Jesus Punched Up

There’s an old maxim in comedy: “Always punch up.” It refers to a comic’s responsibility to avoid jokes about people or groups who can’t defend themselves, who are vulnerable or already persecuted and oppressed. Because, it’s simply not funny to make fun of people who already face harassment.

I have been following a lot of the news stories surrounding efforts to keep transgender people out of bathrooms to which they do not biologically belong, regardless of how they identify. And, I have been having difficulty articulating my support of trans people from a Biblical standpoint. The truth is that I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Support for transgender folks has always been tied up in my support for the entire LGBT community, and I have never thought of them as an individual community – rather a part of a larger whole.

I think that my lack of specific support is really common among gender “normal” folks: I simply don’t get it. I can understand same-sex attraction, and I have personal experience with bisexuality. But, I was born male, and I have always felt male. Added to that, I have been raised in a subculture that is very suspicious of “effeminate” men or “masculine” women. (Several less kind words have been used, by me and others, to describe people who go outside what we believe to be gender norms.)

Even though I can intellectually accept that people have different gender identities than their biological sex, even though I can support people being their very best and truest selves, I have a hard time articulating that support in a way that other Christians can understand.

So, I’ve been giving it some thought. And, I’ve been reading Scripture, because I know that I’m not making this stuff up – I know that compassion is the highest Scriptural value, and that it’s always correct to choose compassion over exclusion. But, it wasn’t until I was teaching my Sunday School class this morning – we’re covering the Book of Acts – that I really understood what basis my support has.

Jesus always punched up.

Reading Acts again has brought back to the forefront of my mind what an antagonistic and adversarial relationship the early Church had with the religious and secular authorities. It wasn’t because they were intentionally antagonizing them, it was simply a virtue of who they were and Whom they followed. Those authorities had built their power base on their ability to exclude people from the Temple – because of “sin” or because they were “unclean.” And, as I read Acts 3 and 4 this morning – the story of Peter and John healing a man crippled from birth, and then answering to the Sanhedrin for the crime of compassion – I realized that the power of Jesus (and the early Church in His name) made sacred what the authorities, the “religious folks”, had judged unclean. He healed the sick, thereby pronouncing that their sins – that is, the sin that the current teaching held they inherited from their parents – were forgiven. He took the power to exclude away from the Temple, and He did it by pronouncing everyone included. The powerless became powerful, the least became greatest, the last became first.

The fact that those who were “added daily to their number” came from the ranks of the people who had been excluded, pronounced unclean, and persecuted by the religious authorities tells me that Jesus has a special regard for those people.

And the fact that He regards those people as worthy of the Kingdom is enough basis for me.

Make no mistake: the morality of support for oppressed, persecuted, and harassed communities – like the transgender community – requires no further study from me. This is a group of people who lives under constant threat of violence, who has a far higher suicide rate than most of the population, who are misunderstood and mislabeled by a large portion of society. That alone – the fact that they are being hurt, while not hurting anyone – is enough for me to declare my support for them. What the lessons of Jesus and the early Church give me is a way to articulate that support in the shared language of faith.

While I’m going to continue to try and understand the trans community, the fact is that my faith doesn’t require me to understand: it requires me to show compassion, to help, to protect when necessary, and to speak in support of. Even were I to believe that transgenderism was a horrendous mental illness – which I do not – I would still be required by my Christian discipleship to support and protect transgender persons, for as long as they were being threatened, oppressed, and harassed.

That’s what we do.

We don’t punch down, as Christians. We don’t become the agents of exclusion or condemnation. We don’t declare people unclean or sinful. That’s not our job.

We are Kingdom People, people who declare that everyone is included.

And, we don’t cozy up to the very authorities whose power is built around the exclusion of people they deem unworthy. That’s in direct opposition to what Jesus and the early Church stood for. That’s not Christian, it’s Anti-Christ.

Join me in helping those that are hurting, those that are excluded, those that are declared unclean and sinful.

Join me in following Jesus.

The Divine Absence

I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine a few days ago. She’s been reeling from a number of really awful things happening in her life, and she doesn’t feel particularly connected to a lot of people.

This woman has been a woman of faith for her entire life. She is what some old church folks might call a “Proverbs 31 Woman.” But, after so much struggle over so long a period, she’s beginning to question whether God is there – or, possibly worse, if God is there but doesn’t care about her.

I know this feeling all too well. It has been so long – SO LONG – since I have regularly felt Divine Presence in my life, at least in a direct way. I go through the motions of prayer, because I believe that it is required of my discipleship. I open my heart, even if I don’t always speak. But, as I’ve shared before, I don’t have those moments of religious ecstasy, those moments where I feel the presence of God in prayer or meditation.

