A Shameless Plug for My Book (Available Now) – Reviews, Excerpt, Video Interview

I wrote a book. Well, kind of. “Put together” a book is probably the most accurate way to describe it.

The guys at Patristica Press approached me earlier in the year about writing something for them, and after thinking through several possibilities, I decided to put together a book of common prayers that would revolve around the liturgical year, while also drawing secular holidays and seasons into a prayerful rhythm of life. Then as I started working on it, I realized that there are a lot of holidays in the year, especially when you combine sacred and secular. So I decided to break it up into three volumes: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and Ordinary Time.

The title of the series is Counter Liturgy: Common Prayers of Formation and Resistance, and Volume I (Advent and Christmas) is available for order as of today, November 1. Because my friend and reviewer Jamie McGregor (Worship & Arts Pastor at University Baptist Church, Waco) summarized it better than I’ve even been able to, I’ll let his review describe what it is:

In this first volume of the Counter Liturgy series, Sam Davidson has produced something accessible and significant. The primary content of this collection is an impressive weaving of Scripture, liturgical/historical exposition, prayers, carols, silent reflection, and thoughts from prominent Christian figures, into liturgies that do exactly what they should do: offer language with which one might both proclaim the story of God, and find oneself drawn into, challenged, and transformed by this Story. These liturgies serve as hammer blows to the petrified accumulation of scarcity-driven self-interest, consumption, and materialism left by the cultural liturgies in which we live…. This collection would be valuable for informal groups seeking to gather in worship, and should be consulted—if not directly implemented—by anyone tasked with crafting liturgies for churches during Advent or Christmastide.

Last week, I did a Facebook live interview with Tylor from Patristica to discuss the book, which you can view here:

 

My lovely and artistic wife Alexis also created sketch illustrations that are woven into each prayer:

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Below are some more reviews, the table of contents, and an excerpt from the Counter Liturgy series introduction. You can order the book here!

MORE REVIEWS:

“It is not every year that we are offered Advent devotions that give us anything profoundly new, but this one delivers. Counter Liturgy gathers us not to merely huddle contentedly around the sentimental warmth of a hearth-fire, but stands us helpless, hopeful in Word and Silence before the One whose Fire burns in our hearts. We are reminded in these prayers that the Incarnate One still breaks in to the world with good news, turns the tables of Black Friday, and holds out hope for peace and joy even in times like these. With a smile I think that these Advent liturgies and prayers will make a wonderful early Christmas present for everyone on my list I wish to disturb and then encourage with the Good News revealed in the Incarnation.”

– Eric Howell, Pastor, DaySpring Baptist Church (Waco, TX)

Counter Liturgy is anything but your typical Advent devotional that would tend to focus on a manufactured, Western-focused nativity. This book delves into both the darkness and light we endure when we seek to approach the holiness of Christ’s first Advent. I plan to use it, although it’s not written to make me feel all warm and fuzzy in my pajamas with cider. Sam Davidson is a burgeoning scholar who is willing to wrestle with the very real tension between worship and justice in a world desperately in need of incarnation.”

– Eric Costanzo, Senior Pastor, South Tulsa Baptist Church

“In Counter Liturgy, we are reminded that the coming of Christ as a child has both eternal and present-reality implications. We are reminded that Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace are not abstract feelings, but a person; namely, Jesus. And we are given structure and direction that, I believe, frees the heart and mind to worship deeply. I look forward to using this liturgy with our church and pray that by doing so we would understand and celebrate Advent in a new and deeper way.”

– Jarrod Mathis, Worship Leader, Grace Church (Waco, TX)

CONTENTS (prayers bolded):

Series Introduction
How to Use This Book
Introduction to the Season
Black Friday: A Prayer of Repentance
Advent Week 1: Hope
Saint Nicholas Feast Day (December 6)
Advent Week 2: Love
Advent Week 3: Joy
Advent Week 4: Peace
Reflection on Christmas
In the Beginning: A Christmas Eve Scripture Litany
Christmas Day: God Becomes a Child
New Years: A Prayer of Rest
Epiphany: Light Has Come
Notes/Bibliography

EXCERPTS (from the Series Introduction):

Our lives are wrapped up in liturgy.

Whether we recognize it or not, everything that we do is in some way forming us to be particular kinds of persons. Through our daily routines and the way we celebrate special occasions, in our calendars and budgets and weekend activities, we come to see the world in certain ways. We learn through these patterns of living to take for granted various assumptions about what is right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, wise and foolish, responsible and irresponsible.

This is the liturgy of life.

The liturgies of our lives are the sets of traditions and attitudes that simultaneously reflect and guide what we believe about the world and our place in it. As we become accustomed to them, as we participate in them and adopt them as our own, these habits of thought and action become our liturgy. They become the formative practices that make us who we are, directing us toward what we believe to be highest and most valuable.

From the time that we become conscious of the world around us, we begin learning cultural norms and appropriate behavior. Through planning our life according to the five-day work (or school) week; by saying the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem; by learning the process of saving and buying; through hearing and watching stories about love, courage, and justice; by reading history books and going through election cycles: in all of this, we discover what is expected of us, how the world works, and how we should behave to make sure the earth keeps on spinning.

We learn that there are certain things we should respect, and certain things that we shouldn’t. We learn what is sacred, and we learn what should never be questioned. We learn what is wholesome and what is shameful. We learn to be good people; we want to be good people, and that’s ultimately why we learn to take part in the many liturgies that surround us.

But what if the liturgies of our lives turned out to be liturgies to false gods?

What if many of the things that we’ve learned to take for granted—about what is ultimate and unimportant, right and wrong, honorable and disgraceful, necessary and unnecessary, useful and impractical, safe and dangerous—what if the behaviors and attitudes involved in these assumptions turned out be sacrifices made to idols? What if many of these liturgies, and the things they are directed to, were actually opposed to the God we claim to worship, to Jesus Christ as the Bible testifies to him? And what if these unholy liturgies have become so ingrained in us—and we so enmeshed in them—that we aren’t even able to question how or why we take part in them?

This is the starting point for the Counter Liturgy series.

As we get caught up in the liturgies of other gods, we miss the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a fundamental reordering of everything we believe about the way the world works. We lose sight of how the claim that God became a human being and died at the hands of the state as a dangerous zealot undermines all that the world claims about the way things are and the way things should be

Without even realizing it, we are constantly being formed by the influence of other would-be lords and gods.

