To heal a sickness, one must point back to the environment in which they were healthy in order to determine the variables that lead to their disease. So let us consider the maladies of the present day, as we reflect on the recent massacres in California, Texas, and Ohio.
Emotionally speaking, I understand why people, when searching for solutions to ending these massacres, default to conversations about gun control. It’s one highly visible common denominator in these tragedies, and people are desperate to see these events cease.
Practically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to me to isolate this variable. Americans have always had access to firearms, and historically had even easier access to automatic rifles. Why then the recent uptick in shootings? For answers, we have to look to the environment as a whole.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Conservatives and traditionalists will point to dissolution of the family (especially fatherhood), public faith (with the exception of Islam), and virtue (Christian). Liberals and progressives will point to issues like hate or supremacy (especially from whites or normative “cis” types), victimhood (marginalized people acting out in response to “systemic” oppression), and access to firearms and certain types of public discourse.
Once we have selected a paradigm, it becomes difficult to empathize with the “other side.” To further complicate matters, American intelligence has a long history (a century?) of Machiavellian public deception. Regardless of how much one might entertain so-called “conspiracy theories,” we can all agree that the reality projected is not entirely true. So it’s important to exercise skepticism when forming opinions around highly publicized events.
We have no problem doing this when it’s in reference to “the other side.”
We can go back and forth trying to get to the bottom of why these tragedies occur. But it’s especially difficult to disconnect ourselves from our own confirmation bias which causes us to cherrypick information to satiate our worldview.
I have my own views regarding the environment in which we live, and how it’s making so many of us sick. And you have yours. We don’t have to agree on the solutions.
There are entities who want us divided, dispirited, and defeated. Virtually all of us want this violence to cease. We are not all going to agree about the solutions. But in the very least, can we come together to consider the unhealthy environment and to resist jumping to conclusions?
Resist the temptation to be divided. This won’t ever be possible with deep and honest love for one another.
“It Looks Just As Stupid When You Do It.” That was the caption on an anti-tobacco refrigerator magnet I was given in junior high.
Whoever wrote the ad was either untrained in persuasion or was trying to subliminally create a positive association with cigarette smoking. One’s first thought at this ad is that, despite how silly the creatures look, they do at least look pretty cool. If nothing else, it created an indelible mental association between cute and innocent animals and cigarettes.
More importantly, people (especially young ones) do not care about whether or not they look stupid unless looking stupid makes them uncool. Studies prove that the addition of a cigarette in one’s hand often does make them appear cooler to the bystander. Albeit, it seems that there is a coolness threshold, wherein a nicotine-slave fiendishly sucking down a chain of cigarettes crosses the parabola into unsavory (uncool) territory. I’m not even going to address the blatant uncoolness of electronic cigarettes.
The point is, nobody cares about appearing stupid unless appearing stupid is a barrier to their social acceptance. If one is preoccupied with impressing others and must do so via means of stupidity, then they will not think twice. “Not thinking twice” is actually a pretty good definition of stupidity.
The other inherent silliness of the ad is that it presupposes a similarity of social roles between humans and non-humans. And this is my main point.
The animals don’t look silly because they somehow know better than to smoke cigarettes. They look silly, because their civilizations have not advanced to the level of establishing complex structures, such as a tobacco industry that generates three quarters of a trillion dollars annually, for instance. Animals, it turns out, enjoy cigarettes too. They just were never clever enough to invent them and skilled enough to make them, but that’s not to say they were never unwise enough to habitually smoke them.
Another slogan that was popular in my youth was “What Would Jesus Do?” People would wear bracelets with the slogan. It became a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon.
The original intent of the bracelets (other than financial profit) seemed innocent enough. They could be used as a reminder to “do the right thing” throughout the day. While it is asinine for someone to need a bracelet to remind them about what they should be meditating on already, sometimes infants need their milk. The bracelets became no more than a fad and an unoffensive context for a Christian subcultural foray into the mainstream.
“Would Would Jesus Do?” as a fad was pretty harmless, but as a theological principle it is incredibly unhelpful if taken to its logical conclusions. You see, the fad did not end with bracelets. After George W. Bush began sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 I started seeing bumper stickers on people’s cars that read “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” Then in subsequent elections “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” started appearing. The trend continues.
I should make a bumper sticker that says “What Would Jesus Name His Yacht?” or “What Would Jesus Name His Firstborn Daughter?” Imagine contexts in which Jesus might be purchasing a yacht or being married and having children. It’s a funny thought, isn’t it? Is it a sin to own a yacht? Some people probably think so, but no, not if you have the means. Is it a sin to bear offspring? On the contrary, the Scriptures tell us to “be fruitful and multiply.” So why is it a funny thought? Because Jesus had a different social role and function than other people do.
