The Way We Win Matters

The classic sci fi novel “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card was adapted on to the big screen in November 2013. The story tells of a brilliant boy, Ender, who trained to battle in a world threatened by a formidable alien race. In the final battle sequence, Ender skillfully devises the perfect strategy, carrying it out ruthlessly to achieve victory against his enemy, effectively wiping out the entirety of the opposing army. Just as the audience exhales from his display of incredible wit and meticulous execution, the chilling plot twist dawns: what Ender assumed to be the final simulation exam was indeed a real, flesh and blood battle. Ender had inadvertently committed genocide.

Enraged by having been manipulated into killing, Ender glowers at his commander, the emotion in his voice drenched with the incomprehensible weight of his new realization, he says,

the way we win matters.

Battle wounds inflict both the victim and the victor. When I look around the landscape of Christian activity, I see stripes of betrayal, festering cynicism, crippling disappointment, and visible strains of fatigue. Whether they are earnest, conservative Christians losing their grip on cultural advantages, or liberal Christians frustrated by the slow pace of progress, the war raging is showing its wear. We even use language like “culture wars”, or “spiritual battle”, and “fight against (insert cause)”. All along the spectrum, followers of Jesus are bearing the heavy cost of their own, hard-fought, battles.

It is the core of believers, to take up our convictions and season the world like salt; to shine like a light on the hill. Without a passion for our causes, our faith lies dormant, irrelevant to our circles of influence. Without the tenacity of a warrior, we cannot prevail in waging war against the global injustices present in our generation. Let there be no doubt, we are embroiled in a fierce battle.

And yet, the moment we begin fighting in ways more like the Roman Empire, than the One who submitted himself to death on a cross, we have already lost the war. When we begin to adopt the mentality of us vs. them, or attempt to lord power over instead of subverting from below, we relinquish our distinctive ability to critique the culture in which we live. We can dress our battle cry in fancy spiritual lingo, but unless our movement to fight is to give away power rather than gain, we aren’t fighting in the way of Jesus. Unless our battle wounds are cruciform; intentionally bearing the pain of others out of love, rather than from retaliation fire of a fight we start, we aren’t winning in a way that matters.

Ender’s Game, the movie, did poorly in the box office. There are many speculations to why it didn’t gain traction, but one reason is its counter-cultural narrative to the reigning glorification of violence in Hollywood. The Oscars, the most prestigious awards in the film industry, has granted many accolades throughout the years to movies portraying redemptive violence. An Oscar win is indeed the pinnacle of one’s acting career. Yet in 1973, the recipient of the Best Actor award, Marlon Brando, asked the actress Sacheen Littlefeather to publicly refuse the award on the grounds for the injustice perpetrated towards Native Americans by the film industry. Read the remarkable story of an example in which persons in positions of power and powerlessness worked together to create room for more justice.

There is no room for complacency and passive non-engagement with the rampant injustices from modern day slavery to environmental degradation. But we must fight for justice in the way of Jesus. This means scrutinizing our methods in community development, unpacking the nuances in dialogue for reconciliation, and being wary of sensational language which dehumanizes the ones we hope to persuade. The ends do not justify the means. Let our urgency and passion drive us to critique the how of what we do. Like Ender, let’s not be tricked by the lies of the empire, only to find out at the end, we have inadvertently committed injustice in the name of justice.

We must fight, but the way we win matters.

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Don’t Resolve to be Someone You’re Not

Some of my favorite people in the world are crass, wildly inappropriate, and slightly neurotic. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because I admire (envy) their defiance of social conventional norms, or because they give me permission to express my own neuroses. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re constantly negative and raging, don’t expect to be invited over for dinner anytime soon; but an edgy personality with a sometimes bad-ass attitude – that’s kinda cool.

*Wait, did I get stuck in a time warp as a teen girl?* 

2014 is upon us shortly and resolutions are sure to fill up our news feeds with various formulations of how to “be a better person” in the New Year. I guess it’s time for me to routinely put “be more patient” back on my list. I think I was 0.67% more patient in 2013 than 2012, so that’s, progress? At this rate, according to my rudimentary calculations, by 2050 I should be 27.38% more patient than I was in 2004. I will be slow and steady, always filter my words, and…

totally not myself anymore. 

