Sunday, November 07, 2010

Soft Landings

"They weren't interested in learning how to land." Remember that tidbit, from the news coverage of the guys who flew planes into the Twin Towers?

"Overheated economy". "Market correction". The second is what inevitably happens-- as surely as a rock thrown up in the air will gradually lose speed, slow to a stop in mid-air, then come down, accelerating as it comes-- in the wake of the first. "Normal people" (read: the vast majority of human beings who don't have large reserves of money or "stuff" at their personal disposal) dread these "corrections".

Significant transitions, major changes to our surroundings, are as much a part of being alive, as is breathing air. Summer vacation -> fall semester. Unpleasantly hot temperatures -> pleasant temperatures -> unpleasantly cold temperatures. Married couple -> married couple with a child. Pastor John Doe -> no pastor -> interim pastor. Working at a job making $100K / year -> looking for a job making $100K / year. Having two perfectly good ankles and playing an intense soccer game every week -> not being able to put any weight whatsoever on your right leg, and working every day in bed with your laptop, for six solid weeks. Working every day in bed with your laptop -> gradually recovering use of your right leg with about 4 hours of physical therapy a week. And so on, and so on.

Making it even more interesting is that some people are hardwired to seek transition, while others avoid transition fiercely. Beginning a transition *together*, and arriving safely on the other side-- well, that's great stuff.

So anyway... it's possible that I've had a soft landing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Back in the (Writing) Saddle

Well, how about that-- it's been just over a year since my last post here. A few weeks before Election Day then, three days before Election Day today.

My decision, last October, to quit the radical politics business, enabled a consensus among myself, my wife, and my pastor, that I should join (i.e., accept nomination to) the leadership council (session, in Presbyterian lingo) of my church for my first three-year term. So that happened; I was nominated, the congregation elected me, and it has been a great time so far.

There are several things I have wanted to post to Facebook, over the last week or two; insights into practicing a different "mode" of being. In honor of my SF Giants-loving friend Forrest, I am going to call it the "jazz mode". Central to the definition of "jazz" (especially in its live performance mode) is the concept of improvisation. You have a plan, an idea, that is going to be worked out and expressed, through the "song". The "song" even has a title. There are portions of the song that stick more to the "script", and there are portions where one or another of the musicians in the group, "does what he feels"-- in the context of the "song" or "piece".

This has been a problem for me, for a long, long time. I remember my 7th grade art class at J.R. Masterman, when Mrs. Glover seemed to "see something" in me, and encouraged me to produce for her class, and I just didn't feel like I was "getting it". One month that year, she named me "Artist of the Month". Now, getting awards, that I was something I could relate to! But I kind of felt that I was being made the butt of some bizarre joke, getting this particular award. An artist? Me? Mr. Roboto, Mr. Precision, Mr. Control-the-damn-thing-at-all-costs-lest-it-fly-off-the-rails-and-destroy-itself?

Anyway, back to the subject, back to this last week or two. Something about the power, the beauty, of improvisation, has finally "clicked". I'm watching myself do it, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. And I've discovered something wonderful: it is easier to plan, when you know you will be improvising frequently in the middle of the script. At least it is for me.

This is the meaning of "living by the Spirit". I think we've all heard the expression that life is not a dress rehearsal? Wow. Let that really sink in. Learn your lines, folks, but don't try to get it perfect, because you don't get another try! Better to keep the show flowing, love the performance, love the audience, love the lights, the set, the music, the other performers.

So anyway. I am going to try to write an hour a week (to start, at least), making a lot of use of my memories from across my life (I'll be 40 soon!). I will write on Saturdays. I may just spend an hour dumping memories and past impressions into a text file, I may spend a full hour writing a blog for this space. How about this: I will put at least a one-sentence post up here, every week. Ah good, I'm so glad you're ok with that.

See you next week!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Authorities are God's Servants For Your Good

I think it is fitting that it was exactly six months ago tomorrow that I announced, right here on this blog, that I had decided that I needed to withdraw from our political system. I spent the next six months studying about the underlying concepts of the State, the ideas and presuppositions that form its foundation, and that "make it go". Not surprisingly, it appears that one's warmth of feeling toward the American system of government varies a lot from person to person, depending on how strongly one senses one "belongs to" the system, or the system "belongs to" to one.

During that time I struggled somewhat with Jesus' famous teaching (delivered in the midst of a very tense moment, in the last few days before his death) "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." But let's face it-- there is pretty much nowhere in the Gospels that you get the sense that Jesus is a buddy of The System. Quite the contrary-- he is constantly clashing with members of the Jewish ruling class.