This is why we need counter liturgy: we need liturgy and prayers that reframe our vision, that teach us to think and to see the world in a way that is reflectively and holistically Christian. We need liturgy, grounded in Scripture, that becomes all-encompassing; liturgy that teaches us to see the world and every aspect of our lives through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of the true Lord and God, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ…

You can also view an excerpt from the “Reflection on Christmas” on the Patristica Blog.

 

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Confessions of a Homeless Theologian

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57-58)

In the era of Trump, my life has developed into one enormous tension, the sources of which are seemingly endless. I’m sure that I’m not the only one whose worldview fails to conform to the categories of liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, or even “centrist.” And yet as weeks pass, and news breaks, and Tweets go out, and policies are signed into existence, and blame is assigned to all sides, I find myself feeling increasingly… well, increasingly homeless.

I almost wrote “alone,” but that’s not quite right. I have friends who are adrift in this same boat with me, and I know there are plenty more like us, so it’s not exactly a feeling of loneliness. But it is an acute sense of non-belonging–of restlessness, of impossibility, of longing for an ideological home and yet knowing that the world has none to offer me. And it is a feeling that only heightens, only becomes sharper, the more I study the Scriptures and the history of the church’s reflections on Jesus Christ. The more that I study, the more that I pray, the more that I experience, the more aware I become that the foolishness of the cross will never be at home in any political or social system.

It’s an exhausting realization, and if I’m honest, it’s a somewhat frightening one as well. Whatever part of the country (or world) I’m in, whatever I say or think, someone has a label ready to apply to me as an insult.

The conservatives think me a godless liberal for not believing the Bible to be literal and inerrant. But then they also think me a hippie crackpot for taking Jesus at his word when he says to love my enemies. Most of the liberals who would applaud me for saying without qualification that Black Lives Matter would at the same time have to call me a bigot for holding nuanced though ultimately (mostly) traditional views of marriage. The conservatives like my stance on abortion, although it’s not black and white and has no interest in arguing about when “life” begins; but they would also condemn my self-identification as a feminist, a label which the liberals would then reject over my concern for the lives of the unborn. The liberals can pat me on the back for recognizing that the American history of slavery and Jim Crow is still playing out through various systemic injustices against black and brown people; but then they’d also have to kick me out of their meeting for critiquing identity politics. The libertarians could congratulate me for saying (in spite of my understanding of Christian marriage) that the government shouldn’t control the bedroom; but then, of course, they’d call me a communist for believing that healthcare shouldn’t be a privilege for the successful. Progressives can laud my stance on open immigration and refugee asylum, but they’ll only do so until they hear me say that neoliberalism is ultimately as violent, privileged, and self-concerned as right-wing nationalism. And as I insist that all of these supposedly different ideologies about government and people and rights and ideals are ultimately just arbitrary points on the same self-defeating spectrum of modern Western thought, the disconnect turns into a chasm.

And then, of course, all sides will either mock, reject, question, or ignore the claim that all of this is based on my reading of the Bible and its witness to the risen Jesus.

Now, I’m sure there are many blindspots in my reading of Scripture. And, I’m sure there are many folks who don’t agree with me on every point listed here, but who nonetheless resonate with this unavoidable tension of ideological homelessness that takes place when the Bible begins to absorb the world (to borrow a phrase from George Lindbeck). I don’t know about you, but my natural inclination is to try to resolve it–to convince one side or the other (or both) that what I’m saying is obvious, rational, and verifiably correct. And then I realize that it’s not; that there’s nothing tangibly productive, demonstrably effective, or naturally appealing about the gospel of a Crucified God who invites his followers to live into a different kingdom by carrying an execution instrument of their own.

And that realization, quite frankly, frightens me. It destabilizes a life that I want to be based on certainties, on comfort, and on some form of power.

But perhaps that’s what Jesus and the Apostles were trying to tell us to leave behind with all of those strange sayings about taking up crosses, glorying in weakness, letting the dead bury the dead, preaching foolishness, and rejoicing in persecution.

 

On Complicity, “Culture”, and Baylor Football

My earliest memory of Baylor football is Homecoming, 1997. I was 6, and we played Texas. We had no business being in the same stadium as Texas, but by some miracle we pulled off the unbelievable upset. Students rushed the field en masse, tore down the goalpost, and carried it three miles back to campus from Floyd Casey Stadium.

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Pictured: The author, likely the most adorable Bear you’ve ever seen, on his first Baylor trip.

Aside from that highlight, the first nineteen years of my Baylor fandom were filled with Saturdays of excitedly driving down I-35 to Waco, leaving at halftime when we were down by some ungodly margin, going to the bookstore, and stopping through campus to see the bear habitat before heading back to Dallas. We were bad, and we expected to be bad.

My first year at Baylor (2010), we beat Kansas State 47-42 in a rain-soaked, thunder-delayed Homecoming game, to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. As we stormed the field to celebrate, I remember consciously thinking to myself that this was the greatest football moment I would experience during my time at Baylor. Then we beat a ranked TCU to open the next season; then we beat OU in the final moments; then RGIII won a Heisman. Then we dominated #1 Kansas State at home, and crushed UCLA in the Holiday Bowl; then we beat Texas to close out Floyd Casey and won the Big XII. Then it was a new stadium, and 61-58, and another Big XII championship. It all felt great. Suddenly Baylor was cool. Baylor was relevant. Baylor mattered.

And then the news reports started coming in, and just like winning had seemed too good to be true, the allegations of sexual assault and cover-ups seemed too terrible to be true. To be totally honest, I’m still not exactly sure what to believe. Between the administration’s responses to allegations, instances of demonstrably inaccurate reporting, and claims of former staff, it’s impossible to determine exactly who knew what, when they knew it, and what they did with it. We’ll probably never know everything. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter exactly what NCAA rules were or were not broken — and the fact that we manage to spend so much of the conversation talking about “compliance issues” is itself a significant indication of what we really care about. The bottom line is that numerous women reported rape and assault, and the most prominent Protestant university in the country didn’t do anything about it.

Until people started digging and reports started hitting the headlines.

