Category Archives: Reactions

Hope For This Season

From the first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. For Christian faith lives from the rising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. – Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 16)

I have to admit that I’ve been pretty fearful as a result of recent events. From the terrorist attacks around the world to recent fear filled political rhetoric from a certain presidential candidate. I’ve watched on the side of the road as many I know and love have been captivated by this atmosphere of fear, fear not necessarily there to begin with, but cultivated in people in order to control and convince them. Fear, as we all know from experience, is one of the most powerful human emotions. It motivates human action like nearly nothing else can do.

This, however, makes it prime real estate for oppressors to set up shop in the human heart. If they can convince you to be afraid – whether of physical or emotional violence, the future of your children, or even your own personal fate – they’ve got you locked in to doing as they please. Of course, there are legitimate things we should be afraid of. I’m not trying to say that fear doesn’t have any positive role to play at all in our lives. For one, I think it is perfectly legitimate for us to fear the consequences of those who use fear to control others. I am afraid of what the Donald Trump phenomena means. I’m afraid for those who have been trapped by his seducing ideology of fear.

While there are many horrible, just awful things happening in our world, I do not think we should ever entertain the thought that fear has the last word – or even the first! Christianity is notably different in this manner. Our faith is one marked by faith, hope, and love. Fear isn’t in our vocabulary. “Perfect love,” we read, “drives out fear.”

Love should rule how we relate to all of creation. As simple as it seems at first, Jesus taught us that the old way of retaliation and revenge, of “getting even” is not his way; we are to instead love even our enemies (surely that precludes killing their families!). In Christ there is no “us” or “them” for either one to be fearful of the other. No “them” to keep away from “us”. No “them” who don’t belong with “us”. Love rules out all of those ways of relating with our neighbors, regardless of whether they are undocumented, poor, disabled, rich, unclean, black, or different from us.

From Paul, we learn that Christ has torn down all of those dividing walls that we have set up in our sinful ways. Speaking of the formerly hostile relations between Jews and Gentiles (perhaps a placeholder for the “other”), he writes, “Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…reconciling both groups to God in one body.” While it may seem like high-strung theology, Paul is quick, as usual, to demonstrate the implications of these beliefs: “so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens (talk about a path to citizenship!) with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Love makes no distinctions in the ways that humanity has routinely divided itself up into all sorts of categories and attached varying degrees of social status or privilege to each. This is the way of the world, not the way of love. To see Christ in each one of us, our enemies – yes, especially them – is what it means to love. We are never closer to resembling God and following Jesus than we are when we are loving those whom the world has deserted and left for dead. We may even be called to lay down our life for another, as John proclaimed was the culmination of love.

There is hope in this love. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are there to continually remind us that our nationalism is likely more idolatry than it is patriotism. We can and we must support the well-being of our neck of the woods, but the logic of empire, imperialism, domination, the strong-man (i.e. “I alone can solve your problems!” – Trump), and war is not the way Christians are to live out their faith in the public sphere. The prophets were always necessary to remind us that we do not serve God by legitimizing empires but by protecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. This, is what a country should aim for. The health of Israel was never measured in God’s eyes by how large its borders were, how high its walls, how much the majority was protected from minorities, or how much law and order there was in its streets, but by how well they cared for those most likely to go without help in the world.

There were to be no strings attached to their love of the oppressed. God doesn’t limit his salvation to those who can pass a drug test or actively seek employment, as many social welfare laws do (or people might want them to do). God’s love, and in turn the goal of our own, is unconditional – without conditions, no boxes to check first! We are not to love those who look, speak, and act like us. Remember, that’s what Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel for doing. Instead, Jesus taught the Israelites that the Samaritans were there neighbors – and therefore Israel was obliged to love them just as their own even though they were considered foreigners, had different beliefs, and looked different from them.

christ in hell

A Medieval depiction of Christ descending to, and liberating those in, hell. Credited to a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th century, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The implications of this love taught by Jesus go all the way back to the origin stories of Israel. God tells us through Moses that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Again, as the sinful people we are, this is still timely in our own day. The first century Christians dealt with it as well. As Gentiles were being converted to the faith, recently liberated Jews wanted to put the “yoke” of observing all the law onto these new converts. It’s just something about human nature that when we are free we too often use our freedom to oppress others. Paul responded, along with the Jerusalem council, that this would be too much of a burden to the new believers who were still relishing in the freedom they had received from Christ (this is, by the way, a lesson when trying to subdue enemies with “law and order”).