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When our resolutions fail year after year, maybe it’s because we were never meant to be the ideals we have set for ourselves. 

What happens when my crass friends clean up their language, or the inappropriate ones start acting prim and proper? They become less interesting versions of themselves. Instead of setting unrealistic virtuous goals, maybe we need to start expanding our definition of what makes a better person.  I read a paradigm shifting book years ago called “Now, Discover Your Strengths”. The premise of the book is to overturn the common misconception of spotting our weaknesses and improving upon them. Instead, we ought to discover our strengths and spend our time and energy maximizing those areas.   In other words, stop trying to be someone you’ll probably never be (i.e. a patient person), but become more fully who you are.

I found this idea not only practically helpful, but also theologically profound. Some of us inside Christian culture have made the mistake of truncating the gospel to a behavior modification system. Jesus is not Santa, constantly checking to see if we’re naughty or nice. He came to pave a way for us to become more complete versions of who God had created us to begin with. As Christians, we believe we are created in the image of God – a God who is kind, gracious, compassionate, and just. But let’s not forget Scriptures also depict a God who is jealous, angry, indecisive, and impatient. We have deemed certain character qualities negative and weak, when all along our perception of God-imaged creatures have been far too narrow. The diversity of human personality and range of emotions ought to be affirmed as good. We don’t only need Nice Christian people in our world – we also need people who are strong willed, quick-witted, creative, cynical, and yes, crass with a bit of a bad ass attitude.

What the gospel does require is for us to capitalize our strengths and orient them towards Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Love. We have been liberated from the behavior modification system in order to live into speaking life, creating beauty, fighting for justice, and loving unconditionally.

This year, don’t resolve to be someone you’re not. Resolve to live more fully into this life.

7 Ways to Raise Justice Minded Children

My two kids are stunning.

I mean, they’re perfect.

Wait, what I’m trying to say, is I think rather highly of them. My husband and I, like most parents, try our best to raise them and instill our values so they become our minions grow up to be responsible citizens of the world. One of my greatest passions is to see an end to extreme global poverty, the reason I serve on the board of a poverty fighting grassroots movement called One Day’s Wages. Because of my role with ODW, my children are mindful of world hunger, model peace making, and only consume fair traded chocolates.

Um…no. My kids are kids, they pick out greens and dump their dinners when I’m not looking, fight over iGadgets made from conflict laden minerals, and only one of them is generous with their allowance, the other one is frankly, quite stingy. As much as we would like them to be justice minded, we face various challenges with children because of their limited worldview and lack of emotional maturity to deal with the dark realities of injustice.

Having said that, given the complex global issues emerging in our generation and the urgency of responding to the cries of the most poor and vulnerable around the world, we can’t afford not to raise up our children to a better world, for a better world. Here are seven ways we try, in our family, to raise our kids to be justice people:

  1. Why Social Justice? Social justice has become a buzzword, attacked by some as insidious communist ideology, and hailed by others as the latest trendy cause. As Christians, we are compelled by the teachings of Jesus, as well as a basic respect for human dignity. In order to raise our kids to be justice people, we must ground them in the “why” of justice. For us, it has looked like presenting the gospel as Good-News-That-Matters-Now and not just a ticket to heaven. Salvation means deliverance not just from personal sins, but from systemic injustice, poverty, racism, and environmental degradation. One resource we have used is the Parent Guide from the book Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma, founder and speaker at the Justice Conference Asia I attended this past summer.
  2. Incorporate in Prayer. What we pray for reflects our values. Our pre-dinner prayers (when they happen, ahem…), often revolve around praying for “ALL the sick people, ALL the hungry people, and ALL the homeless people” (emphasis added by the children). Our pre-night time prayers include thanking God for school and for, you guessed it, ALL the kids to be able to go to school. Even though our kids don’t really grasp the gravity of issues such as world hunger and child mortality rates, we hope it is at least a part of their daily routine to remember the importance of these issues, and one day grow into deeper understanding.
  3. Equality for all. The root of justice is a respect for the dignity of all. Besides modeling respect in the home, we support the kids’ school in anti-bullying programs, and encourage them to value each of their classmates equally. It’s often a delicate dance whether to intervene on the kids’ social scene as they need to learn to navigate relationships for themselves, but teaching moments for equality present themselves in so many ways throughout childhood. One of my greatest hopes is for my son and daughter to grow up modeling gender equality, to be advocates and fight against the oldest injustice in history of patriarchy. Image