So we ousted Briles and demoted Ken Starr. We hired Grobe and dished out a bunch of discipline. Whether burdened by conscience or just seeing the writing on the wall, Starr and McCaw soon resigned. The University created panels and committees in response to the Pepper Hamilton report. We checked the appropriate boxes and made the necessary legal moves; we revamped the Title IX office and hired Matt Rhule, by all accounts a great guy — all in a frantic attempt to move on and put the horrific scandal behind us. We did a lot of talking about caring for our students and making the appropriate changes.

And yet, nobody ever questioned the culture that allowed this all to happen.

Sure, “changing the culture” of the Baylor football program was a major focus of Grobe’s tenure, and has been a central aspect of Rhule’s leadership. The “culture” of Baylor’s campus life came under well-deserved scrutiny, with numerous journalists and broadcasters pronouncing judgments (some well deserved, some unreasonable at best). Baylor started requiring Title IX training from students and created all sorts of programs and offices, all in an effort to change the “culture”. We tried and tried to start keeping the rules better, to create transparency, to ensure accountability.

And yet for all the effort and money and personnel changes, we fail to stop and acknowledge the simple fact that this happened because we care so much about football. 

It’s an unsettling statement, but a pretty obviously true one nonetheless: That if we didn’t care so much about football, this wouldn’t have happened. That if we weren’t so addicted to the distraction that football provides us, and to the sense of success-by-proxy that we feel when our team wins, then the situations in which assault happened and the decisions by those in power to cover up such actions would likely never have occurred. Of course it goes without saying that individuals are responsible for their actions — be they coaches, players, or administrators. But in a very real way, so are the rest of us.

Because we are so enamored with watching teenagers run, catch, and tackle each other on Saturdays that we helped to create an atmosphere in which student athletes felt confident that they could get away with raping their fellow students. Because we are so desperate for the revenue and notoriety that those players can bring us, that we helped create scenarios in which those in charge considered it more important to cover up rape for the sake of a football program (and by extension, a university) than to defend and advocate for victims of sexual assault.

Because we are so accustomed to the notion that college athletics as an industry is an obvious good for universities and students, that it never occurs to us to question whether the status of sport as cultural institution could itself be the problem.

Missing in all of the well-deserved talk about Baylor’s particular misconduct is a recognition of the bizarre pedestal upon which we as a culture collectively place 16- to 22-year olds who are good at playing games. Twitter follows. Commitment announcements. Official visits. Scouting services. Twenty-four hour sports coverage. College athletes are celebrities before they ever step on a college campus — not because of the kind of persons they are, but because of what they can do on a field or a court. Before they ever get a high school diploma, they are being told by the words and deeds of adults that they are different than their peers. That they are special. That they are better.

Lacking in all of the op-eds and special news segments about the Baylor football program’s real corruption is, not surprisingly, an acknowledgement of the enormous amount of profit to be made off of 18-year-olds playing sports. Game broadcasts. Around-the-clock highlights. Online columns. Endorsements. Advertisements. Ticket sales. Local economies. Whether they (or we) like it or not, student athletes are a commodity — and a valuable one at that. A commodity that is valuable enough to be courted, given privileges that their peers don’t have access to, and — as we seem to continually discover at Baylor and elsewhere — excused for misconduct for which the average student would face consequences.

Also patently ignored in all of the present talk about the importance of consent on college campuses are the manifold ways in which we train young men and women to see themselves and others as sexual objects. Movies. Television. Music. Fashion. Sports. Through all these media and many others we propagate a view of sex as meaningless physical pleasure, while at the same time conceptualizing the human self as an essentially sexual being. And yet we continue scratching our heads at why college campuses are hyper-sexualized epicenters of binge drinking, and why young men treat women as objects for their own sexual pleasure.

These and many other profound thoughts might lead us to reconsider our posture toward college athletics if we were willing to wrestle with their complexities and respond to their implications. But we won’t. Because it would be difficult, and because there are lucrative industries set up around the way things are. So instead we’ll ignore the complexity and only talk about the benefits of college sports. We’ll rationalize by pointing out the way sports enable many young people to get an education they couldn’t have afforded otherwise, rather than asking why so many people don’t have access to education to begin with — or why we only seem to care about them when it benefits our athletics program.

Instead we’ll settle for keeping rules and checking the NCAA’s legal boxes, never bothering to think about whether the profitable structures in which we demand coaches and players exist might actually render moral goodness (much less Christian discipleship) nearly impossible. And so other schools will chant “No means no” and crack Title IX jokes at Baylor’s expense, as though the whole situation was roughly equivalent to being stuck with detention for getting caught in some trivial act of mischief. And so ESPN will carry on with its self-congratulating crusade to expose abuse in college sports, all the while broadcasting multiple 24-hour stations that revolve around turning college athletes into celebrities and profiting off of them, creating and nurturing a culture that turns sports into religion and athletes into demigods.

And we will collectively look around and lament the failures of school administrations across the country to properly handle sexual assault, and ask how this could have happened again, all while continuing to ignore the structures of a culture that turn people into things and reward athletic ability with adoration, power, and privilege.

The Sermon on the Mount: An American Translation

Editor’s Preface: Those involved in this “translation” process are as wrapped up in its implications as anyone else. Which is precisely why it was so troublingly easy to put together.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But until we get to heaven, being poor in spirit is just a great way to get taken advantage of.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God will comfort them, so don’t worry about them.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Just tell them that the next life will be better.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. If you have time for that sort of thing.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Unless somebody is really bad, and doesn’t deserve mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. But you can never be truly pure in heart in this world, so just remember about grace and then do whatever needs to be done.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. And if you kill enough bad guys, then you can make peace.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But everything I’m talking about here is spiritual so there’s no reason that you should actually ever be persecuted. So just do the right thing when you think it will be effective.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. But again, that’s really going to be a bad deal, so don’t feel like you have keep imitating me if it’s going to get you in trouble.…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. Unless they’re seriously evil and going to harm you or your family. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Unless you think you might get taken advantage of. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Unless people are addicts or are poor because they’ve made bad decisions—how will they ever learn if you just help them when they don’t deserve it?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. But if they hate you for no good reason and threaten to really hurt you, then do what’s necessary to protect yourself. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. But you really can’t be perfect, and trying might be like works-righteousness, so at the end of the day just be practical.…

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. But you do need to be fiscally responsible and have a solid savings account in place before you do anything like this. And keep some put away for a rainy day or a medical emergency….

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. And obviously I mean this spiritually—you can have all the material possessions that you want, just don’t let them get in the way of your relationship with God. And it will be really clear if and when you begin worshipping comfort and wealth instead of God….