The anti-tobacco ad is silly because it unfairly associates human civilization and capacity with animal civilization and capacity. Jesus is fully man and fully God. As peers in Christ’s human nature, we are able to laterally relate our experience with His. Herein, Jesus refers to us as His “friends” (John 15). But as subjects unto His divine nature, our relation to Him is quite different.
Jesus came to earth with a very specific purpose and role. The example He has set before us and the lessons He has taught us provide us with the instruction for leading lives of holiness, but they do not define the nuances of our daily experience. Because of Christ’s Messianic role He lived in such a way that promoted His mission. Although our Christian mission is to proliferate His, our earthly role is not materially the same. It is of the same Spirit, but of different functions. The body performs a different set of tasks from the Head (1 Corinthians 12).
With these things in mind, it is not helpful to constantly pose the question of what Jesus would or would not have done. It may be relevant to basic questions of morality, but it is useless in light of complex social scenarios. These questions are not helpful because they miss the point of the Gospel entirely. Christ’s Gospel is good news for condemned sinners. It’s chief aim is to save and internally transform a person (gradually) into the person God designed them to be.
To this end, we are given the instructions for daily living. In addition to being preoccupied with one’s conversion and spiritual growth, Christ’s instruction is also focused on the growth of His Kingdom as promoted through evangelism and discipleship. For that reason, the complex social structures in which we try to retrofit Jesus Christ do not boast the precedence that His Kingdom holds.
That is not to say that Christians are not tasked with engaging with the complex systems of our surrounding societies. At times, many of you have probably felt immense internal conflict regarding that engagement. I will address that at a future date. In the mean time I’m pretty sure I know who Jesus would be vote for, but I’ll address that in my next post.
“The scribes… were saying, “[Jesus] is possessed byBeelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.”And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, buthe is finished!But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.”
The wisdom of Jesus is remarkable. In this particular exchange He is, on the surface, defending the origin of His power. In doing so, He goes on to say a great deal more. A prominent lesson to be inferred here is that internal divisions disrupt unity and pave the way for inevitable defeat. There is strength in numbers acting in solidarity with one another, but when those numbers are broken off into factions there is vulnerability. Jesus teach us also that it takes the greater strength of one to overcome the great strength of another.
Throughout history, civilizations have always been vulnerable to external and internal forces which have been represented as foreign governments or rulers, business corporations, and political or religious ideologies. Much is said these days regarding the individual person or group’s perceived experience of “oppression.” The blame for societal oppression is often placed on racial, gender, religious, or economic groups. While injustices do occur within these parameters, it seems to me that the majority of systemic injustices are rooted in issues of class and/or ideology.
The human brain likes shortcuts and will seek to ascribe a familiar face to a threat. It could be said that our greatest enemies are those that are invisible to us in our day-to-day. The class ruler or the ideologue makes use of this tendency of the human brain and so seeks to persuade the members of a society to cast blame unreservedly on their own peers (based on superficial identifiers) in an effort to divide them into factions. Once divided, they are more easily brought unto the heel.
The irony of this, of course, is that the members of a society will waste their time bickering or warring with one another all while unwittingly being subjected to shared injustices. There is strength in numbers, and we take on our enemies by “binding the strong man.” but we are so often weakened by division.
While we can draw these lessons from Christ and apply them to our experience of earthly injustices, Jesus is referring more directly to spiritual tormenters. Every human being is alienated from God because of their sin. This alienation renders us vulnerable to Satan and his kingdom- the enemies of our souls. This sinful nature is what drives humanity to act unjustly in the first place.
Because our sins alienate us from God, they set us on a course to hell where we will forever remain alienated from Him. There is no earthy life or afterlife to be truly cherished unless the terms of this alienation are rectified. Jesus came to earth to do just that. When He died on the cross, He bore the punishment of our sins. He bore injustice that He might justify us before God. When He resurrected from the dead (for death is a curse for sin for which He was not worthy) He made it possible for us to be made spiritually alive- to be restored to our fellowship with God.
Even after this fellowship is restored Christians are still affected by the evil nature of these bodies in which we dwell. With God’s help we fight against this sinful nature all of our lives. The sin has influence in our lives, but it no longer has power to subdue us and to formally separate us from God. Because of that, it removes the power of Satan in our lives. Jesus Christ is greater than the “strong man,” and He gives us authority in Himself to oppose our (invisible) spiritual enemies and to subdue them. Our individual fellowship with God must emerge into corporate fellowship with other believers. God invites us into His kingdom and calls on us to spread His Gospel that others all the world over might know such freedom.
