Real Freedom for Our Young

In the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces in his home town that, “today,” the words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled.  “To let the oppressed go free” is part of that proclamation.

The first act of setting the oppressed free comes in the next scene, in Capernaum.  After Jesus’ unceremonious exit from Nazareth, he goes there and teaches in the synagogue.  Following an observation about Jesus’ astonishing authority through his teaching, the narrative turns to the demon-oppressed man in the synagogue, whom, with a word, the Lord sets free.

“To set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  In Luke’s gospel, the first person to experience freedom from oppression is a demon-possessed man.*

Thinking of another situation in which Jesus freed someone from demonic affliction – the Gerasene’s Legion – we find in Mark’s account that the man, delivered from demons, is found “in his right mind.”  Assuming the same result for this demon-possessed man in Luke whom the Lord set free, he went from the chaos of mental, emotional, spiritual fragmentation to a clear, ordered mind.

There is, in this man’s healing, both a returning and a glimpse of the future when all things will be made new.  Either way, in creation or new creation, liberty resides within the bounds of God’s created and creative order.  Freedom, then, is a properly bounded freedom, according to which God oversees and orders the creation.

Our late modern notions of freedom are based on individual autonomy within the framework of the laws established by society.  In other words, we still have a bounded freedom, but we generally understand that societies through governments, not God, establish those boundaries.  Whereas, in the stream of intellectual history associated with the West, we once assumed the involvement of “nature’s God” in the establishment of laws, we no longer do.  “Theology” is a word generally relegated to constructions of our very human religious experiences that we then attribute to God and since, as this logic goes, we cannot ultimately know God’s mind, we have to look to human foundations for a just ordering of society.

We therefore have replaced theological foundation with a socio-economic one and tied it to a mainly utilitarian ethic .  Our theories about human nature, at least in the present time, rest on purportedly evidence-based knowledge, believing it gets us much closer to reality than theological, “metaphysical” speculation.  Late modern, secularized western society has concluded, furthermore, that this approach is more just, because it seems not to privilege any particular religion over any other.

We have thus sought to take from God the authority to order and to chase God from the garden.

Fortunately, because all humans are created in God’s image, whether or not as a society we acknowledge this truth, we can still do much good.  We can sense and imagine a just world and work toward it.  But, it does seem to me, looking at large trends, we are, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, lurching toward chaos. This trend shows most clearly among our young people.

A couple of critical examples for my claim:

  1. It is not an exaggeration to say that a mental health crisis is happening on college campuses.  Counseling centers cannot keep up with the demand.  Anxiety and depression have been well known problems for a while, but the trend remains upward and other problems have appeared.  An American Psychological Association article reveals that 44% of college counseling centers report “severe psychological problems” among their clients.  The same survey shows notable increases in eating disorders and self-harm (for example, cutting and, worse, suicidal ideation).
  2. Similarly, almost half of the counseling centers report a significant increase in the number of students struggling with alcohol abuse.  I worry a lot about the amount of alcohol college students consume.  Yes, I know(!) that they have “always” gotten drunk, but the amount and the degree are nonetheless deeply disturbing.  We have essentially sanctified party life for the college years, rather fatalistically assuming that 18-24 year olds need time to explore and try things out in order to discover (or create) who they are and partying seems to be understood as an inevitable part of the quest.  This fatalism is all the more disturbing when looking at the statistics.  Generally, of the students who drink (between 60% and 80% of all students), half to two-thirds binge drink.

And binge drinking is dangerous drinking.  On average, over 1800 college students die in alcohol-fueled accidents every year.  Alcohol is almost always involved in sexual assaults.  Think about the enduring heartache, anguish, anger, fear and turmoil left over after these incidents.  Less dramatically, cognitive malfunction and academic underperformance is like a low-grade fever infecting students who consume too much alcohol.

Dare we think about eating disorders and various acts of self-harm in light of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ freeing the demon-possessed?  Once again the Gerasene.  What was one of his behaviors?  He cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:5)  Dare we think about the chaotic behavior associated with binge drinking?  We need to think about this.