Christians are called to love unconditionally. To drive out all fear by their love. There is no fear of the “other” for Christians. We are all in this together. Even Leviticus, of all places (!), knew this best: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners” (19:34).

Love, as we find out from the New Testament is really the most precise definition for God. “God is love,” we are told. It’s the stuff God is made of. It’s what Jesus embodied as the Logos, the perfect image of God, on earth. It’s what Christians who take seriously the call to follow Christ should ever strive to be as well. Although many of us come from different and unique backgrounds, have diverse jobs, hold varying theological or political beliefs, we are all united by this singular mission of Christ’s body, the Church: to be love in our love-less, fearful world. “Our vocation is love,” as St. Therese of Lisieux would joyfully declare.

What have I been saying? As we approach this election season, full of its normal divisiveness, let us work to promote togetherness knowing that Christ has torn down all the walls of separation we build up between one another. We don’t look for a political messiah who will magically solve all of our problems through dictatorial rule; we only have one Lord, Jesus Christ. When our world is full of mockery and hate, let us strive to restore the dignity and value of those whom politicians try to downplay. God humbles the proud and raises up the lowly.

But more than anything, let us remove fear from our vocabulary. Although it is powerful, our faith and our love cast it out of our lives. There is no place for fear in the Christian life – whether or not it is directed towards what one may think are “legitimate” ends. Especially this week, I have been constantly tempted to respond to Trump’s fear-mongering and inciting, with fear of my own. Even when that fear motivates me to work even harder for the cause of justice for the oppressed and the unconditional equality of all persons, we are all better off, and ultimately much more powerful when we respond to fear with love. This is where our hope lies: in our ability, with God’s help, to love in spite of whatever others, or the events of this world may be encouraging us to do.

Christian love is not primarily inwardly-directed, to ourselves and what will make us safe or comfortable. It is directed toward those who are needy, oppressed, poor, and broken. It’s sent out to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, metaphorically speaking, of our world today, not just the white Christians who have historically been the ones in power and control in our country. Love is more purely so when it is given to our “enemies,” in doing so, it turns them into friends, to brothers and sisters. Remember, we are all in this together. Choose hope not fear. Leave hate behind and embrace love.

I will close similarly to how I began, with another quote.

Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it… Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’ because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. – Moltmann (Theology of Hope).

To Christians and Muslims – A Response to Increasing Tensions

I am writing this post as a Christian, but I am writing too for the sake of an appeal to the common values we all hold most dear. In light of the Paris, Lebanon, and Baghdad terrorist attacks, this is necessarily a time of mourning. Christians and Muslims join together in this time of sadness, for the loss is not only limited to one religious group; Muslims were killed in these attacks too. We all mourn. I agree with President Obama in that “this is not just an attack on Paris and the people of France. This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Sadly, I have seen many people resort to stereotypes and over-generalizations of all Muslims, as if Islam itself was to blame for this atrocity. I have heard calls to close our borders to Syrian refugees, the very people who are fleeing ISIS themselves, and I have heard a strengthening resolve against Islam as a whole throughout the Western world. Many of my Christian friends have responded this way as well. They think Islam is a dangerous, violent religion, and in that regard, a threat to all of us. This feeling is, however, NOT based on truth. One of the primary motivators for ISIS recruitment is the growing characterization of an Islam vs. the Western world mentality. This anti-Islam phobia merely helps draw in recruits to commit these atrocities many times over. The more we paint this picture as a “battle of civilizations,” Christianity vs. Islam, the more conflict we will face. It is time for us all to come together in friendship closer than we ever have before. The good thing is that Christians and Muslims have already been doing some of this hard dialogue. First, many prominent Muslims issued “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Christians have likewise responded and initiated talks and calls to common action and love for one another – I will get to this more later.

