A lot of people are very bothered by curse words, cuss words, or whatever you’d like to call them. Sometimes they bother me, other times they don’t. However, I think the concept could be somewhat useful for the current Church — the idea that certain words are either inappropriate for most contexts or entirely inappropriate for much use at all. In fact, there are a couple words in the American Christian vernacular that I think would be best relegated to this category of “Christian Curse Words.” Here are a few examples:
The Word: Biblical — this word has become one of my least favorite in the entire English language
The Original Definition: The word originates in a seventeenth century theological text referring to anything relating to or contained in the Bible. Strictly speaking, all the word means is what might be in the Bible. Seems innocuous, right?
The New Definition: The Word now means something akin to “whatever I think is right.” For example, “My way of spending money, shopping, watching movies, handling healthcare, and voting is biblical.” Or again, “My understanding of politics, academics, science, and marriage is biblical.”
Why to Get Rid of It: Because we do not mean that what we think comes from the Bible or is contained therein. We certainly allege that most of the time, but what we really mean is that our view is right and his/her/your/their view is wrong. “Biblical” no longer has much to do with the Bible at all but only with our own preconceptions, assumptions, and positions. To say something is (or is not) “biblical” is to circumvent argument, discussion, and cooperation.
Memorial Day Weekend has always been a difficult few days for me. Certainly, my life is nowhere near as rough as it is for those families and friends of men and women who have served in the American armed forces. However, Sunday is a particularly odd day for me. Why? Well, there are two ideas that currently reside in that central fold of convictions that comprise my Christianity. They are obviously not the only two ideas, but they (equally) obviously make this Sunday difficult.
The first idea is that I am a committed pacifist. I believe that when the Law says, “Do not kill,” when the prophets tell us to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks,” when St. Paul says, “Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,” and when Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers,” “do not resist the evildoer,” and “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” that they all meant it. Naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
The second idea is that God and country are not the same thing. I grew up hearing from certain parts of my church that the United States was somehow a special nation, that God blessed it extra special. I grew up hearing “God Bless America” more times than I can count. Somewhere along the way, though, I saw a small un-presumptive little sign that said, “God Bless Afghanistan, too.” If I can be frank, the idea that some group of men founded the United States as a Christian Nation is a myth. To bind our own Christian ambitions to a nation is folly. The Church messed that one up big time not too long into its history. I would rather not keep repeating that error. Again, naturally, that makes Memorial Day Sunday in most southern Baptist Churches somewhat uncomfortable.
At the same time, however, I do not sit as a mumbling cynical critic in the back row of church looking down on people for wanting to honor the men and women who die for their country. The families and friends of those people who have died have gone through a lot of pain. Veterans deal with more suffering and trauma than I could ever imagine. To neglect or shun either of those groups is contrary to the teaching of Jesus and is just wrong. They need support and love more than most of us sometimes, especially on Memorial Day. We ought to be there for them and love them as God would love them.
However, I refuse to condone violence and celebrate war. I do not dismiss the sacrifice of men and women. I do not disdain their efforts. I do not despise the pain they have endured. However, I think it must be possible to honor the sacrifice without celebrating the war. After all, the Christian response to threats, to violence, to wars, and to enemies is not more threats, violence, and war. The Christian’s response is prayer and love, as Jesus taught us. That is not what our federal holiday celebrates and endorses (honestly, it would strike me as odd if it did). Nevertheless, these ethics are supposed to be central to the mission and vision of the Church. What are we to do with that?
I think the answer lies with the special ecclesial day with which this Memorial Day weekend happened to coincide. On the Western Calendar, today is the Church’s birthday! (Cue music.) It’s Pentecost! You know, that day when the fiery tongues came down in the middle of a hurricane and made people speak in different languages. Many evangelical congregations do not talk about that one much unless it is to debate about the precise meaning of glossolalia. So, I think it would be interesting to see in how many of our churches this Sunday Pentecost got less screen time than Memorial Day. The fact that we let a federal holiday overshadow our holy day might be part of our problem.
You see, Pentecost provides a very different picture of the world than Memorial Day.
The American holiday typically enshrines values like safety, security, and freedom. They find those values and preserve them by sending American men and women around the world as part of the armed forces. The narrative goes somewhat like this: the world is safe and secure for you and me because he have armies all over the place and we would live in a very different world without the freedoms we enjoy if this were not the case. There would be little hope for us.
Now, consider the story of the Acts of the Apostles: Jesus ascends to heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit. His followers received said Spirit while gathered in an upper room wondering what Jesus was talking about. These people get up and start preaching and people from different nations all around the world can understand them. Peter stands up and begins to preach and thousands join this new movement. Then, the apostles go around Jerusalem healing people and performing miracles. The municipal authorities tell them to stop and even threaten them. How do they respond? More preaching! Then, the burgeoning religious movement begins taking care of each other sharing their possessions when there were needs and insecurities.
