place inside me Hauerwas twisted into a mess with his comment.  I’d encourage you to wrestle with it.

 In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most prophetic bands I know of around these days, “The Cobalt Season”, and some of the lyrics from their deeply honest lament/hopeful song “Like Jesus“;   

 

And friends, Romans, countrymen

Won’t you lend me your ears?

This Holy American Empire

Gotta tell you it’s crumblin’ down

To the ground

 

’Cause everything’s for granted

And nothing is for sure

So let’s grab a Starbucks baby

And let’s spend a little more

 

Forget about the dreams we had

Just work and sleep until we’re dead

Are we blind to what’s ahead?

 

Oh Lord, how long?

 

When memory’s for granted

Nothing is for sure

And history goes round and round

As we long for something more

 

We lie and wait for better days

With hope and fear and joy and dread

Or just ambivalence to what’s ahead?

 

 

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Three men speak…

Ever since reading Resident Aliens, I’ve greatly respected this guy as a wise follower of Jesus.

“The modern, essentially atheistic mentality despises mystery and considers enchantment and befuddlement an affront to its democratic right to know–and then use–everything for purposes of individual fulfillment. This flattened mind loves lists, labels, solutions, sweeping propositions, and practical principles. The vast, cosmic claims of the gospel get reduced to an answer to a question that consumes contemporary North Americans, though it’s hardly ever treated in Scripture: What’s in it for me?

Will H. Willimon


In other news, it’s coming. Christians better start some serious thinking right now about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We’re less prepared today and more acculturated as the church than we were between persecutions in the Roman Empire.


Plus, Barack Obama shoots straight about whether he’s “black enough” as a candidate to be the first black President. Scathing answer.

A thought or two…

Each time a man stands up for an ideal,
or acts to improve the lot of others,
or strikes out against injustice,
he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,
and crossing each other from a million
different centers of energy and daring,
those ripples build a current which can sweep down
the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
– rfk

I like this quote…as long as there’s serious thinking done about the ideal, what it means to “improve the lot of others,” what is truly “injustice,” “oppression,” and “resistance.”

I’m knee-deep in Alasdair MacIntyre right now, who through offering a disquieting suggestion of the state of morality (the fact that you’re probably thinking about the Religious Right or some Bible-beating fundamentalist has something to say about the fall of the pursuit of morality), as well as suggesting a compelling alternative, is driving me to realize I have much to unlearn and relearn.

Probably most centrally the product of my society that the center of meaning in my life is ME…GLORIOUS ME. This is beyond untrue. I don’t want to hear it, but the world doesn’t revolve around the perpetuation of my life, my opinions, my desires, and my accomplishments. I must become smaller. My ego must shrink. My pride must die.

Richard Foster’s doing the best he can to knock me down a notch too. I’ve walked around telling people Celebration of Discipline “ruined me in the best way possible” far too much now for me not to seek a systematic commitment to applying these disciplines to my life. As Foster says, “With discipline comes freedom.”

I think (emphasis on “I think” because I often believe I have grasped something, only to fall down flat on my face time and time again with the same issue that I “thought’ I had “grasped” or “beaten” or “moved beyond”) I’m finally starting to get my grimy fingers around the truth that my life has been lived at a very surface level and will remain there if I’m not willing to make the sacrifices to go deeper. This has many implications for my life. I’m a big fan of what God is doing in my life, and this growing hunger to go deeper in that life-defining area. I’m a big fan of some sections of my life opening up into greater clarity: my relationship with Bethany, a growing calling and responsibility in my local church family, my role in the world, a bigger and more expansive definition of love (the range from tough discipline to scandalous mercy), things like that.

We’ll see how things pan out. I’m workin’ hard at this life, and figuring out the role I’m to play in this unfolding drama of humanity that’s been taking place for a long time; the world existed before me and will exist after. I CAN affect the world for good; not mainly through my own effort, but through participation and citizenship in God’s kingdom. I ALSO CAN affect the world in a negative manner; I did it in college on a consistent basis…it’s hopefully less consistent now.

Just a couple thoughts.

A couple thoughts on individualism and governance.

Two friends and I have had a healthy conversation that I’ve been thinking about more recently. Their names are Matt and Paul, and I continue to deeply appreciate their perspectives on life…and that appreciation leads to good conversations sometimes over our similar and different perspectives on life. Penny for your time (and responses, if you so wish). Matt’s the guy on the left, and Paul on the right.