First, what are the stakes? Over half of the world considers themselves either Muslim or Christian. Conflict here means world conflict. Peace here means worldwide peace is within our reach. Our Muslim friends have already written, “Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” We all recognize the magnitude of this relationship and its implications for the entire world. Further, the processes of globalization will only increase tensions if we do not learn to live with one another even though we may have different beliefs. Trade is becoming more interconnected (e.g. we rely on the Middle East for oil), communications are much more advanced (e.g. we can talk to anyone in the world almost instantaneously), and migrant movements are more commonplace; therefore, people of all religious faiths are increasingly living in close proximity to one another. All of these factors contribute to the shrinking of the world, not literally, of course, but in terms of confronting all of us, as commonplace, with a lifestyle other than our own. The stakes indeed are quite high.

As Christians, we learn from Jesus, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Mt. 7:3-5). Because of this, we must realize our own complicity in this “sacred” violence that has become an unfortunate cycle in the world today. The Christian response to A Common Word was first, “…we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors…we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and the Muslim community around the world.”

In the Spirit of re-affirming our common values, together we condemn the actions of ISIS. Islam is against ISIS just as much as we are. Muslim fighters are trying to repel ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. We recognize that ISIS is not faithful to the essence of Islam, and we commit to working alongside one another for peace and reconciliation. To my friends skeptical of Islam, I would like to make some efforts to clear the air. Islam is not a violent religion. In fact, just as I would argue is the case with Christianity, it is one of the greatest forces for peace in the world. Let’s look at a few of our common beliefs – between Christianity and Islam. (Disclaimer: I am obviously not an Islam scholar. On that note, I welcome any of my Muslim friends to both critique and add to anything I say below).

handshakeChristians and Muslims are united in our common love for God and for our neighbor. In Islam, love for God is the primary concern, just as in Christianity and Judaism love for God is the most important commandment. For Islam, God isn’t merely “loving,” as if it were only something that God did. Rather, God IS Loving, God IS Forgiving, God IS Mercy (Qur’an 11:90, 85:14). This is obviously very similar to the Christian claim that “God IS Love,” a confession we hold onto tightly in our own faith (1 Jn. 4:8). One of the most important consideration in Islam is from the Prophet Muhammad saying, “The best that I have said – myself and the prophets that came before me – is: ‘There is no God but God, He Alone, He has no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He has power over all things.’” The principle of the oneness of God imply for both of us love due ultimately to God alone (Lk. 10:27, Deut. 6:5, etc.). Just how Christians are told we cannot serve two masters (Lk 16:13), so too the Qur’an notes “God has not assigned to any human two hearts within his body (Qur’an 33:4). There should be only one subject for our highest affections: God. We hold this in common, and we allow it to form the rest of our lives.

What should we do in response to God? Before all else, we should be thankful. As Christians, we are to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4). We do this in response to the gift of creation, and to the goodness of God in our lives. The prayer recited by traditional Muslims 17 times a day expresses this very same idea: “Praise be to God…the infinitely Good, the All-Merciful…we ask you for help, guide us onto a straight path” (Qur’an 1:1-7). We are thankful for the gift of life, and we are thankful that God is merciful and forgiving, knowing that humans are inclined towards sin more often than not.

How are we to live out this love for God? In both Islam and Christianity, love for God is chiefly expressed through love for our neighbor. Those of you who have been influenced by anti-Islam sentiments are likely to be thinking that Muslims are supposedly called to kill those who do not share their exact faith (though my examples above show we hold much in common!) and that we are considered infidels unworthy of life. My friends, this is not the essence of Islam.

From Jesus, we are taught, “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…” (Mt. 5:43-45). Similarly, the Muslim authors of A Common Word wrote, “Love of our neighbor is an essential and integral part of faith in God and love of God because, in Islam, without love of the neighbor there is no true faith in God and no righteousness.” They cite the Prophet Muhammad who also said, “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, huh? “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Mt 7:12). We are united in our common love for God and by our common love for our neighbor. For Christians, the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is most generally all of humanity, just like it is in Islam, but Jesus clarifies by means of a parable, ‘The Good Samaritan,’ that even our enemies are our neighbors. The Samaritans, those who the first century Jews had contempt for, those who were treated as scapegoats for the nations’ tragedies, THEY are your neighbors Jesus says. Lest my comments make it seem like Islam limits the concept of ‘neighbor,’ the Qur’an exhorts Muslims to “…be kind to the neighbor who is near, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the friend at your side, and to the wayfarer…” (Qur’an 4:36). Neighbor, and hence the recipient of neighborly love and obligation is extended even to those unknown to us, the “neighbor as stranger.” In terms of enemy love, Islam holds out hope that God will elicit affection between former enemies and make even them into our friends who are by our side: “It may be that God will bring about between you and those of them with whom you are in enmity, affection. For God is Powerful, and God is Forgiving, Merciful… you should even treat them [your enemies] kindly and deal with them justly. Assuredly God loves the just” (Qur’an 60:7-8). In summary, in both Christianity and Islam, love for neighbor is one of the chief markers of love for God, and this love for our neighbor is especially important to show to those considered enemies.