A reductively socio-economic understanding of freedom is not freedom.  Autonomy is not freedom.  We are lying to our children when we tell them it is.  Freedom will always be bounded.  Jesus Christ came to let the oppressed go free, not by cutting them loose, but by returning them to the creative order established, guided and governed by the One he called Father.  We who claim to be Jesus’ followers dare not lose sight of this truth.

 

 

 

 

 

  • I acknowledge that this man’s condition as described in Luke is most likely tied to the other kinds of politico-socio-economic oppression taking place.

 

 

Another View of the Pence/Billy Graham Rule

Having read a few opinions about the hoopla over Vice-President Mike Pence’s application of the so-called Billy Graham rule, I’d like to complicate this picture with a story from my own experience.

But first:

  1. I firmly believe in and actively support women in ordained ministry and in women operating in any walk of life to which they feel called.
  2. In my mentoring of students (mostly undergraduates, but not entirely) over the years, I have consciously included women and men.

My purpose, then, is to think about whether or not some of the allegations about the impact of Mike Pence’s avoidance behaviors are warranted.  One criticism is that Pence’s practice, although laudable from the standpoint of his putative personal temptations, etc., nonetheless risks contributing to the structural evil of sexism.

Let’s not make more of the Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule than we should.  A story from my own personal experience, I think, helps to show why.

I was a very young pastor serving two rural/small town congregations. (Joni and I were married, with two small children.)  One night, around 10:30, the parsonage doorbell rang and there stood a female church member with a friend who had recently started coming to our church.  The friend who lived in a neighboring town a few miles away had told the church member that she had been raped that morning on her early morning walk.  I asked a few questions (e.g. “Have you reported this to the police?” etc.) and went over the resources available.  After doing all we could in that moment, we agreed that we would check in with the friend each day for the next few days.

After the initial steps had been taken, the woman asked if she could meet me for counseling.  (Caveat: I have never used the term “counseling” for pastoral conversations with parishioners.  I’m not licensed.  I don’t do therapy and never did.)  We met in my office at the church for these conversations.  Now, because I served a small church, no one else was in the building at these times, and even though the parsonage was next door and Joni was only twenty steps away, we were in effect meeting privately.

We had a handful of conversations.  I learned that, though she had informed the police, she had not contacted the women’s crisis center, nor had she gone to the doctor and did not intend to do so.  She preferred to talk to me instead.  I knew that my skills were limited, so I tried to nudge her toward the women’s center and other, more qualified counseling.  Her responses to these suggestions alternated between mildly combative and tearfully pleading.

One afternoon after maybe three or four private sessions with the victim, I was working on a sermon in the church office and got a knock at the door.  The man who stood before me told me that he was an officer with a state law enforcement agency investigating the crime and that he needed to take the typewriter (that’s how long ago it was) from this church and the one from the other church I served a few miles out in the country.  The victim had reported that she was receiving obscene letters.  Investigators had concluded that the letters had been typed on one of the two church typewriters.

You might be asking, how could a rapist who wants to torment his victim further get access to a church typewriter?  In small town, rural culture, at least in those days, lots of people have/had access to church buildings, which are used for all manner of non-religious purposes, so it was not out of the question that someone might have access to a church typewriter without our knowing.

As the investigation narrowed its scope, the woman admitted that she had fabricated the whole account.  She and her husband were having relationship troubles and the rape story was a cry for help.  She had typed the letters herself on the typewriter in the country church.  Although we were all relieved that she had not actually had to endure the trauma of sexual assault, it was a sad, sad situation.*

I was so naive that the implications of this scenario did not dawn on me until the investigation had ended.  It then hit me: If, at any time, the woman had wanted to implicate me as the assailant, she could have done so. I had met with her privately several times.  We met in a church office.  The letters came from a church typewriter.  If, at any time, she had wanted to implicate me as the assailant, she could have done so.