  4. Practice everyday justice. Adopt some family practices which reflect the causes closest to your heart. My husband has a deep concern for environmental justice. To this end, we have slowly changed some of our habits to reflect this concern. For the past decade, we haven’t hung lights on our Christmas tree to save energy. In the past two years, we have stopped eating beef as cattle ranching is a major cause of carbon emissions. We are not so naive to believe these small steps actually promote much change in the environmental crisis, but they remind us to keep justice in the center of our attention so we can pray, stay aware, and keep moving forward.
  5. Generosity. This is so easy to do. I find children are much more cheerful givers than many of us adults. Don’t guilt them into giving their allowance. Tell stories of how their money can make an impact and let them challenge us with their generosity. Encourage them to do generosity together with friends. I haven’t been able to convince my kids to do this yet, but a really easy way for kids to give is to set up a birthday for a cause. Check out this little girl’s campaign, she has been doing this for years! So inspiring.
  6. Celebrate justice heroes. On the 50th anniversary of MLK’s Dream speech, I sat down with Lizzy and watched the speech with her – an opportunity to strike awe in her heart for justice. When Malala (my favorite activist for education for girls) was interviewed by Jon Stewart, I also shared this with her. We have such an amazing array of heroic examples, from past to present, from media to print, from around the world to local leaders, to highlight for our children as people worth emulating.
  7. Encourage creativity. The justice issues regarding poverty, the ecological crisis, overpopulation, and more require tenacity and creative solutions. Grooming our children to be creative problem solvers is a task for parents and educators and church leaders. How can we captivate their imagination for a better world? How do we empower them to dream of the impossible?

My children are still young, I am hardly the expert on the parenting topic. This is my humble contribution. What else can be added to this list?

Compassion or pity? and Friendship as Justice

Overheard on a Facebook conversation last week: “There is really not much difference between compassion and pity when it comes to being on the receiving end of it.” This thought gave me pause as I consider compassion to be a central tenet of biblical justice, and yet, I experience this to be true. We use the fancy spiritual term of “compassion” when the gist of the sentiment is indeed, pity.

The above conversation rose out of a discussion on the viral story of Pope Francis kissing the disfigured man. The media reporting the story highlights the compassion of the Pope, how his actions are pushing outside the box of the papacy, and how revolutionary his love. Other than a brief medical description of the disfigured man’s disease, there is no additional information on who he is, where he lives, or whether he has a family. We are not even given his name. The buzz generated by this story arises out of an awed respect for someone who could even consider touching such a pitiful, nameless person.

The recent devastating storm in the Philippines is another example of how the media thrives on sensationalizing suffering because it taps powerfully into our human capacity for pity. In order to fill the 24 hour news cycle, networks display horrific images and sob stories from tragedy so viewers can continually feed their appetite for pity. The word, pity, carries negative connotations precisely because it conveys a sense of superiority. One pities those who are “other”. We pity the people who we have deemed to lack something, who are not whole, unlike ourselves. We pity those beneath us. In exercising compassion, then, we often fall into the trap of leveraging power as those who ‘have’ towards the ‘have-nots’. The result is to help in some unhelpful ways.

How then, do we pursue justice, if the definition of justice is to lift people out of poverty and oppression? If compassion is reduced to pity, can there be true efforts toward authentic change? Is it possible to care for the marginalized without the condescension of pity?

The best response to the above question I learned from Stephen Bauman, the CEO of World Relief, who taught me about friendship as justice. We pity strangers. The nameless statistic from the news, the sad image in magazines, the people far away. We don’t pity our friends. When bad things happen to my close friends, I don’t feel pity, I enter into their pain. I know their story, their history, their personality so that I am not engaging their pain from a place of superiority, but one of solidarity. There is a recognition of mutual brokenness. My friends and I have shared time over coffee and spilled all the deep, dark secrets. There’s no pretense of having it altogether – there is only the vulnerable trust of carrying the burden of the other knowing they would do the same for you. Frederich Buechner says,

“What is friendship, when all’s said and done, but the giving and taking of wounds?”