Both of our religious traditions also give us profound resources for initiating reconciliation and peace between one another. I’ve seen many of us, in America especially, call for ISIS’ violence to be met with retributive violence. Now, I am not a complete pacifist in all situations, but all of us should be able to recognize that it is antithetical to our Christian faith to pursue vengeance and meet violence with violence (Rms. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Speaking to the disciple who drew his sword at Jesus’ arrestors, “Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). We should make all of our efforts to repay evil with good. As Peter taught us, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pt. 3:9). Almost word for word, the Qur’an admonishes Muslims everywhere to ‘endure evil patiently,’ to repay ignorant addresses (such as those who are anti-Islam today) with ‘words of peace,’ for repaying evil with a good deed has the power to transform enemies into friends (Qur’an 41:34-35, 16:126, 25:63). When we are wronged, we are to forgive the wrongdoer. This does not just let them off the hook. Rather, in our acts of forgiveness, we name the wrong as wrong, yet at the same time, we work hard for the rehabilitation of the wrongdoer. To their enemies, Muslims are taught to “pardon them, and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in the matter,” (Qur’an 3:159) and in their pardon to “say ‘peace!’ for they will soon come to know” (Qur’an 43:89). Likewise, in the central event of Christianity, the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 22:34). Jesus prayed this just as he was the victim of a horrible act of violence. Crucifixion functioned as a type of terrorism in the Roman Empire, meant to elicit fear of and obedience to the emperor.

In Christianity, we are warned about the temptation to merely cite passages of the Bible that help our selfish causes. Sometimes we go through the motions of our religion for the sake of benefitting ourselves alone without concern for the other. In these times, Isaiah, speaking from the Lord, reminds us, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Is. 6-9). Our true faith, the real “will of God”, is to help those in need and to love our neighbors. In the Qur’an too, Muslims are warned against superficial habits that have no concern for the betterment of the world. “It is not righteous that you turn your faces to the East and the West (speaking of a ritual that could be turned into an occasion for pride); but righteousness is… to give wealth for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wanderer…and to set slaves free…and be patient in tribulation and adversity and times of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the pious” (Qur’an 2:117).

As all of these expressions of love for neighbor come from both of our religious traditions, let us remember that we are never to force others to our beliefs by means of violence for that would violate our call to love our neighbor and therefore to transgress against our love for God. The Qur’an says, “let there be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). As Christians, we are also called to give others the dignity they deserve as children of God, made in the image of God. We both hope and pray that our unique witness will convince those to share our beliefs, but this cannot be done through violent means. Peter tells us, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pt. 3:9). The Qur’an expresses similar sentiments of witness when it says, “In God we have put our trust. Our Lord, do not make us a cause of temptation for the evildoing folk” (Qur’an 10:85). Our actions should never lead those of us who do not share our beliefs to deride our faith. We should set the highest example possible in the way we love one another. Seeking revenge, visiting retribution of our enemies, and stereotyping our hatred onto 1/4 of the world’s population is quite unlikely to make them find Christianity appealing.