So, for the apostles and the first Christians: They found safety before God alone. They found security in each other. They found freedom proclaiming what they had seen and heard. Their response to violence was preaching. Their response to insecurity was giving. Their response to oppression was healing.
That is an entirely different paradigm than the American mindset. I do not mean to cast aspersions, ridicule, shame, or demean soldiers, veterans, or their family and friends. However, I think that our Scriptures present a different way of dealing with things than the United States. How different do you think the world would be if the Church responded like the first apostles to violence and insecurity? How different would our communities be if our individual congregations and parishes started acting this way? Would we live in a different world if we actually celebrated Pentecost? I would like to think so.
This Pentecost, then, let us try to remember where we come from and see if it helps us where we’re going.
Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace and guide your Church in being a peaceable people. Please give us the Spirit of the apostles that we might give to each other not counting the cost. Please give us special direction today to care for those men, women, and children affected by war and violence. Please help us to give them all the love that we can, loving them like you do. Grant us security not with swords and shields but that safety that comes under the shadow of your wings; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I watched the Republican Debate last night, and a realization struck me at a later point in the debate. Santorum and Romney were sparring over pro-life records. Santorum asserted that he was so profoundly pro-life that he protects “the dignity of every human life.” “I’ve done that,” he said. Yet, for some reason I don’t believe him. And it’s not just a problem with Santorum. It’s not just a problem with Republicans. It’s a problem with the level of discourse in the United States. Santorum made this assertion on abortion, yes, but did he make it on every other issue — any other issue? Was the “dignity of every human life” the basis for making any other decisions?
Listening to the Republican debate last night, the answer for all four of the candidates vying for the nomination was a resounding, “No.” Let me give you two examples. First, John King raised a question about Apple Inc. The question specifically concerned the outsourcing practiced by Apple and many other companies in the tech industry. Inherent behind the question (by specifically mentioning Apple and its efforts in China) was the recent flare up about the Foxconn factories. Every once in a while, these factories and the absolutely abhorrent conditions with which they are maintained. (Jon Stewart did a particularly illuminating segment the other day.) Yet, every answer from every Republican candidate had to do with creating a competitive environment in the United States to bring back Apple’s manufacturing efforts to American shores. Why? — financial gain for Americans. No mention was made of the working condition of people in China and around the world; the concern was purely for money. There was no concern for human rights but only for expedient financial solution. The second issue was that of immigration. Similarly, the solutions were rarely centered on people but expedient financial solutions. The concern in the room was for American jobs, not the lives of people. The human rights of immigrants were not at issue, only how to most quickly and cleanly deport them. And, yet, when it came time to talk about abortion, each of them wanted to affirm the “dignity of every human life.”
Perhaps they should offer a caveat. These Republican candidates seek to protect the dignity of every American who happens to be above a certain income level.
Anyway. [Edit: If you examine the dialog that follows Santorum's statement, he essentially does.]
I think these snapshots reveal a fundamental flaw in the level of discourse in American politics and society. In our politics (but perhaps even in our everyday lives), we make decisions based on utility and money before considering anything else. We think that our politics are at their best when decisions are made together based on expedient financial solutions. We also like to think that such decisions are morally neutral. Because the decisions are based on reason and logic, because the decisions are based on quantifiable gains and losses, we think that they are morally neutral. Such a claim is simply false. Alasdair MacIntrye, one of the most significant philosophers of our time, makes that point. In his work, he claims that two of the significant “characters” that represent our time are the “managers” and the “bureaucrat.” The manager falsely believes that his or her decisions are amoral and based simply on finance and utility. However, his or her decisions are simply based on a standard that is not virtue or any other “good,” but instead on expedient financial solutions.
We need to understand that such decisions are not morally neutral. They are based upon a particular foundation of morals that revolves around money and material gain. We need to also question whether such a foundation is right and just. In the current arena of American politics, that might be the most valuable question for a presidential debate: “What is justice?” Because right now, justice is to the advantage of the stronger (i.e., those who typically has more money). We need to understand that justice and the moral decision is not always the most expedient financial solution. Does the just decision regarding Foxconn involve human rights at its core or American profits? Does the just decision regarding immigration center first on human rights or American jobs and economic impact? Understand that you and I, and our political representatives, are making moral decisions not simply adding up numbers.
The one example where this theme has not held up in American politics is Santorum’s favorite one: abortion. Unlike other issues, the question of abortion revolves around the question of human rights, who has them, and when they begin. Certainly, there are other (probably more insidious) issues at play, but at least when we talk about abortion, we’re talking about people. Why can’t that be the starting point for all politics in the United States?
If you really want to be pro-life, make life the starting point for all your political decisions.