And if she had, my very young ministry would almost certainly have been finished almost before it got a good start.  Even though an investigation would have shown that the allegations were baseless, doubts about my trust (the betrayal of pastoral trust is absolutely the worst of cardinal sins) would most likely never have gone away.

If Mike Pence (and his spouse) believe that applying the Billy Graham rule is appropriate for him to avoid temptation and the possibility of the appearance of evil, it obviously limits the good outcomes that might transpire if he felt more secure in meeting with women privately.  It seems to me a stretch, however, to conclude that he thereby contributes to disadvantaging women and, in a sort of backhanded way, also treats them as sex objects.

I return to my earlier qualification.  Over the years, I have not followed the Billy Graham rule.  I have “met privately” with women in my office or in otherwise completely appropriate situations.  As a United Methodist clergy who has taken ministerial ethics training, and as one who learned by personal experience very early in his ministry that some situations can go bad in completely unexpected ways, I’m exceedingly sensitive to such situations.

So, could we give Pence a pass on this one?  People can find all kinds of good reasons to criticize him, as we do anyone in high-profile positions.  This particular topic seems a bit of a stretch.

(*Nota bene: Let me anticipate one possible objection.  By telling this story, I am in no way suggesting generally that women fabricate sexual assault stories or am I otherwise attempting to derail criticisms about patriarchy.  I am only trying to show from a personal experience why I think some of the criticisms toward Pence fail.)

 

Reclaiming and Re-re-defining “Evangelical”

The word “evangelical” has become fraught with all kinds of difficulties.  This is a sad state of affairs because it is a very good word.  Nonetheless, a significant number of Christians who by their beliefs fit the term have stopped using it as a self-reference, preferring “classical” or “orthodox” or even “traditional” or maybe the hip “Christ follower” or some derivative.  Every word, though, has problems because, as you know, a rose by any other name…

This post is an exercise in retrieval.

My source in this effort is a recent collection of essays edited by Candy Gunther Brown and Mark Silk, The Future of Evangelicalism in America. With an introduction and conclusion by Brown and five chapters by scholars from both private evangelical and public secular institutions, the book does a superb job of complicating the popular usage of “evangelical.”  Their work is based on the American Religious Identification Survey, supplemented by information from other organizations like Pew Research.

The definition of “evangelical” that the contributors share comes from historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll.  It has four parts coming from Bebbington and the fifth added by Noll:

  1. Conversionism – Evangelicals believe that people need to experience new birth through faith in Christ, typically thought of as a kind of crisis moment that reorients one’s life.
  2. Biblicism – the Bible is the sole and ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice.
  3. Crucicentrism – the death of Christ on the cross (inherently linked with his bodily resurrection) is the decisive atoning work that transforms all life.
  4. Activism – every Christian has a responsibility to share faith in Christ with others and to serve God by serving people through acts of ministry and service.
  5. (Added by Noll) Evangelicals use non-Christian cultural resources with the aim of transforming culture.

Though evangelicals differ on how to understand and enact aspects of each of these categories, they fit these major criteria.  It is an attempt to describe why disparate groups of people actually fit in the same category.  Each chapter does a good job of helping the reader to see the diversity of American evangelicalism, which may surprise some people.

Here’s a taste of the book:

Introduction (Candy Gunther Brown): Demographically, evangelicals pretty much match the American population. “What these numbers suggest is that evangelicals can be found across the American social landscape, and American Christianity as a whole is becoming more evangelical in outlook.”

1 (Michael Hamilton): While holding firmly to the markers listed above, evangelicals are quick to deploy worldly entrepreneurial techniques to build powerful networks (church and para-church) of activity.  This network is worldwide.  Since World War II, evangelicals have gotten increasingly involved in humanitarian aid around the world.  They also have dropped much anti-Catholic prejudice and their younger members are becoming more cosmopolitan in viewpoint.