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. But again, if this is going to be super inconvenient—and now that I think about it I could see how it might become ineffective—do what you need to do and stand up for yourself. Like I said, do whatever seems practical….

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ But as long as you’re going to church and being a good person, you’ll be in good shape….

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. And nobody was the least bit upset by what Jesus said or did, and they all thought him very sensible.

The end.

brand_bio_bio_frederick-douglass-mini-biography_0_172232_sf_hd_768x432-16x9“…between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.
– Frederick Douglass

The Liberalism that Cried Wolf

Once upon a time there was a boy. He was a shepherd, as his family had been for many years. His parents and grandparents had fought hard against cruel kings for the right to tend the land, and against many wolves to protect the sheep they cared for. The boy loved to hear stories of his family and their courage, for they had all grown old and died, and there had been peace on the land for many years. The boy knew from the stories that wolves could descend very quickly, and though he had never seen a wolf in real life, he felt confident that he would know one if and when he saw it, and that he could call the townspeople to come and help defend the sheep.

One day, as the boy sat tending the flock, he saw a creature walking around the edge of his land. The creature had four legs and a tail, and it approached him. The creature expressed that while many people in the surrounding villages considered abortion to be a woman’s right, she was concerned by the practice, for she believed that it was ending a life.

Wolf! the boy cried. Oppression! Fascism!

And the townspeople, hearing his shouts, came to investigate. But when they arrived, they saw only an old house cat looking very confused at why the crowd was carrying pitchforks and spears, as though she was a threat to their safety. The old house cat went away, rather hurt by the boy’s assumptions. The townspeople too, went back to their homes, telling the boy that he had overreacted.

A few weeks afterward, another creature emerged from the tree line adjacent to the boy’s fields. It too had four legs and a tail. It expressed that while many people in the surrounding villages were becoming supportive of same-sex marriage, he personally believed (based on the wisdom of his ancestors) that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Wolf! the boy cried. Intolerance! Bigotry!

Once again the townspeople came to investigate, though this time with some reluctance. When they arrived, they found to their annoyance that it was not in fact a wolf, but rather an old sheep dog with no desire to harm either the boy or the sheep. The townspeople grumbled and expressed their annoyance with the boy. Some of them understood his concern and knee-jerk reaction, while others began to think that the boy simply wanted to force his shepherding lifestyle on everyone else. The worst of the townspeople also began mocking the boy–“Snowflake” they called him, because they said he was too delicate and fearful to deal with the realities of his job.

Several more weeks went by, when the boy spotted something in the distance. The creature didn’t approach him directly, but from a few hundred yards away he could hear him shouting cruel things about certain of the sheep that looked or acted different from the rest. Seeing sharp teeth and a muscular body, the boy was sure that this time he saw a wolf, who would truly pose a threat to him and his sheep.

Wolf! he called out again. Bigotry! Fascism!

The townspeople once more came to the field, though many of them chose to stay home, deciding they were no longer interested in the boy’s problems, for they were quite safe and comfortable in their homes. And quite a few more townspeople came reluctantly, and many did not even bother to bring any tools to fend off a wolf, for they were now hesitant to believe that there was any true danger.  When they arrived, they saw not a wolf, but a lone coyote in the distance. Some of the townspeople affirmed the boy’s cause for concern, though told him that a single coyote a long way off did not pose much of a threat. But others ridiculed him, saying that coyotes can’t do any real harm, and that it had been many years since wolves had been in the area anyway. The townspeople went back to their town, a few of them concerned by the coyote, but many more thinking only of how very inconvenient it was to be drawn out of their comfortable homes for such a naive fear.

Not very many days after this, the boy was once again tending his field when he saw an enormous gray form emerge from the trees. Its teeth were covered in blood, and it showed no sign of fearing the boy. It growled and snarled and threatened the sheep, shouting that it would eat them because they were weak, and because the sheep and other animals like them were taking away the land on which he used to roam free.

Wolf! the boy yelled. Fascism! Hatred! Tyranny!

But this time only a dozen townspeople showed up. The other townspeople, who were ultimately rather self-concerned but had shown up to investigate previously out of a sense of duty, no longer came. They stayed at home and laughed at the boy instead, mocking the very idea that a wolf could be on his land. When the few concerned townspeople arrived, they confirmed that it was truly a wolf, and that the boy was right to call for help. Seeing the townspeople, the wolf retreated, but threatened to return with his pack. Unsure what to make of this, the townspeople returned and tried to tell all those who stayed home that the wolves were coming.

“Don’t be absurd,” the skeptical townspeople condescendingly responded. “There are no more wolves coming, and the one that came was probably not a real wolf anyway! You and that Snowflake take things way too seriously.”

The same night, the boy was in the field bringing the sheep in, when he spotted the glint of not one, but two, three, ten–twenty sets of red eyes staring from the trees.

Wolves! he cried desperately. Fascism! Tyranny! Hatred! War!

The same dozen townspeople, minus a few who had been convinced by the skeptical arguments of the others, came running quickly with pitchforks and torches and spears.

But it was too late. The wolves were too many, and the townspeople, who were by disposition quite self-interested and cared very little about the boy and his sheep, had all the excuses they needed to ignore the howls and screams and shouts.

And besides, they always rather admired wolves. They may be violent, but they sure know how to get things done.dr-seuss-foreign-children

 

The Bible Doesn’t Say Anything About America Accepting Refugees

But don’t let the title ruin it for you.

I find myself exhausted by claims of “what the Bible really says about X.” Not because I don’t care what the Bible says–I have an extremely high view of Scripture as the Word of God, and what Scripture says is the most important question we could possibly ask–but because more often than not when someone frames something (like immigration, refugee asylum, or religious discrimination) in terms of “what the Bible really says,” the point has already been missed.

The truth is, the Bible doesn’t say a word about Syrian refugees, Mexican immigrants, or how to deal with ISIS. And when we expect it to, we not only miss the point but fail to submit ourselves to Scripture as God’s Word that stands over the church.

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The Bible says a lot of things. Some are uplifting, some are frightening. Some align with a conservative agenda, some could prop up a liberal worldview. Some make us nod our heads in satisfaction, others may offend or even repulse us. It also says things that seem to conflict, or at least to create unanswerable tensions (Do we focus on Jesus’ constantly subversive proclamation of God’s kingdom over against the kingdoms of the world, or do we stick with Romans 13 and say the government is good and we should always do what it tells us? Do we imitate the Israelites and slaughter God’s enemies, or do we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?)