I hope in this post my readers have not felt like I was just giving a huge list of the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. In spite of these similarities, there are many many differences (obviously) between Christianity and Islam. Nonetheless, I hope my readers walk away from reading my words with inspiration grounded in our common concern for love of God and neighbor. Everything else we do should be done in light of this fundamental concept in both faiths. It is not just that we have random, inconsequential similarities; rather, both faiths are centrally concerned with this two-fold love. I do not want a list of our similarities to stop at just that, a list. On the contrary, I want this post to be a call to ACT upon our commonalities. Let us be friends, not enemies. Let us work together for justice and peace. We must not generalize one another as evil nor label the actions of a few as the norm for the many. Our first resort in situations like the one we find ourselves in today should be peace and reconciliation. Let us only try to outdo one another in good works and in concern for justice. We decide to leave all judgements up to God. “So vie with another in good works. To God you will all return, and He will then inform you of where you differ” (Qur’an 5:48). Paul also tells us, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

There is much more I could say, but I must close. To my Christian friends, Islam is NOT the problem. Extremist violence in God’s name is the problem. For thousands of years, people have been appealing to the divine to sanction their violence – regardless of whether they were Greek, Roman, Christian, Nazi, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, or Jewish. Muslims are mourning around the world today with all of us because they too are victims, not just perpetrators, of these acts of violence in God’s name. We have all been guilty of using divine sanction to harm our fellow neighbors. Please, take a few days to just mourn with the rest of the world before you point fingers. To love is to open oneself up to suffering in love, let us do that for all the victims of “sacred” violence throughout the world today. If my post did anything, I hope it inspires you towards common love of our neighbor, whether Christian or Muslim, Male or Female, Atheist or Agnostic, and on and on until we recognize that we are all part of this community called earth. As we mourn for the loss of life all around the world, may we return with a greater resolve to make peace.

I close with Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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For further reading I can only recommend books I have personally consulted. There are plenty of books on Muslim-Christian relations but I am unfamiliar with nearly all of them. Nonetheless, here are a few books and essays worth considering.

First, a link to Muslims’ A Common Word Between Us and You

Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf. My professor, Dr. Volf grew up in conditions of genocide in Croatia. He has made a lifetime of addressing conflict and reconciliation from a Christian perspective.

For info about Islam, consider reading the Qur’an for yourself as well as Prince Ghazi of Jordan’s book which introduces non-Muslims to Islam called What is Islam and Why. He has also written on the topic of “love” in the Qur’an: Love in the Qur’an. Ghazi has a BA from Princeton, a PhD from Cambridge, and this book was adapted from his second dissertation at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Christianity and the Global Refugee Crisis

As you are all aware, there are many ongoing conflicts throughout the world. These conflicts, especially the Syrian civil war, which I am most familiar with, do not only affect individual combatants or soldiers. Rather, these brutal struggles change entire communities’ ways of life. Women and children are killed by bombs. Whole economies are shut down because of violence, and families are scared to even walk outside their homes to get groceries at markets.

No wonder people are fleeing by the hundreds of thousands from such war-torn areas of the globe. For many, it is not merely a search for a better life; The very condition of their own survival depends upon fleeing these conflicts. These choices are rarely, if ever, made without being last resorts. As the European Union struggles to come to a unanimous solution, refugees will continue to be without the basic necessities of life: food and shelter. Because of the issue, I want to examine briefly a few ideas Christianity might be able to contribute to the discussion.

First of all, as a Judeo-Christian religion, Christianity locates its own origins within the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt (all historical questions aside). They too faced circumstances that were impossible to deal with, brutal slavery. Their survival and way of life depended upon fleeing the land of Egypt. One might even say that our own religion depended upon the support of refugees and their successful migration through the desert into more hospitable lands. God was clearly helping these refugees: miracle stories abound in the Exodus tradition, and the Jewish refugees relied upon divine assistance for their own basic needs. Before we judge too harshly those fleeing to other countries, even the USA, let us all remember that our own origins were birthed out of a refugee crisis.

The Flight Into Egypt, portrayed through Christian Art.

The Flight Into Egypt, portrayed through Christian Art.

Secondly, Jesus himself was a refugee! Soon after Jesus’ birth, King Herod, hearing reports of a threat to his own power, used military might to kill and terrorize thousands of families in order to secure his political strength. One doesn’t even need to look hard to see all of the glaring similarities between the situation of Jesus’ birth and many global conflicts today. In Matthew 2, we are told that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt in search of safety for their newly born son. Herod, hearing that a messiah was born (and all of the political connotations thereof) sent his soldiers all throughout the area of Bethlehem to kill every child under two years of age. This truly was a massacre, one which undoubtedly caused more than just Jesus’ own family to flee to safer lands.

Jesus, the Son of God, Immanuel, the Word made Flesh, was himself a refugee! This gives an entirely new meaning to his teachings that when we help those in need, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, we are in actuality doing those acts of benevolence to Jesus himself.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:40.