2 (Chris R. Armstrong): Evangelical worship and spirituality, though varied in style, is deeply heartfelt and expressive/affective.  It’s about the heart, with a deep sense of communion with God and with other members of the community.  Even though rock bands and praise music have become the staple of most Protestant churches, there seems to be a trend toward “ancient-future” with a hunger for deeper spirituality and connection to the church’s historic roots.

3 (Roger E. Olson): There is such diversity in evangelical theology that it is better to think of an evangelical ethos rather than a standard set of doctrinal convictions.  Anyone who knows about the arguments over inerrancy or between Wesleyan/Arminians and Reformed/Calvinist (even these sets of terms can be pulled apart for a range of nuances) knows the tensions.  There are also “conservative” evangelicals and “progressive” evangelicals who agree that the Bible is our ultimate authority (biblicism), but read passages differently and come to sometimes opposite conclusions.

4 (Amy E. Black): This chapter may be of particular interest to readers because it deals with evangelicals and politics.  It shows in substantial detail the complexities of the term “evangelical.”  For example, “Black Protestants” easily fit the typology I summarized above, but most vote consistently for Democratic candidates and are considered “social liberals.”  A significant number of white evangelicals are bolting their older generation’s concerns and tactics for more irenic engagement and a broader range of concerns to include problems like trafficking and the environment.  But they remain evangelical.

5. (Timothy Tseng): This chapter shows how the demographic and cultural make-up of evangelicalism is changing in large part because of immigration and global missions (including missionaries coming from other countries to the USA).  Latino evangelicals and Pentecostals provide just one example of the changing demographic in the United States.  Even though evangelicals were slow to recognize the structural evils of racism, in recent years they are catching on and becoming increasingly open to  shared leadership among culturally, racially and ethnically diverse evangelicals.

Conclusion (Candy Gunther Brown): Evangelicalism, though filled with all kinds of tensions and turmoils, remains a strong, vibrant movement.  As Brown concludes, “Evangelicals may reinvent themselves in myriad ways, but evangelicalism is not about to disappear.  The future of American evangelicalism must unfold at its own pace, but it is a future that remains tied to the future of America.”

My survey is paltry and only barely suggestive, but reading this book pays real dividends.  (Wesleyans and Methodists, take great joy in the references to John and Charles Wesley and their weighty contributions to evangelicalism). Each chapter offers a succinct and helpful survey of the relevant historical developments for the chapter’s topic.  The reader who knows little of the history of American Protestant Christianity in the 20th century will find much of help.

And I hope, as people read works like this one, that we can start to feel good about using the word “evangelical” again.

 

The Health Care Challenge and God’s Action

For some time our Sunday School class has been exploring beliefs about how God’s action intersects with human actions.  Readers of the Bible know that it’s pretty easy to see God’s action there, because on every page God acts.  But moving beyond the Bible to what I might call “mere history” makes this question more ambiguous.  What is God doing today, in our time?  What is God doing through the church?  Is it just “religious stuff” that God is doing in/through us?  How could we tell?

Perhaps foolishly, I’ll try something I normally avoid.  I’m going to write a post about the current turmoil over proposed legislation to repeal (or modify) the Affordable Care Act in favor of the American Health Care Act.  I want to try to “think Christianly” in search of a responsible conclusion.  Maybe, just maybe, we Christians could discern a little bit more clearly what God is calling us to do.  My effort will be no doubt a hesitant and fumbling one. I’m simply trying to be a responsible Christian citizen.