This is the problem with building cases based on “what the Bible really says.” If we treat the Bible as an ethics handbook to be straightforwardly applied to specific situations, or as a repository of clearly defined dogma, there are enough examples of the Bible saying different things in different contexts at different times that you can scrounge together enough verses to make a case for just about anything. And it’s all just alien enough to us to make us wonder whether some things just aren’t Bible issues at all. But this is not what Scripture is for, and it is not only problematic but also dangerous (even idolatrous) to mine through it as though it is.

The Bible is not a rulebook, a sourcebook of practical wisdom, or a culmination of religious experience. When we approach it in that way, we have already undermined the authority that we claim for it by attempting to make it primarily about answering our questions. We have decided for ourselves what the Word of God is, and in so doing have decided who God will be for us. When we do so, we miss that the Bible is not concerned with a religious system but with the man who stands in the middle of the story it tells: with Jesus Christ, the Word of God become human.

If anything should make us recognize that the Bible is not a handy guide to life or a culmination of human religious wisdom, it is Jesus Christ–himself the object of our faith, himself the way, the truth, and the life. Nothing about the life of Jesus Christ matches any of our expectations; nothing about him aligns neatly with what we hope for or expect to find when we look for God, and nothing about him is practical by worldly standards. Because in Jesus Christ we do not encounter the fulfillment of our expectations about who God is. We do not look at him and say that this is quite efficient, exactly what we would have done ourselves in fact.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, everything about the way that God reveals himself to the world is a direct contradiction of what we desire and anticipate from God. Where we want God to appear in glory and majesty and dazzle us with his power, we find a Jewish child born in a cave to a peasant carpenter and his bride-to-be. Where we expect God to affirm us for keeping the rules, we find an itinerant rabbi pronouncing woe and judgement not on those who know they are sinners, but on those who presume themselves righteous by their own ethical standards. Where we expect God to reward those faithful to him with comfort and prosperity, we find a Lord who commands people to sell everything they own to follow him and to expect to suffer when we do. And where we expect God to demonstrate himself as a powerful king by means of force, ridding the world of evil and bringing a swift and violent end to all who dare oppose him, we get a Slaughtered Lamb who cries out with his last breath for the forgiveness of his executioners.

Jesus Christ is not the fulfillment of our expectations but the inversion of all that we imagine to be right, the contradiction of all our natural impulses. This, ultimately, is what the Bible says. The Bible does not confirm us in our calculated assumptions about right and wrong and what it is that God wants, but by testifying to Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord exposes our assumptions as utterly insufficient.

The Jesus of Scripture calls his people not to pragmatism, but to self-abandonment; not to self-protection, but to self-giving love of those who would do us harm; not to privilege but to imitation of him.

Jesus Christ is what the Bible really says. He is himself Truth and Life, and the lens through which his people must see the world–in his humility, his suffering, and his death.

And he doesn’t say anything about putting America first.

#IStandWithMoore and the Liberalism of the Southern Baptist Convention

Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has recently come under immense pressure by prominent SBC pastors for his staunch opposition to Donald Trump. These leaders have insinuated that they will use monetary and political means to oust him from his position as a result of that stance. Despite my own disagreements with Moore and the SBC generally, I stand behind him and his refusal to approve of our president-elect unflinchingly for myriad reasons, some of which I have outlined in this post.

You don’t have to delve very far into the world of conservative Christianity to discover the ubiquity of warnings against the ever-lurking threat of liberalism. The liberal worldview, the liberal agenda, liberal theology — all of these are right at the doorstep, constantly threatening to destroy God’s work in the world by corrupting faith and culture.

Yet ironically, the liberal boogeyman is exactly what has been let into the pews by the religious right’s nearly unequivocal support for Donald Trump. The theology of Trump-supporting evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, and Franklin Graham is in fact nothing other than liberal theology operating under the guise of a cultural conservatism.

The problem with the religious right’s unreflective condemnation of “liberalism” over the last half-century (well, one problem) is that the overarching label of “liberal” conflates a number of quite distinct–and quite different–movements and thoughts into a monolithic and unambiguous threat. For example, the United States is a liberal democracy. “Liberal” here means that its governing structures begin with a consideration of the rights and value of the individual. This is different, though not altogether unrelated to, a liberal worldview–an understanding of the human person, God/gods, and the cosmos characterized by the subjectivity of Enlightenment individualism. Both of these are related to, yet distinguishable from, a cultural liberalism that exalts human autonomy, eschews any form of moral authority, denies the possibility of objective truth-claims, and vilifies any opposition to this worldview (it is here that a “liberal agenda” could perhaps be attributed). And all this is different still from liberal theology, a formulation of ostensibly Christian thought that determines the meaning and value of Scripture and traditional doctrine according to modern contextual sensibilities.

The refusal (or inability) to distinguish between these uses of the term “liberal” is what makes the present situation so dangerous, because it both eliminates the possibility of nuanced thought and associates the sum of Christian faith with the “conservative” sensibilities of a particular time and place. But as students of history and theology recognize, “liberal theology” is not equivalent with any one issue–it cannot be summarized by a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, nor with the acceptance of homosexual marriage, nor with a concern for social and economic equality.

Liberal theology means, rather, theology-from-below; it is a theology that begins with the convictions, sensibilities, or concerns of a particular person or people and constructs a view of God that fits and supports that worldview. It often overlaps with cultural liberalism, but is by no means synonymous with it.

The predominance of liberal theology (known in its original European form as “Classical Protestant Liberalism”) is what paved the way religiously and intellectually for not only the nationalistic fervor of World War I, but also the neo-paganism and ethno-nationalism of National Socialism, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Liberal theology presumes that we can begin elsewhere than with the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of himself in our understanding of who God is and what God requires of humanity. Especially in nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe (most concentratedly in Germany), liberal theology took the form of reducing Jesus to a good human teacher, or as someone with a particularly insightful awareness of God’s presence — incarnate God he could not possibly be, for this would interfere with the scientific and mechanistic view of the world that had been propounded by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Stripped of his divinity, the Jesus of Scripture and tradition could be taken or left as the situation might dictate–his wisdom could be appreciated, but was neither final nor authoritative.