Jesus’ own life and experience affirm the value of helping refugees. He knew exactly what fleeing conflict looked like, and what it meant for those involved.

Before we advocate for closing our borders and refusing help to those who need it the most, let us not forget that our own faith is founded upon, and by, refugees both in the Exodus tradition and Jesus’ own life. To know and to help a refugee just might even draw us closer to the divine. When we seek to understand the situation of the refugee today, we reach even a greater knowledge of God, who through Christ was a refugee. We cannot fully know Christ, unless we know the plight of the refugee.

Tragedy – What Does Forgiveness Mean?

Before reading this post, please go over to my 8 Things To Know About My Blog.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” -Romans 12:21

I don’t usually write posts on current events, but the Charleston shooting demands special attention. Yesterday, some of the victims and their families publicly forgave the shooter (click here for a video of their forgiveness). I’m sure that the most common responses to hearing such news come in two different forms. First, there are those who think it is pitiful to merely forgive such a monstrous doer of evil. It robs the victims of their space to properly mourn, removes all room for the proper hatred of the crimes that have been committed, and cuts off true justice from giving this man what he truly deserves. Shouldn’t we only forgive once the victim has been dealt out justice and gotten their deserving punishment?

Second, there are those who admire the victims’ act of forgiveness as one of the virtues of the Christian life, but still are not sure exactly why we should forgive during such unspeakable massacres apart from knowing that it is a commandment of Jesus to forgive. While I surely cannot even begin to speak for those who forgave, often times as Christians we forgive because we know that we should, but then we are still unsure of how to go through the process of grief in our own lives or discern just how we are to move forward from tragedy to forgiveness.

Let’s take a closer look at what forgiveness is. First of all, many reading this may think that forgiveness is the same thing as a pardon. In other words, to forgive means to let go of all justice and instead let the evildoer off with no punishment. In this way, it really is just upholding the wrongs that are done because it doesn’t do anything about them except for smile and say “everything is okay now.” Forgiveness lets the perpetrator off the hook and actually invigorates the cycle of violence by saying it is okay to sin because we will just “forgive” the wrong doer every time.

forgivenessUnfortunately, that is not forgiveness. True Christian forgiveness is the outright condemnation of the evil that has been done at the same time it is an extension of love to the sinner. One cannot forgive someone unless they first realize that what has been done is wrong. Jesus does not teach forgiveness on the basis of his own ignorance of just how evil our world is, but because he knows exactly how evil it really is. In fact, contrary to the objection discussed above, forgiveness does not uphold evil, but rightly condemns all forms of evil. Jesus knew that, without forgiveness, the cycle of evil and violence would only continue itself until the end of time. Too often our sense of “justice” turns into revenge. Our ideas of giving someone a deserving punishment for their crimes turns into delighting in their pain and suffering. We justify our own thirst for this revenge on the basis that “they deserved it.”  Forgiveness on the other hand, is a different kind of justice. It draws the line in the sand that says what has been done is outright wrong. It recognizes the evil lodged in the wrongdoers heart and refuses to merely say that everything is okay because a grave offense has just been committed.

But at the same time as this condemnation of evil, forgiveness is also an extension of loving kindness from the side of those who choose to forgive. Instead of seeking revenge, forgiveness puts an end to the cycle of violence of victims and oppressors turned oppressors and victims. Far too often, our warped sense of “justice” allows those who have been dealt their “just” punishment to want to take revenge on those who dealt it and vice versa. To put an end to this vicious cycle, Jesus says simply, “Forgive.”

To forgive is to say that I do not want to seek revenge. I do not want to see you suffer for your crimes because I know that desire comes from the sin also within myself. To forgive is to desire the well-being of all, victims and perpetrators. To forgive is to love, condemning what ought to be named evil and extending unconditional love to all. It is a recognition that we are not all that different from each other on the inside, regardless of the differences of outward expression. We all too often foster hate in our own hearts, yet refuse to love those who express it themselves. Forgiveness exposes and does away with this hypocrisy by declaring love.