The link to the original place of conversation (Matt’s Myspace blog) is here. It may be a bit easier to follow there.

Matt originally made a suggestion that sparked all this, saying

This is an offshoot of thoughts inspired by a sermon (his pastor) Kevin preached on the movie Crash, which has left me devestated and yet determined. You should listen to it. It’s more than racism, and one of the parts that affected me most was his discourse and slight criticism of his own struggles with prejudice and especially most Americans’ prejudices against foreigners.

It’s been since about forever since altruism gained more Cash-Flow than greed. It’s been about forever since the whole United States Knew the meaning of Philanthropy and how it feels to be part of the solution, not the problem; I’m not sold on the American Dream. Now, the media and government work together to make you feel worse and more afraid; and more afraid and more afraid, and more insistent on American Policies and Politics in the living rooms of our “enemies..” or so they’re telling me. Guilt. Shame. The fuel that feeds political gain, but they’re only the ethanol to the gasoline that is fear – without they’re protection we’re bound for destruction, but I’m not convinced that most of these enemies have a problem with me so much as my country and the coroporate greed it seems to feed with the blessings of the media and pork-belly policy. So we torture detainees in GitMo and we withhold love from border crossers: failing to see that’s not our mission, which is to love God and love people. Just because I wear a cross does not mean I ride the elephant, or the donkey for that matter. Supporting policies does not mean withholding love and when you support policies, make sure they don’t inherently prevent love, and make sure not to give away your only hope. Make sure the things you get upset about are worth it and make sure you don’t become a machine, a wheel in the machine, or eventually you’ll break down. He’ll still pick you up though.”

I originally responded with,

Has the whole United States ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?

Donald Miller said it best, I think, when talking about a conversation with his atheist friend Laura.
“One day Laura brought up an odd topic: racism in the history of the church. She had moved to Portland from Georgia where, though she is an atheist, she told me she witnessed, within a church, the sort of racial discrimination most of us thought ended fifty years ago. She asked me very seriously what I thought about the problem of racism in America and whether the church had been a harbor for that sort of hatred…

I told her how frustrating it is to be a Christian in America, and how frustrated I am with not only the church’s failures concerning human rights, but also my personal failure to contribute to the solution. I wondered out loud, though, if there was a bigger issue, and I mistakenly made the callous comment that racism might be a minor problem compared to bigger trouble we have to deal with.

‘Racism, not an issue?!’ she questioned very sternly.
“Well, not that it’s not an issue, only that it is a minor issue.’
‘How can you say that?’ She sat back restlessly in her chair. ‘Don, that is an enormous problem.’
I was doing a lot of backpedaling at first, but then I began to explain what I mean. ‘Yeah, I understand it is a terrible and painful problem, but in light of the whole picture, racism is a signal of something greater. There is a larger problem here than tension between ethnic groups.’

‘Unpack that statement,’ Laura said.

I’m talking about self-absorption. If you think about it, the human race is pretty self-absorbed. Racism might be the symptom of a greater disease. What I mean is, as a human, I am flawed in that it is difficult for me to consider others before myself. It feels like I have to fight against this force, this current within me that, more often than not, wants to avoid serious issues and please myself, buy things for myself, entertain myself, and all of that. All I’m saying is that if we, as a species, could fix our self-absorption, we could end a lot of pain in the world.‘ “

That’s from Blue Like Jazz, and I agree. I think it’s important to acknowledge, also, how broken we are, that even though we’re inherently selfish as people, somehow we buy into the ideas of nationalism and racism that extend “me” beyond myself to other whites and other Americans…so instead of being individualistically self-absorbed (or, more accurately, on top of the dominant reality of my self-absorption), I become absorbed into thinking other races or nationalities are inherently a threat to me because they’re “them.” We hate brainwashing, but we’re all hopelessly enculturated by where we grow up, aren’t we? Plenty of fodder to identify, subvert, and kill for the rest of our lives.

Racism, nationalism, and individualism are probably good places to start.

I’d say, in addition, I guess, that this clearly isn’t an American problem only. America just happens to be at the top of the heap right now, so its self-absorption is all out there for the world to see. 70, 80 years from now, the globe will be obsessed with the self-absorption of China or the EU or something.