If the object of Scripture was not authoritative, then, how else could Scripture be read than through the lens of the cultural moment? If the natural inclination of a traditionally Christian people was that they were culturally superior to all other nations, and were God’s chosen instrument to bring Enlightenment and knowledge to the world, how else could Scripture be read than as affirming and supporting such a notion? And if God was pro-Germany, how could Germany fail to be both righteous and successful, whatever means it had to use to establish its greatness?

We now stand at the precipice of national and ecclesial catastrophe, as the cleverly disguised liberal theology of Falwell, Huckabee, et al threatens once again to subsume the subversive gospel of Jesus Christ and his cross into a vaguely religious cultural conservatism. By manipulative fear, these very public voices for “evangelicalism” and “conservatism” have blurred the lines of culture and theology, convincing swaths of American Christians that while God reveals himself as a suffering Jewish rabbi that goes by the name “Prince of Peace,” we can ultimately know who God is and what God requires of us by appealing to the conservative American values of capitalism, national security, and religious hegemony. Christians must recognize and reject this theology-from-below, insisting on a theology-from-above; one which recognizes that we only know God as he has given himself to us by taking on human form and being put to death by the powers of the world that presume to know better than the foolishness of the cross.

In so doing, they fall far short of the message of Scripture that they claim to hold so highly: that in Jesus Christ God has become a human being, revealing both who He is and what it means to be truly human through his life of love, sacrificial death, and triumph over the grave. In place of this reality, they peddle instead the meager gospel and paltry hope of economic stability, cultural privilege, and continuation of the status quo.

Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my two greatest theological heroes) recognized the danger that such theology-from-below posed in the early twentieth century–not only to the church, but to Germany and the rest of Europe as well. They wrote and spoke against the church’s support of National Socialism that was manifested most concretely and disastrously in the formation of the “German Christian Church”–a collective of pastors, theologians, and congregants who considered it their duty and pride to swear allegiance to the Fuhrer. Theirs and other dissenting voices were largely silenced or snuffed out by the rising tide of nationalistic furor, the result of which was the moral and spiritual corruption of an entire nation by the church’s tacit (and often active) participation in genocide.

When well-respected, intelligent, and theologically conservative voices like Russell Moore are stamped out and minimized by the powerful elite of the Southern Baptist Convention, who brazenly equate the rise of Donald Trump with the will of God, conservative Christians can no longer afford to bury their heads in the sands of naivety. It is time to recognize that the world is not black-and-white, and that liberal theology may rear its idolatrous head in the form of cultural liberalism and cultural conservatism alike. It is time to think critically about where the gospel of Jesus Christ ends and the idolatry of Americanism begins.

White Evangelicals, You Now Have a Serious Responsibility.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Donald Trump is our president-elect. I have no interest in protesting the results of the democratic process. But if you voted for him, you now have a real and weighty responsibility.

See this massive list of racially and religiously motivated threats and crimes, by people who were emboldened by your candidate’s election. A candidate for whom 81% of white evangelicals voted.

White evangelicals, if you voted for Donald Trump, you have an absolute and unequivocal responsibility to denounce this in the strongest possible terms, as we all do. And you have a responsibility to call on your president-elect to do the same. Immediately, emphatically, and over and over again. Anything else can amount to nothing less than a denial of the gospel.

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If you voted for Donald Trump (or even if you didn’t), you cannot remain silent in the face of this. If you insisted that he was the lesser of two evils because Hillary is a liberal God-hater and would destroy your religious liberty, you have no choice but to decry every single last instance of racism, Islamophobia, discrimination, and hate that now expects no consequence in light of his election. There is no excuse for failing to do so. Don’t tell me that you voted for the lesser of two evils if you’re not going to do anything about stopping this.

If you voted for Donald Trump because you say he is the lesser of two evils, it’s time to do everything in your power to make sure that’s the case. In face of racial and religious discrimination, to do nothing is to tacitly sign on your approval to such behavior. It is to say that your rights are the only ones that matter, that your vote was nothing more than blind self-interest. You can no longer say that this isn’t why you voted for him and bury your head in the sand. You heard the rhetoric he used from beginning to end of his campaign, and you knew what the results could be.

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Make no mistake—whether or not you (or Donald Trump) explicitly support or participate in this, in failing to react against it you are choosing to support it. If you insist that this does not represent you and your motivations for voting for him, you have an obligation before God, and to your country, to stop it.

Do not try to contend that it’s not related, that it’s not his fault, or that our President Elect hasn’t sanctioned it. If you—and he—do anything less than scream against this with every fiber of your being, you are responsible for it and you are condoning it. It doesn’t matter if this isn’t representative of you; if you fail to address the results of your vote, you have already condoned it.

Not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is hateful. Not everyone who voted for Donald Trump wants to “Make America White Again.” But by supporting and associating yourself with someone whose victory inspires such things, you have placed yourself in a position of responsibility that you cannot avoid. If you are not willing to stand against this from every possible platform, you are participating in it.

Having studied the Holocaust and Hitler’s Germany pretty intensively, there is one thing that hits you in the face over and over again like a load of bricks: How the failure of apparently good and and civil people to do anything at all in the face of small injustice opened the gates to mind-numbingly massive injustice and genocide.

Don’t think it can’t happen again, and don’t think rationalizing it will make it go away.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not actively participating in racially and religiously motivated hate crimes. You voted for a man who has breathed life into White Supremacists and failed to reject their support. If you do nothing to stop it, you stand guilty before God and in the pages of history as allowing evil and injustice to take place.

 

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak out for me.
(Martin Niemoller, German Pastor and Holocaust Survivor)

God Doesn’t Have a Lot Riding on This Election.

Believe it or not, America, God doesn’t actually have a whole lot riding on this election. Believe it or not, this country of ours is not the meaning of world history. It is not the bringer of peace, nor is it the last great hope for the world.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
(Isaiah 40:21-23)

Believe it or not, our particular form of liberal democracy (a political notion that originated less than 300 years ago, mostly by people who were ardently anti-Christian) does not hold the created order together. It is not light shining into the darkness of the human condition.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Surprising though it may be, the power to which someone is going to be elected this month is not the power to rule over the whole world. It is not the highest authority, and it is not the means by which God keeps evil in check.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

Strangely, America is not God’s chosen agent for holding his creation together. It is not the focal point of human existence, and the president doesn’t actually get to determine human destiny.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Counter-intuitive though it may be, America is not the first empire that has thought of itself as the center of world history, as the nation without which the whole world would fall apart. Nations have come before it, and nations will come after it. It is neither first nor last, and when it comes right down to it, America has exactly zero power over life and death.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18)

lamb-and-flag-7So maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t play the short game on this one and sell our souls to other gods–either in the shape of elephants or of donkeys.