The bigger problem was the single most famous passage in the whole bible dealing with government: a portion of Paul's letter to the Romans-- chapter 13 verses 1-7. I will quote it here again:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
That's pretty tough, for a revolutionary-type to swallow: "...whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed." But it doesn't really contradict what we get from Jesus, either. There was exactly one time, in Jesus entire life, where it is reported that he used physical force against anyone or anything, let alone against "the governing authorities"-- the episode of his "cleansing of the temple". It doesn't take too much deep thought to understand what really got Jesus mad, and it was what got all Jews really mad: it was the incursion of "the world" onto "God's property". He was furious because the world's system of domination of the weak by the strong, and of the rich taking advantage of the poor, was alive and well, right inside the outer court of the temple. The temple cult was "just business": just one more "show" that you have to pay (and pay dearly) to see. It was a travesty of everything God stands for.

I've restated the standard anti-government lines from time to time over the last few months, but I think my last post sprang from a sense of restlessness with the stalemate I was having in my own mind with the "other anarchists"-- the ones that stand with the poor and view the problem with the system as an issue of government being in the pocket of the wealthy, not that government is not sufficiently respecting property rights. That post led to some productive sparks in the comments, and I finally bit the bullet and acquired the feminist book my sister had exhorted me to read-- The Autonomy Myth by Martha Albertson Fineman. I was finally ready to hear the message that "the State" is not, per se, the cause of all our ills. "The State" is one collective organ of society, "The Market" is another, and "The Family" is largely left to struggle haplessly as the other two duke it out decade after decade and century after century.

Anyway, I had to revisit Romans 13. I now believe that what Paul is saying is actually very important. He is saying that while we struggle mightily to spread the news about God's kingdom, and work to see God's "cleared territory" (to use a modern anti-insurgency phrase) on earth expand ever further, there is a place for the use of deadly force. And not only that, but that those who are professionals in the use of force, are acting in the capacity of servants of God, and need to be paid for what they do. And then, at the end of the passage (verse 7) we see that Paul and Jesus are on the same page, after all! Paul makes it concrete ("taxes... revenue... respect... honor..."), Jesus leaves it more vague ("...what is Caesar's... what is God's"). Paul is speaking as a good Roman citizen, who is able to appreciate the "Pax Romana", Jesus is speaking as a devout Jew, who knows that God is sovereign over all creation, and has merely allowed Rome temporary jurisdiction over the lands it has conquered (see his statement to Pilate, at the time of his trial: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above...", John 19:11). When we're in Caesar's jurisdiction, we give to him "what is his". The difficult question of when we're in that jurisdiction and when we are not, I'll talk about more in the future.

Paul and Jesus are speaking from two quite different viewpoints, but have the same opinion about government-- leave it alone, give it a wide berth. Focus on doing the good things God is leading you to do. Jesus' statements are tinged with the resentment that comes from a fundamental identification with the poor and oppressed, and a knowledge that the rich are "the system". Paul is more concerned in this passage, I believe, with the problem of tamping down what was almost certainly a widespread sentiment among the Christian church of the first century: "Why should we tolerate the oppression of pagan Rome? We are children of the King, and shouldn't have to be subject to these enforcers of the worldly system." His response, especially in the light of what immediately preceded this little discourse, at the end of chapter 12, is: "It would not be wise to oppose Rome by force. God has instituted Rome to serve a purpose for this time in history, just as he has instituted that a stone shall fall to the ground when you drop it. And besides, we do not accomplish the aims of the Kingdom by violent means."

So what is the upshot of all this? The upshot is that you will no longer see much anti-government rhetoric in my future writings. I now believe that there are very few passages in the bible that speak directly about government, for a good reason: government is not the problem. Just like the poor, we will have "government", in some form, "always with us". Government is essentially a clean-up device, for dealing with things when they go wrong. What that means is that if you try to use government to effect positive change, it will backfire spectacularly, and spawn more problems than it purported to solve. But also, I have come to believe that throughout history, governments have been God's tool for bringing devastating judgment for the evil deeds of people, and the current American government is no exception.

Instead, I will spend more time talking about the rest of the bible, that tells us all about God's plan for humanity, and how we can bring that plan about in front of our eyes, slowly but surely. That plan calls for cooperation, reconciliation, truth-telling and sharply wielded reason. There are ways of doing Acts 2:44 ("All who believed were together and had all things in common..."), in our time. We need to start doing them.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Government: The Gun Is Always In the Room

I appreciate that many of us have a very practical nature, and a problem-solving bent. But I going to take a stab at demonstrating that as Christians we need to be thinking about means, and not just ends. Or to put it another way, we need to examine some of the core methods that undergird the operation of all "worldly government", and then based on what we find, to decide if the oft-posed question as to the "appropriate role of government" is in fact moot. I particularly would like to request that my “left-leaning” or “social justice” friends bear with me and read through this little thought experiment.