First, some points of reference that I think crucial:

  1.  Health care costs are on an unsustainable trajectory.  According to a report by the Rand Corporation, health care costs have exceeded our country’s gross domestic product by more than 2% per year since 1950.  We cannot continue at this rate, especially while we get sicker as a nation.
  2. The United States far outspends other developed nations on health care and we are far less healthy than other developed nations.  As a University of Michigan study states, “The U.S. has worse health outcomes than most other developed nations, despite spending almost twice as much on health care.”  Whatever you think about “Obamacare” or “Trumpcare,” we together must face this problem.  How do Christians address it?  What is God calling us and enabling us to do?
  3. Here is the hardest, yet probably most relevant point: poor lifestyle choices (what the industry calls “modifiable risks”) account for 25% of health care costs in the United States. (See the U. of Michigan study.)  Obesity and smoking top the lists of lifestyle-related concerns.  According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a healthy Body Mass Index (ratio of height and weight) is between 18% and 25%.  One is overweight if one’s BMI is 25%-30% and one is obese if one’s BMI is more than 30%.  The US Health and Human Services agency states that more than 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese and more than 1/3 of our children are, too.  Heart disease and diabetes are two major problems related to weight and obesity.
  4. The Congressional Budget Office evaluation of the currently-prosed legislation offers a tentative and nuanced projection of the economic effect of implementing the bill. It took me about fifteen or twenty minutes to read and try to digest it.  It is worth the effort, even if it did not provide me a set of easy conclusions.  It did me remind me to avoid cherry-picking facts to buttress bias and political loyalties.

Please note, I did not use one popular “news” source or opinion piece.  I am a reasonably intelligent Christian citizen trying to figure out what he thinks about how best to address healthcare challenges.  While the government sorts out its policies, Christians (and people of faith more generally) can and should do something.  Of course, many Christian churches and organizations across the country already are doing what I will suggest below.  If the numbers stated above are any indication, however, we need more concentrated effort, especially in view of government gridlock.

What should we do?

  1. We have to act responsibly as citizens.  Learn what you can, make your decision about the AHCA, advocate for the best policy with your legislative representatives and pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
  2. Congregations must hold ourselves accountable to good health practices.  United Methodist clergy, I’m calling us out on this one.  As a lot, we are unhealthy because we are too busy, we have poor diets and we don’t exercise. This is a spiritual and moral problem.  (If you are UM clergy and you do exercise and eat healthy, God bless you.  You don’t fit my generalization, so don’t take it personally.  If your doctor has told you that you need to lose weight and exercise, i.e. take better care of yourself, don’t make excuses.)
  3. Local congregations, many of whom have medical professionals as active members, can do some very significant work to mitigate the “modifiable risks” part of the health care cost picture.  What if we started here within our congregations and communities?  I know this is a complex topic.  If a person is working two jobs to make ends meet, how does s/he find time to exercise?  Just because the problem is complex does not mean we should abdicate responsibility to someone else to figure out solutions.  If modifiable risks are a huge and costly problem, they are nonetheless to a significant degree under our control.  Let’s think creatively and try something.  Congregations can work with local medical clinics and health and fitness agencies to think creatively about how to offer wellness practices to community members, including and especially those who are falling through our system’s cracks.  We need collaborative teams on the ground to make a difference.
  4. To make progress on #3, not only should we be honest with ourselves (see #2) about our own unhealthy lifestyles, we’ll have to risk “intruding” in other people’s lives.  A congregation has a sphere of influence and a responsibility to know the situations of people within theirs.  We have to have the courage to offer help and support in an area of a person’s “private” life.  (Can we see how “private” and “public” overlap?)

Is God concerned about health?  Is God acting to make good health attainable for a larger number of Americans?  The scriptures make clear that God has chosen people as instruments, as means of divine action.  I do not believe God “needs” any of us, but the Bible makes clear that we have a vocation, called by God, to serve the present age.  And in the present age, we have serious health problems that need a different kind of attention.

Christians make up (still) roughly 70% of the American population.  To our great shame, we are badly polarized along political lines.  In this post, I have tried to “think Christianly” about a deeply important subject.  I have tried to understand the big picture, which is why I included the “lifestyle” issues related to health care.

If we Christians rely only on the usual popular “news” sources and allow political polarization to control our perspectives, then we could very well miss how God is active in the world and what God calls us to do.  If we miss God’s call, then we deserve God’s judgment.

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