 

 

Auschwitz Flowers

Over the summer I was a part of a program called the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). It’s an inter-disciplinary, inter-faith program for graduate students that approaches the ethics of five different fields (Law, Business, Journalism, Medical, and Seminary) through the lens of the Holocaust. I spent two weeks in Germany and Poland with 11 other seminary students and 12 medical students from all over the States, as well as Israel, Poland, and Turkey. We were in Berlin, then Krakow, and the trip culminated in two days at the Auschwitz camps in Oświęcim, Poland. One of the program requirements is a writing assignment following the trip. I thought I’d post mine here, as a way to share some of that experience. It’s somewhere between an essay and a reflection, and probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.


I am a theologian in training. I’m programmed to systematize, to put things in categories. It’s the way I think naturally, and the way I’ve trained myself to write. When I write papers, I don’t start until I have a satisfactorily thorough outline of my thoughts and the arguments that I want to make. I do my research, I reflect, I plan. I make sense of things.

This is not such a paper. To write a paper like that for my FASPE reflection would be very professional indeed, and I might be able to pull it off. I could probably flex my theological writing muscles and put together a coherent, carefully planned essay on evil, ethics, or Christian responsibility. But it wouldn’t be truthful. It wouldn’t be truthful because it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of my experience. It would be something detached and clinical. It would reflect a person who was unaffected by Auschwitz, who was able to think objectively and place things into categories. That’s the kind of paper that I was planning to write before our bus arrived in Oświęcim. I had what I thought were lots of very important ideas for what would be a thoroughly intellectual, rigorously researched, academic paper.

I don’t remember most of those ideas now. They seem distant, like insignificant memories from a long-forgotten dream. They were snuffed out and rendered lifelessly meaningless in the face of the nightmare reality that was Auschwitz. So instead of a systematized theological reflection, I’m trying to write a more truthful one—one that reflects my experience in both content and form.

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I have these panic attacks. They started during a severe illness in high school. I think they have something to do with fear of the unknown, because traveling is a major trigger. So flying across an ocean to spend twelve days with a bunch of strangers was a significant moment for me in its own right. Although I’ve learned to deal with the panic and rarely allow it to disrupt my normal life, getting out of my comfort zone is still daunting. But the way to overcome anxiety is to refuse to be afraid of the fear. My counselor tells me that the more we try to push anxiety away, the harder it comes. So the way to deal with panic is to refuse to let the fear control us. Instead of avoiding it at all costs, walk right into the situations that trigger the panic. It’s annoying. It’s true, but that doesn’t make it less annoying.

Overall I did well with my anxiety during the trip. I had a few minor panic attacks, but I didn’t allow the fear to control me. The panic attacks are accompanied by physical symptoms—usually nausea and dizziness—which is what makes them so obnoxious, because I sometimes have to remove myself from social situations to deal with those sensations. But I decided that panic or not, FASPE would be worth the difficulty. I fully anticipated that what I would see and hear during the program would trigger some anxiety, maybe even panic attacks. I knew that going in, and resolved to live with the fear instead of running away from it. And I did that for almost all of the trip. I felt anxiety, but refused to let it control me. I remained in control of my mind. We were in a safe environment, and I was coping well, even with the emotional difficulty of what we were reading and discussing.

Then we were in Auschwitz, looking at empty canisters of Zyklon B and a room full of human hair that had been cut off its murdered biological owners for use as a cheap textile.

And then things started spinning.

Then we were walking through prison barracks, with the pictured faces of thousands upon thousands of prisoners looking down at us from the hallway walls—all victims, all dead. We were looking at heaps of eyeglasses and shoes taken from prisoners on their way to the gas chambers. We were walking through buildings where people were tortured and executed and experimented upon.

My body began physically revolting against its surroundings—nausea and dizziness and a racing heart, my subconscious adrenal reflexes telling me that this was a place I needed to get away from. Symptoms that usually take about twenty minutes to breathe my way through, now completely overwhelming rational thought for hours, eventually giving way to uncontrollable sobs. It was an absolutely visceral reaction, far removed from my conscious mind. Within a matter of minutes in the camp, a mind that prides itself on reasoned reflection and the ability to detach itself in order to think critically was completely overtaken by the horror of un-nameable evil. I couldn’t go into a number of the buildings. I had to stand outside, listening to our guide on the tour headphones, teetering on the edge of a hysterical abyss. On and on it went: the stories, the exhibits, the faces staring down at us from the walls. Realizing that we had only been there for forty-five minutes. Then only an hour, then only an hour and a half. As though time crawled more slowly here, in this hellish nightmare that was a reality unto itself.

Maybe two hours in, the acute panic symptoms slowly resided, and were gradually replaced by a sense of confused despair—a sense that came almost as a relief at the end of such physically exhausting distress. Finally, the tour ended. We got on the bus, glad to get out of that place. We went back to our hotel and experienced the restorative power of food and drink at dinner. The students had a time to debrief with each other. There was a shared catharsis, simply knowing that everyone else was as distressed as we were. We went to bed. We got up the next morning and ate breakfast. There was an unspoken, shared sense of grief, but it felt like the horridness of the previous day was something now past—something to be reckoned with deeply, but something that was over. We knew that the second day’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would be difficult in its own right, but at least the camp was less preserved and would be more in the open air. The overwhelming sense of claustrophobic isolation, at least, would not be the same.

Then the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, to start our visit to the death camp at the original platform where deportation trains had dropped off tens of thousands of Jews to be murdered. And suddenly, all the panic and distress that I had felt the previous day came rushing back with a cumulative effect, as though the darkness had been biding its time in the recesses of my consciousness. Suddenly, my heart was racing again. I felt like I was going to gag and vomit, and realized that I was quickly losing control of my mind. I was being thrust right back into the intensity of all that I had experienced the day before, and we had a whole day of the same before us. As we waited to begin walking to the camp, I sensed myself coming unhinged in a way that terrified me. There would be no mercy for my mind in the camp. No relief, no hope. Only despair, only suffocating darkness—and only a taste of what the place must have been seventy years prior.