Image you are driving in your car in an unfamiliar city. Your phone is dead, you are running on empty, and it is pouring rain. You grit your teeth just hoping your car will make it to a gas station or, in the very least, a safe stopping point. You drive deeper into neighborhoods with boarded up buildings, storefront churches, cash advance outfits, and the like. You are lost, and the only thing dissipating more than your surroundings is your gas tank. Your car is hacking along on fumes, and suddenly, as the watery squall gushes at you, your car begins to hydroplane.
You lose control, slide into a curb, and you blow out your front passenger tire. You are stranded. You drape your jacket over your head and step out of the car. The street is becoming a lazy river. Your shoes and socks are soaked through immediately. You lock your doors and hurry onto the sidewalk and begin scanning in every direction- looking for bright lights and signs of commercial life. You spot a brightly lit banner about a quarter mile up the road. The rain starts to subside. As you walk toward the fluorescent lights, the once pouring rain is now a trickle.
Things seems to be advancing in your favor. You begin to relax. Your surroundings are unfamiliar and feel rather unsafe, but you tell yourself that your night cannot get any worse. “Surely the weather has kept everyone in for the night,” you say to yourself. Despite your comparatively zen state, you are still on red alert. You finally make it to the bright lights up the road. There is a sign on the door. Haphazardly written in Sharpie it says, “Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish closed- power outage.” You hang your head and let out a sigh. Then the worst happens. A car pulls up to the side of the street, just a few feet behind you.
The muffler is loud. There are men raising their voices. Your stomach sinks. You are outnumbered. You resign to the fact that your night is about to get a whole lot worse. Maybe this is the last night of your life. After all of your years on this earth- your overcoming of adversities; your celebrations of your life’s greatest joys and victories, this is not how you imagined it would end. Sopping wet, staring through the window of Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish. “What even is a chitterling?” you ask yourself. “I guess it’s too late to find out now.” The car door closes. Four-five-six men step out of the car. At least it looks that way from the shoddy reflection. You are too afraid to face them. They seem to be walking toward you. You slowly turn around. One man reaches into the pocket of his large coat. He slowly pulls his hand out of his pocket and brandishes a pocket-sized New Testament.
Now stop. How much relief do you feel in that moment after realizing that these men are on their way to a Bible study?
Do you see what you did there? You just profiled this group of men. You automatically assumed that just because these ostensible goons were on their way to a Bible study that they must be safe. How dare you!
This is the logic of some people in reverse. They might say something like, “See? You shouldn’t stereotype others. Those men turned out to be nice, church-going boys.” What they would fail to see is that they have just traded a negative stereotype for a positive one. Apparently one is allowed while the other is not. To such a person I would explain that they do not have a problem with stereotypes, they only have a problem with stereotypes when they pertain to a group of people they believe are socially oppressed.
It is, in fact, impossible not to stereotype. When you are walking through the woods, you might recoil at the sight of a vine because your brain has not immediately figured out that it is not a venomous snake. Some paths in the brain are longer than others, and your brain has a tendency to quickly generalize an experience before it has time to analyze it. Stereotyping is the brain’s way of not taking a gamble when the stakes of survival are high.
Go back to the illustration from before. Before you had time to analyze the situation, you had to make value judgements to prepare for your own survival. Upon learning that the men were apparently harmless, you had to incorporate separate generalizations in order to get a picture of what these men might be like based on your general experience with the types of people that attend Bible studies. They may not always be stellar acquaintances, but your experience at least tells you they are unlikely to rob, injure, or murder you. Your knowledge or personal encounter with inner-city crime statistics or criminal encounters tells you the risk of danger is at least more likely.
When your survival is at stake, there is no time to worry about false assumptions. Once you are able to safely gather more information regarding your encounter you are able to determine the probable safety of the situation and make the decision to either salute, flee, or prepare for battle. If and when you are enabled to calculate that you are safe, then you may begin to lay down your arms of generalization.
Stereotypes should never be forsaken. They should only be refined through furthering keen observation and learning. They should be seen as tools for survival, anecdotes of information, and sources of good humor. When need be, they can be surrendered on an individual basis. For by their nature they are generalizations, and generalizations hold different value in the context of genuine relationships. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but only the foolish will on principle forsake their doubts to seem cordial or accepting. After all, social niceties only exist in those not absolved by danger.