Friends also make the best advocates because they can’t help but push to make things right. When you have a friend in the margins, you fight with all you have to bring them benefits. Friendship erodes status, equalizes power, finds common ground, and demands mutual respect. The news media wouldn’t report on the nameless deformed man’s friend embracing him. The sensational news cycle look past the ordinary deeds of Filipino neighbors helping one another. Friendship is not particularly exciting or glamorous, yet is the source of true compassion and lasting justice.

Friends don’t give handouts – knowing resources are only meaningful when shared. Friends don’t help without asking first what is needed. Friends don’t leave when the going gets tough, but persevere until every option is exhausted, and stays to the end when all hope is gone. Friends don’t need the spotlight of the media, just the gently whispered message of hope. Friends don’t pity, they love.

Justice work, at its best, is as simple as making a friend.

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Is there a God shaped hole in our hearts?

Does anyone remember the Donut Man? Like a donut, he says there is a hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God’s love. I’m sure he is a well-intentioned man trying to share God’s love with little children. I’m not sure I have ever been able to sit through church listening to children singing God songs without crying. The faith of a child is so pure it crowds out any doubt.

I think the idea behind this “God-Shaped Hole” theology is attempting to call out the uneasiness and longing within the depths of our being for something greater. Christians want to name this longing and supply the answer in Jesus Christ. Thus, the whole “asking Jesus into your heart” business. Simply fill the hole in your heart with Jesus and you will be fixed, promises the Donut Man.

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With all due respect to the Donut Man we have got to figure out a better way to communicate the gospel message to our children. First of all, the idea of children being born with a defective heart is troubling. The reason cute kid shenanigans on youtube easily go viral is because they contain the most uninhibited, full hearts which burst with energy, creativity, and limitless capacity to give and receive love. We delight in young kids, their joy overwhelming our jaded adult lives. Yet we have to try to convince them of their heart problem?

Secondly, placing the missing God shaped piece imply we become magically whole. I don’t know about you but this has not been my story. My journey with God from childhood to adult life has been more like an ebb and flow, periods of intense passion to times of quiet withdrawal, mountaintop sacred ground experiences to repeatedly hitting a brick wall. What happens when the promise we make to the children breaks down? What happens when they experience life and feel moments of raging emptiness deep in their souls, would they not consider the patch job done at their time of conversion coming apart at the seams?

I get that we use an over simplified metaphor to teach in an age appropriate manner. But we don’t have to start their faith journey with a heart failure pronouncement. Let’s celebrate the big-ness of their beautiful, beating hearts. Let’s delight with them the wonders of our world through their exuberant spirits. Let’s capitalize their imagination to create with abandon, without rules to dictate their projects. Let them show us the gospel with their utter dependence and unconditional love. 

Then as they grow, let’s tell the truth of God and our hearts. The truth, in my life at least, has been the more I participate in what I believe to be the work of God, the more my heart comes out tattered and torn. Love of God means love of neighbor.  Turns out neighbors come in the form of children subjected to unspeakable evils like in the sex slave trade; or they show up as transgendered youth at the brink of suicide; and girl-friends with empty wombs. The truth is our hearts don’t get stronger in this life journey with God, it gets weaker, ripped apart each time those God loves suffers a blow.

The biggest lie of the donut hole theology, however, is when our hearts are filled with God, we stop longing. This is untrue. A robust Christian life must always hope for more: more knowledge, more vision, more solutions. More justice, more compassion, more love. We live each day with our increasingly broken hearts and cry out in faithfulness: there is more to come. This longing keeps us humble, dependent on God’s grace and mercies. It helps us not settle, to persist in our labors until each man, woman, and child receives justice and dignity. It compels us to practice art, to build and rebuild, to reflect on the past and dream of the future, to express with every faculty of our being what it is we long for.

What do you think? Can we do better to teach our kids in the church?