Either way, our commitment to being a global people as Christfollowers, together with the foundational expectation that we are to reject the artificial boundaries we put up for comfort and safety…called to serve instead of rule…should blow this whole selfishness and fear crap right out of the water.

The problem is, we’re gutless…so, like Don talked about, we whine about the issue without dealing with the root. I’ll be the first to stand up and say I pass the buck to someone else instead of living into my calling to the Kingdom of God first and foremost…I talk a big talk, but I end up buying into the same materialism, individualism, and artificial boundaries that Joe Schmoe beside me who doesn’t know Christ does. And that’s pathetic. The root of the issue is my pride and self-absorption. Everything else spins off it. Gotta strike at that root. I like your rant.”

To which Paul responded,

Nate wrote: “Has the whole United States ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?”

Prolly not. Depends who you ask. For example, some would criticize the US on philanthropic grounds for not having entered WWII against the Germans soon enough. Perhaps an awkward example for this post, but it is a fact that that a strong undercurrent fueling American isolationism at that point was the significant amount of American investment in German industry (i.e., $ fueling the German war machine). It seems even our “peace” has been rooted in greed and self-absorption.

Sadly, the US’s track record is not the exception, it’s the norm. Like Nate said, it’s just at the top of the heap now, but the clear problem is that it is populated with people. I, too, lay the problem at the feet of human selfishness.
For,
“Has the whole [insert country, past or present, here] ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?” Again, prolly not.

It seems a “wholly altruistic” nation will need at least a majority of components (people) that are likewise altruistic. My confidence is low that this will take place without individual moral renovation because we can do away with all the isms we want, but I’ve never needed the help of an ism to be a selfish prick. Indeed, it seems it’s my selfishness that spawns self-serving rationalizations akin to racism, etc.

With that said, isms do seem to have the power to dull, paralyze, or misguide altruism, allowing injustice to thrive, so it still seems we must be as innocent as doves and as clever as serpents, and not the other way around.
True: “Make sure the things you get upset about are worth it.”

Some relevant Police lyrics:
There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution

Our socalled leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
The subjugate the meek
But it’s the rhetoric of failure

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy
There must be another way
We are spirits in the material world”

And I know this is getting far too long and you may have already abandoned ship, but I responded by saying,

“Paul said, “We can do away with all the isms we want, but I’ve never needed the help of an ism to be a selfish prick. Indeed, it seems it’s my selfishness that spawns self-serving rationalizations akin to racism, etc. With that said, isms do seem to have the power to dull, paralyze, or misguide altruism, allowing injustice to thrive.”

I see what you’re saying, Paul, but I think you’re underestimating the power those -isms exert on your life and mine. It’s clear that the apostle Paul, the early church, and Jesus existed in a society with a much stronger emphasis on communalism. Their identity was found not as an empowered, free-thinking individual (our society’s bent), but as a part of a movement or family or people that defined them much more than their thoughts or conscience.

Today, however, the dominant philosophy of individualism has its dirty paws all up in all our bidness…Whereas in Jesus’ day you could find unfaithful comfort in being a Jew (or in NOT being a Samarian) or in being a member of the class of the wealthy elite (and NOT poverty-stricken); today the scope has been widened to the unfaithful comfort of the “rights” of the individual joining that whole mess. What seems to matter less is what others think or want: it’s what I want, I “need,” I think life should be all about…

It’s just hopelessly fragmented and really unpredictable. I’m the one I care about most of the time, but if something happens where another race or nationality challenges my comfort within my own race or nationality, I personally invest in “my” people’s struggle (immigration, English language, economic status, etc) to protect us from them…but when the crisis situation passes (or recedes to a low boil), I return to my self-centered existence until another crisis situation threatens.

So, in essence, in order to govern effectively in our day and age and move people beyond their inherent self-centeredness, leaders must get the society they lead to a consistent state of being on their toes…they need to identify a common “evil” enemy, they need the people to be sufficiently afraid to accept his/her definition of the enemy as evil, some sort of concrete action (war…limited to keep public outcry low and stories of heroism high) to unify the people, and an open-ended commitment to said enemy so the goal is always just…out…of…reach. War on terror, anyone?

It doesn’t take much study of modern democracy to see that war or some degree of conflict is needed on a regular basis to move the people beyond their individualism to a common goal and identity. So, as a leader, you need to find a good enemy upon entering office to unite the people, if you want to be effective.

So the ism of individualism is so potent and defining that leaders need to be fully conscious of how to subvert it in order to effectively govern the whole.