As I sat staring at the tracks, trying unsuccessfully to calm my mind and body, I found myself focusing on the wildflowers that were growing up out of the long-abandoned railway. Not feeling fully in control of my own actions, I stood and walked to look at them. There was something about the deep-blue flowers and the bees that busily hovered around them that brought a faint sense of calm to a mind that was careening out of control. Comfort would be too strong a word, but something about the simplicity of the scene gave me a feeling of normalcy—a sense that what I was seeing and experiencing at the camps was not an all-encompassing reality.

I’m not sure what it was about those flowers that gave me a sense of calm. I think they reminded me of my own garden. It might have been the recognition that there was beauty in the world that remained untouched by the evil of human cruelty. Maybe it was that life had returned to a site that was once a place of death and desolation; or maybe they simply reminded me in that moment that there was such a thing as life at all. I was in no state of mind to reflect on such things, but I longed to hold onto that sense, vague as it was. I felt like if I could take that feeling with me into the camp, whatever its source or meaning, then maybe I could hold myself together. So I picked a flower to take with me. I thought maybe it could be a centering object—something on which to focus my mind as we walked back into a disorienting nightmare.

I picked another one, a yellow one I think, on our walk to the camp entrance. And then we went into a preserved barracks building, in which prisoners slept five-across on wood slats bunked three levels high, where sleeping on the top slat was the best situation because most prisoners had dysentery and would be too weak to get up during the night. A wave of nausea and dizziness hit me as I imagined such conditions and the inhuman cruelty it would take to implement them. I nearly stepped outside, but decided to stay. I remembered another wildflower I had seen as we walked in—a white one—and focused my mind on the idea of adding it to my makeshift bouquet.

13887049_10206964368001375_5822306369665871606_nSo the day went, as I tried to retain some semblance of control over my panicked mind and fearful thoughts; I walked a few paces behind the group through the sprawling death camp, doing my best to be present without getting sucked into the darkness that threatened to swallow me, listening to the horrific stories and picking each new species of flower I could find.

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I don’t know exactly what the Auschwitz flowers meant. I don’t know what it was that drove me to pick and collect them. In the midst of gathering them, I attempted to assign some meaning to the act, but with no success. It was no doubt an impulsive and subconscious defense mechanism, and to ascribe meaning to it retrospectively would in some sense be false. Yet I can’t help but look for a deeper meaning in the experience, now as then. As I remember what I felt in the camps and reflect on what I took away from FASPE theologically and intellectually, I realize that without being fully aware of it, I have attributed at least a provisional meaning to the flowers, which is this: The Auschwitz flowers reminded me then, as they do now, of God’s sustaining presence with his creation in spite of human rebellion and human cruelty. They reminded me that Christian hope is grounded not in human goodness or human progress, but in the redeeming and self-giving love of Jesus Christ, who suffers with and for his creation.

The evil of Auschwitz cannot be categorized. The darkness of the Holocaust defies rational analysis, both theologically and sociologically. In that place, words simply fail to convey reality. I think that played a significant role in my response of panic. When things can be categorized, when they can be sorted through and assigned meaning, there is a sense of control for the mind. But in that place of nightmares, the reality and magnitude of evil mercilessly exposes that sense of control as illusory. And to have one’s sense of control ripped away so emphatically is to be opened up to suffering—which is why we do our very best to avoid it.

There’s an inevitable tendency when studying the Holocaust to look for bright spots, in which individuals or small groups acted for good instead of going along with the darkness. This is a perfectly natural, and not entirely inappropriate, response. But there is a problematic temptation, I think, to look at such isolated instances and dwell on them as somehow redemptive, or as inspiring examples of the true human spirit shining through. It’s problematic because doing so fails to adequately reckon with the human suffering and absolute evil that took place. It is a defense mechanism that allows us to skirt the reality and the depth of that evil—to set it aside as an aberration in an otherwise tranquil human history. It allows us to escape the startling and unpleasant fact that the human spirit also built the camps. By examining the Holocaust and studying history in that way, we fail to honestly assess the human condition and so fail to properly engage with the world as it is. And who could blame us, when the alternative is the stark horror of the human propensity to abject evil?

But much as my anxiety and panic attacks can only be overcome by walking into situations in spite of the fear, so evil is only properly dealt with by confronting it and reckoning with it in its fullness. We are very clever at devising means by which to skirt the reality of evil. Religious escapism, liberal optimism, believing that violence can end violence and power can ensure safety—all of these avoid or deny the reality of the broken world in which we live, and as such offer only a paltry illusion of hope. Far too often, Christianity has aligned itself with one or more of these illusory hopes, rejecting the example and the calling of Christ to fully engage the brokenness of the world as it is, and by so doing to transform it.

But contrary to all of our defense mechanisms and instincts of self-preservation, Jesus Christ calls us not away from the pain of this world, but to a deeper engagement with the broken reality of his good creation by participating in his redemptive suffering. In Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison cell that,

What matters [in the biblical narrative] is not the beyond but this world, how it is created and preserved, is given laws, reconciled, and renewed. What is beyond this world is meant, in the gospel, to be there for the world—not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. [1]

Where human religious instinct seeks to avoid and escape the difficult reality of worldly life in anticipation of another, the Christian story points us to the God who is so committed to the redemption of this world that he comes to us in human flesh and suffers on our behalf. Where optimistic humanism looks to the power of progress and the human spirit to overcome conflict and human limitations, the biblical narrative reveals the God who determines and defines human history by his own redemptive action—not because of human capability, but in spite of it. Over against all human inclinations, the gospel proclaims that God truly reckons with the reality of evil in this world by suffering and bearing it himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

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Auschwitz pulls back the veil on all of our meager illusions of control. It makes a mockery of allIMG_1250 our rational systematizations and theological categories, revealing their total inadequacy to account for the reality and depth of evil. But in the midst of the darkness, the Auschwitz flowers are a witness to hope—a tangible sign of God’s sustaining faithfulness to his image-bearers. For all the theologizing that we may do in light of it, Auschwitz raises questions of evil and suffering that simply cannot be answered. It goes beyond our moral language and theological categories. In so doing, it tempts us to the horror of despair. Its disorienting reality threatens to swallow us up into the darkness, to blot out the light of hope.

And yet, the flowers grow.

 

 

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Reader’s Edition). Fortress Press, 2015. 363.