We all agree, I'm sure, that a lone man pointing a gun at me and demanding that I hand over a specified amount of money, is evil. And I'm also pretty sure that we agree that if he gives a reason for his demand, that involves the supposed welfare of a third party, he is still evil. If you do not agree that in the second case, the man is evil, please note that in a comment on the post, but for now I will assume that you’re with me, and will proceed from there.

So the lone guy, pointing a gun at me, demanding money, to be used to benefit another person who is not present, is evil. Then let's add a wrinkle: instead of a lone man, he is a man who has been hired by a group of 10 families, to come to the door of each house in this 100-family subdivision, point the gun, present the humanitarian cause (really, it doesn‘t matter what it is) adopted by the 10 family consortium, and request the specific donation. And now, the “cause” is not the mere fulfillment of the need of a single person or family, but is a project that will benefit all the families of the subdivision--say, a new park area open to all in the subdivision. The 10 families are contributing that same amount, voluntarily. Evil? I don't see how you could say no. (Gun-- remember?)

Ok, now instead of a 10-family grouping hiring the man with the gun, it is a 90-family grouping, in the same 100-family subdivision. Everything else remains the same. Evil? Again, what has changed, that would allow you to say no?

What if, instead of a man with a gun, the 90-family consortium just sends a letter to the 10 other families, informing them of the decision of the 90 families, and saying we hope you comply willingly? 8 of the 10 families decide to send in the money. Follow-up letters are sent to the 2 remaining families, informing them that this is a cause that was adopted by 90% of the families of the subdivision, and that 8 of the other 10 families agreed voluntarily to comply with the decision, and that if they don't comply, there might be "unfortunate consequences"? 1 of the 2 families now sends in their check, leaving just one holdout family.

A series of increasingly menacing letters are now sent, but the holdout family does not budge. A final letter is sent, informing that family that as they have demonstrated a brazen disregard for the good of the whole subdivision, they have forfeited their ownership of their house, to the Subdivision Family Well-Being Organization, and now have 60 days to find somewhere else to live, and vacate the house. 60 days pass, and the family still has not vacated the house. The SFWO hires several men to go to the house with guns, and evict the family from the house. The family refuses to open the door. The men break open the door, and physically carry out the members of the family, who still refuse to leave under their own power. The SFWO auctions the house off to a new family, from outside the subdivision. From the proceeds of the property sale, they deduct the contested family donation, plus the extra costs incurred due to the seizure of the house and the auction, etc. etc., and remit the rest to the evicted family.

Evil? Yes? (Again, I still don't see what has changed, that would make it not evil.) Ok, then expand "subdivision" to "township" or “state“ or “country“, and increase the number of families, and provide for regular elections for officials who will administer the "family cause organization" by collecting the regular donations, and seeing that the money gets spent efficiently on the cause.

Add to the mix, that "this is the way it has been done for 200 years", and that resisters to the plan are extremely few and far between. (Why would you expect them to be numerous? Who likes being evicted from their own home, that they purchased fair and square from someone else, and which they may have invested years of their lives in?) Add what many consider to be the coup de grace: “By your residence/birth in a specific area, you are implicitly a party to a ‘contract’ that requires your sharing in the costs of administering the area.”

Do you see the point? Even if *no one* refuses to pay their demanded share, and therefore incurs the forceful penalty, it *does not remove the fact* that it is a system that *relies on unprovoked force*. Without the threat of force, it *cannot exist*.

This is not the way God’s kingdom works. The way God’s kingdom works is demonstrated by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), who, upon seeing the light of the Kingdom of God, voluntarily, *joyfully* even, pledged to give large amounts of his wealth (ill-gotten or no) for the benefit of the poor, and to make multiple restitution for any ill-gotten wealth. It is also demonstrated by “Lazarus and the rich man” (Luke 16:19ff), in which the rich man “goes to hell“, for a reason that is left implicit-- but which a reasonable person would conclude was, that he did not show compassion toward the wretched man who begged at his gate. Fine, he goes to hell, but I still know of no paradigm, in the Kingdom of God, calling for forceful seizure of wealth from the wealthy, on behalf of the poor, or on behalf of the “public good”.

In my next post I’ll address the two biblical passages that seem most strongly to advocate for a taxing government, or at least to give consent to it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Building a People of Power - Part 1

I stand by what I said in earlier posts on the subject of how I believe one should use the Bible to discern God's will. However, I now feel that to a certain extent I was reinventing the wheel during that process, because it just so happens that a few years ago I read a book which really energized and inspired me, called Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform Their Communities. At the beginning of this book, the author (Robert C. Linthicum) lays out an approach to interpreting the Bible which he uses as the foundation for all of his theological statements throughout the remainder of the book. (See the back cover here.)