Forgiveness does not have to come out of a place of contentment with the situation. Victims need not have an absence of pain or suffering before they forgive. Sometimes forgiveness comes from a place of such brokenness that it seems impossible to actually deal with what has happened. But, as we discussed, forgiveness is not merely a pardon. It allows victims to call out the evil that exists wherever it does and condemn it. It recognizes that someone has caused pain and suffering to others in our shared world, that it is against God’s design for human life, and all too often, that seemingly irreparable damage has been done.

The love behind our acts of forgiveness may occasionally fail. We may not be able to fully repair the wrongs, nor treat the oppressors with proper love. Other times, our forgiveness may have ulterior motives in that we want to feel morally superior over criminals by pronouncing our offer of forgiveness. Victims often use their status as such to get what they want and to shame the wrongdoer into moral inferiority. But, all of these expressions are misguided attempts at forgiveness. Though our moments of love and forgiveness may not always accomplish the ultimate good in any given situation, we can rest assured knowing that God too forgives. And God’s love never fails. The infinite and unconditional love of God has the power to overcome all evil it faces, and to make a better world for all of us as we cooperate in the mission of Jesus on this earth.

Forgive, do not take revenge. End the cycle of violence right where it has begun. Recognize heinous evil, but overcome it with love.

“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” – Colossians 1:13-14. 

I recently wrote another post on our tendency to individualize the gospel and one on the Christian belief of creation.

Pentecost Sunday… a forgotten Church holiday

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Acts 2:1-3.

This past Sunday, 7 weeks after Easter, was Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost (literally 50 days after Easter) is the name given to the events of Acts 2 wherein the Holy Spirit, the promised gift of Christ, descends upon the earliest Christians. Those who observe the holiday nowadays refer to the celebration as “the birthday of the Church.”

Sadly, many churches throughout America likely made no mention of this holiday, nor knew it was taking place at all. This is quite sad, as I will hope to explain.

Pentecost by El GrecoWhen Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised his earliest disciples that there would be another gift sent for them. Still unsure of what to make of all the dying and rising business, many of the earliest followers were likely unsure of what would take place. Their leader now gone, was it really worth it to spread his message of the Kingdom of God across the land? Fortunately, the economy of salvation was not finished, and the Holy Spirit came upon those early believers, empowering them to do just as Jesus had instructed them. They began to preach the Gospel throughout all of the land, taking it to both Jewish and Gentile areas. Not long after, the Church came into existence as the followers of Christ multiplied, eventually requiring some sort of structure. The Church was born, and those events are the reason why you and I believe the gospel today.

Yet, many see no need for the continual reflection upon Church history, because they think the present is all that truly matters. But, transfer this motif into secular society, and ta-dah you have the Fourth of July celebrations and the plethora of other nations’ and groups’ founding days. More to the point, these secular holidays are often embraced just as much by local churches today as what they would consider the main Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Now of course, I do not wish to necessarily downplay those secular holidays. I happen to take part in all of them myself. However, as Christians, shouldn’t it be important to take at least one day out of the year and remember our origins as the Church at-large has practiced for nearly 1800 years?

For the bible-centric churches, this is not some appeal to respect the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, but rather a re-directing back towards the story of Acts, an account which we all hold dear. The founding of the Church was a supernatural event in which the 3rd person of the Trinity began to empower believers to share their good news with others. This process, regardless of whether or not you think the true church only started in 1517, has continued through this day, and is a landmark event worth remembering in our churches. It helps people to remember that the Church has historical roots, and those roots are given to us through history to learn from and admire. Church history is one way that God speaks to us today. Many Christians have been encouraged in their own faith through the example of those who went before them, especially those pioneers recognized during Pentecost. Again, an understanding of what God has done in the past (e.g. the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost) form the basis of our own faith today, though we are far removed temporally. Through historical record, we know that the Church celebrated Pentecost in the mid 3rd century at the very latest.

PentecostAdmittedly, after spending close to two years in the Episcopal Church while away at college, I have grown accustomed to the Church calendar. I have to admit that I miss it greatly. But it is not only the Episcopal Church, nor the Roman Catholic Church for that matter, who draws its ancestral roots back to the day of Pentecost. All Christians share in this heritage. Further, celebrating this universal event can do nothing but help the ongoing process of ecumenism. Sharing history together is one step towards living in real unity with one another. I’m also tempted to think that the neglect of Pentecost is directly correlated to many churches’ neglect of the Holy Spirit. But we must remember that the Holy Spirit plays the central role in the continual empowerment of the Church and its members even today. The liturgical color red, used on Pentecost Sunday, signifies the fire of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the New Testament.