That’s insidious, very self-centered (if we can think of the modern nation-state as a freaking huge “self”)…can I say sinful? Is it possible that the governance and discipline of the church (only possible with the power of the Holy Spirit and committed followers of Jesus) is in fact the highest form of “government” this world has ever seen? That heightens the importance of cultivating the atmosphere we are called to as the church…the world is crying out for people who would live like this and a system like this. It looks like the early church did this well. For a ridiculously short period of time.”

Deep thoughts from the Tank

I’ve come into contact with a couple in Oklahoma going by the last name Tankersley here recently (Andrew and Jessica), and while kickin’ around on the net today, I read one of Andrew’s posts on his blog. Talk about hitting the nail on the head (at least for me). Andrew’s speaking as a married guy and dealing with how his selfishness (you could insert pride there as well) affects relationships around him, most notably his wife, in a negative way. His willingness to look at the consequences of that shows a willingness to be self-critical in a way many people don’t ever approach. Anyways, I highlight this because the issue of pride and selfishness is one I’m deeply dealing with as well; as a young, handsome single guy 😉 (you’ll understand that quip when you read his post). I’m dealing with this head-on for three reasons:
1) I need to do the work necessary to subordinate my selfish desires now in continuing preparation for the day when I may get married,
2) I’m learning as a young church leader that in order to give of myself fully to my church community, I must subject my personal whims to the good of the community, and
3) It’s my duty as a follower of Christ to lay my life down at God’s feet and fully submit my life for examination and change.

Anyways, enough about me. Tank’s post is the one that got me thinking. Maybe it will for you too. Here’s the beginning.

Published Friday, June 30, 2006 by Tank | E-mail this post
REPOST ALERT: This is a repost from last December, but it is one of my favorites. I found it today and it helped me see where I have grown in the last six months. My marriage is just now becoming easier and we are learning how to be ‘one’. Anyways here is the post:

Warning: I’m a young, handsome, newlywed. Some of this may not apply to you (if you are single), and some of you are probably years ahead of me, so be forwarned if this bores that socks off of your feet or beanies of your head.

I have been married for going on four months now, which just now strikes me as being 1/3 of the way to a year, that is so crazy. Anyways, it is hard, and when I say hard, I MEAN HARDER THAN HARD. I will stop you now, I’m probably not going where you think I’m going, then again if you are married, you might know all to well where I am going.

The rest of the post is here.

Just as a fair warning…later in the post, Tank makes a point about Christianity in the midst of his marriage analogy that’s a kick in the teeth (a good one, I might add, if a good kick in the teeth exists). A simple reminder we’re not in this ourselves. (hmmm……..makes you think God intended marriage to be an analogy for selfless love and our connection to other followers of Christ)

On the rootless (post)modern human…


I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s incredible book The Wounded Healer, well, since yesterday, and he’s really been laying it down hard! Here’s a few of his musings on the state of the modern person:

“Crucial for nuclear man is the lack of a sense of continuity, which is so vital for a creative life. He finds himself part of a non-history in which only the sharp moment of the here and now is valuable. For nuclear man life easily becomes a bow whose string is broken and from which no arrow can fly. In his dislocated state he becomes paralyzed. His reactions are not anxiety and joy, which were so much a part of existential man, but apathy and boredom.

Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, his motivation falters, and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.”

Now listen to this:
“When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberative power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.” (Quotes from pp 8-9)

The last part, especially, is what has gotten me thinking. I think the post-modern person (whom Nouwen was describing unwittingly) IS ahistorical in terms of the value of the past and hope for the future shaping who they are TODAY. There are so many things that look like they’re spinning out of our grasp in the world today, along with a dizzying advance in technology, etc etc that lead us to a place of confusion and doubt that God’s really in control of history. It seems obvious to me that into this vacuum of trust has stepped the modern nation-state, which has (for all intents and purposes) assumed the position of God in our society: requiring some percentage of our monies, time, and energy to perpetuate, demanding ultimate claim on our lives, carrying the “meaning” of history. I’m not surprised that most of the people I know (including Christians) uncritically endorse the decisions and actions of our country simply because we believe it can do nothing wrong.

How do we emerge from this apathy to re-engage our brothers and sisters in Christ with the reality that God IS in control, and that it is not only possible, but necessary that we recover a vision for the church as the bearer of the meaning of history?