(Quick side note for folks that may know me from church: I first acquired this book when I was investigating what people do when they begin to be involved with the Servant Partners mission organization, which sends teams into the urban slums of the Global South to spread the good news of Jesus and to teach the people how to organize their neighborhoods to solve problems of crushing poverty and oppression. When you go to SP's main orientation program in Manila, they ask that you read a set of books beforehand. This is one of them.)

Linthicum does not make any direct statements in favor of anarchism, or say much specific about politics in general, but since I believe that the main concepts of his book are crucial for making concrete plans for dealing with the crises of our day, I will most likely be periodically writing posts derived from different parts of the book. Also, to anyone who wants to better understand how to get together with other Christians to bring forth God's mighty kingdom in the midst of our dark society, without adopting the tired programs and rhetoric of the political Left or Right, I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy.

Please-- if you have any expectation of reading any posts from me about the bible in the future, take a few moments to carefully read, in its entirety (don't worry, it's not that long), the excerpt that I have provided a link to above, because the approach to Scripture described there is what I will be applying in everything I say or write about the Bible. If you disagree with this approach, you will disagree with my statements about what the Bible teaches.

And so, with this preparatory material published, I now feel ready to write on the two subjects I've been itching to write on for a long time now: Paul's brief statement in Romans about the proper relationship of the Christian to "secular government" (Romans 13:1-7), and Jesus' famous "Render unto Caesar" quote, which is reported in almost the exactly same words in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). So stay tuned.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Musical Interlude

I was riding my bike this morning, in the pseudo-rain (turned not so pseudo for a few moments), feeling a little bit heavy of heart. And toward the end of the 30 minutes, I remembered this song, which is another of my favorites from my childhood church experience:

Your steadfast love extends to the heavens
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds
Your righteousness is like majestic mountains
And your wisdom, like the depth of the sea
And you come to me;

Filling my heart with your lovingkindness
I find my peace in the shadow of your wings
I eat my fill from abundance in your household
And I drink from the streams of rejoicing
You are my king.

I may update this post with a link to an audio file of my singing it, if I can pull it off. Because the music is beautiful.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

We Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood

Now that I have apparently come out against the existence of "the supernatural" in my previous post, let me confuse matters by quoting this famous passage:
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6:11-12, King James Version)
Hmmm... Interesting stuff, no? This passage clearly shows us that there is a whole world of bad out there, that we can't even see, right? When we learn in Frank Peretti's novel This Present Darkness that there are demons who are sort of like filthy vultures (or something), who have swords that they can plunge into your engine block at just the moment you need to drive away quick to refute a room full of New Agers, it is obviously right out of the bible.

Um... no. I am totally sympathetic with people for falling into this trap, because the phrase right before "For we wrestle not..." is "the devil". And we know that the devil is a supernatural being, right? And if we're wrestling "not against flesh and blood", then, well, what else is left?

Ideas. "Memes". Belief systems that seem to "have a life of their own". Something all these principalities, powers, and rulers have in common is that they feed on fear. If people weren't struggling to "save their lives" (as they understand their "lives") by playing their little part to support the current power system, the power system would, well, have no power. People are in bondage to these systems of thought, these carefully woven webs of truth and half-truth and outright lies. They define their very identities by these systems.

So, Jesus said "Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them." Are you willing to "lose" your life as you currently know it, a willing (but perhaps grumbling) servant to the "principalities, powers and rulers of this present darkness"? Or will you continue to bind your identity to this current system of supposed "participatory democracy", and find yourself utterly lost when it inevitably crumbles away and/or your secure spot in it vanishes?

Voluntaryism is very clear about one thing: we will not achieve our aims by attempting to change the current system by force (including the inherent violence of the electoral process), or by violently overthrowing the current system, only to replace it with the next batch of "P, P and R". The war is for the minds of the people. (Alex Jones, "There's a war on for your mind!" George Donnelly, "Arm your mind for liberty!") And this fight for your heart and mind is most intensely manifest in "high places".

Let me clean up the loose end of "the devil". I somewhat jokingly implied that the mention of him might mislead you into thinking that the following sentences applied to a supernatural realm. Here's a shocker for you: I don't believe that the devil is a personal sentient individual entity. We can refer to the devil as "he", just as we can refer to God as "he", but we should not fall into the trap of thinking that there is a "place" or a "dimension" where these two "reside". Who is the devil? He is the supreme leader of that band of "P, P, and R". The one that binds them in evil and makes them mutually reinforce each other. He is "the" malevolent will.

I may write more on this, but I think I'm rambling a little now, so I'll stop. Next up: Romans 13:1-7. "There is no authority except from God... whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed... for the authorities are God's servants..."