Pentecost was not merely a one time, unrepeatable event. Rather, it was the beginning of a movement, the same movement that you and I are part of this day. Isn’t that worth remembering? Or at least noting in passing at the very least?

P.S. Next Sunday is the equally important holiday, “Trinity Sunday,” in which the Church celebrates the full revelation of God as Trinity. I’ll spare you all a post reacting to the neglect of that holiday next week. Just count this one as performing double duty.

In case you missed it, I also posted a reflection about the relationship between faith and certainty today.

What has God been Teaching You lately?

I have to admit, the title may be a bit deceiving. I don’t really mean to ask you what God has been teaching you lately. There is quite a big problem with that question in the first place.

I go to a Christian college, and I have been asked that question a countless number of times when someone is just trying to make routine conversation. That’s the thing though: routine. The question has become a part of Christian culture and etiquette. During car rides, if that question doesn’t come up at least once, you’re not being a real Christian. If you go out to coffee with a fellow Christian and one of you fails to bring up the question, it is somehow less Christian. You have failed in your job to make disciples as Jesus commanded us to. It’s a way to keep our brothers and sisters accountable in their walks with God.

You see, we are taught to have an answer to that question. In our “quiet time”, its out job to learn what God is teaching us. This season of our life, God has something very specific to teach us. A verse that sticks out in our minds through scripture reading. God’s response to a prayer we’ve been praying lately. And we must receive that and apply it to our lives. Throughout our day, this one thing God has put on our minds becomes the focal point of all our thoughts and actions.

“I feel like God is teaching me how to put my identity in Christ and not in what I do.”

“God has really been convicting me lately. I think He is just refining me through the fire right now.”

“I’ve really just been learning how to be patient with my future. I can’t see the future, so I’m just trusting that things will work out.”

“God is showing me how to let go of all my past wounds.”

With nothing against the content of these answers in themselves, how cliché are they? They sound almost like automated and rehearsed thoughts.

I have a problem with that.

What do I do when I haven’t rehearsed the answer to that question? What do I do when I don’t know what God has been teaching me? Or if He is even involved in my life now at all? What happens when I’m struggling to hear from God? What if I’m doubting the existence of God in the first place?

In all of those situations, “What has God been teaching you lately?” is the last question you wants to hear.

I have been in that very situation many times before. Every once in a while, I will actually have an answer to that question. I’ll be able to point them to a bible verse that has been speaking to me in a profound way to me lately. But most times when I’m asked that question…

I have a confession…

I usually lie.

It’s true. I completely make something up to satisfy the person who asks me. I feel an obligation to fit the Christian mold. To be a good Christian. Someone who is always aware of how God is working in my life.

But I’ve got to be honest. I go through times of doubt and seasons where all I can hold onto is the mustard seed sized faith that is left in me. I could not even begin to tell you where God is. When the only thing (and I mean ONLY thing) that keeps me from leaving the faith is not knowing where else to go to. It’s moments like those when I always seem to get asked what God has been teaching me in my life.

I have no idea. I don’t know what He is teaching me. I don’t know where He is. I don’t even know if He is real.

Maybe it’s just a temporary place that I’m in right now, but I rarely ever seem to have an answer to that question.

Actually, let me rephrase.

I always do have an answer to that question. I just gave it. The answer that I don’t have is the answer that’s expected from me. But I can’t give my real answer because the questioner is not ready for that conversation. Underlying that question is just the want for someone to find out what book of the Bible I’ve been reading lately or whether I’m putting my identity in Christ or failing in that regard.

In my experience, that question is more harmful than it is helpful. We normally ask that question without taking in to account what the other person may be going through.

But Christ changes things.

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” – Jesus.

There is no reason for us to be afraid of our own brokenness, as it is the avenue through which God empowers us by his Spirit. This process can be taking place invisibly without us consciously learning something specific from God during the transformation. What really becomes important in moments like these is the faith that there really is a transformation going on regardless of whether it is visible at the moment or not.

So, what has God been teaching you lately?

I’m not sure right now, but I believe he is transforming me into who I was created to be.