My friend is experiencing this in the depths of her soul… and it hurts, like very few things can hurt. When you have lived your life believing that God exists, that God loves you, that God’s presence is a sign of His favor, the sinking feeling that God might not be there, or that you might not be in His favor… that feels a lot like dying.

It’s something that might be hard for a person who has no religion to understand, but I am sure that everyone has that place of surety, of certainty, in their life. And, when certainty becomes uncertainty, it feels like the floor has dropped out from under you.

When I was in my early 20s, I read several unpublished interviews and letters of Mother Theresa. In these letters, she spoke at great length about how she felt God’s absence far more often than she felt God’s presence. Even in the midst of all the good work that she did (and, despite her conservative theological views, she did do good work in feeding and caring for the poor), she had such difficulty feeling God’s Presence.

Naturally, the occasionally awful Protestant crowd cried out that this was a sure sign that Catholicism was not of God, that the reason she didn’t feel God’s Presence was because of her false religion. But, the more that I have thought about it, the more I have come to a completely opposite answer.

I think that her experience of Divine Absence was a sign that hers was a religion of the purest form. I believe that her experience was a greater sign of God’s favor than she could have imagined.

Granted, this is a fairly self-serving theology. I have already expressed my own experience of Divine Absence, so it seems very self-righteous to make this a sign that my religion is better than yours. If you’re willing to look past these implications and hear me out, then read on.

I have a couple of Youth Ministry Assistants that do all the grunt work on Sunday nights. They’re tasked with ensuring that everything behind the scenes remains working well, so that the rest of the Youth Ministry Team can focus on direct ministry. Now, these Assistants are early 20-somethings, and they need some supervision when they start working for the team. Admonitions are given often, reminders are put forth about what they need to be doing at any given time. And, one of the most wonderful compliments that I can give to one of these young assistants is to be absent while they go about their assigned tasks.

They certainly don’t take it to mean that I don’t care what they’re doing, or that their work isn’t important. They understand that trust has been placed in them to accomplish their work faithfully, even when I’m not standing over their shoulder observing. Sometimes, they’ll run into difficulties, and at any point they know that I will be willing to help them through a task that they deem too difficult. But, my presence encourages reliance on me. My absence encourages faithfulness and self-sufficiency.

I’m sure that there’s a relationship like that in all our lives. I’m equally positive that this is not a perfect analogy, and that it runs the risk of sounding calloused and insensitive. But, I really, really think that going about the work that we’re called to, even in the midst of Divine Absence, is the most faithful thing that we can do. It’s easy to do the work of the Kingdom when we’re full of assurance that God is with us. It takes a great deal more courage and will to do that work when we’re not sure if God cares or not.

I don’t judge those who can’t take that step. After all, it’s entirely possible to do good work without a belief in God. But, for me, there comes a point when we have to stop looking for God in the sky, or in our prayers, or inside the walls of a church. Sometimes, we even need to stop looking for God in our own hearts. Instead, we look for God in the faces of the people who love us, and in the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Let me say it again, for those in the back:

We look for, and find, God in the faces of the people who love us, and the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Jesus said that if we earnestly seek Him, we will find Him. Where would we be most likely to find Jesus, who died, was raised, and who ascended into Heaven?  Where would we find this Jesus who said, explicitly, “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me”?

The woman that I spoke of at the beginning of this post does amazing work with people who desperately need the care and love that she gives. I have been a beneficiary of that care and love, and I knew from the moment that I met her that it was a ministry that she was giving. If God doesn’t care for this person, then I don’t think I could care much for God.

But, I believe that God does care for her – just as I believe that God cares for me, even though I can’t feel the Divine Presence every day. I believe that God cares for me because of the people that I help, that I minister to. I believe that God is in them, that Jesus is in their eyes, and that their gratitude and love is the gratitude, love, and favor of God Himself.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” (That’s a bastardization of the actual Victor Hugo line from Les Miserables, but it will do for our purposes.)

May you always see God in the faces of those around you.

May you feel that Divine Absence keenly enough in your prayers and your heart to seek Presence in the lives of others.

May your religion be so pure and simple that you do the good work in all circumstances.

And, may you always have someone in your life that looks so much like Jesus to you that you may as well be face to face with Him.

Only The Dead

Warning: This post contains strong language, as well as opinions that some might consider “anti-military.”

A few days ago, I saw a news story about a 25-year-old Russian soldier, who called in an airstrike on his own position after being overrun by ISIS fighters. I had 2 immediate reactions.

The first was the part of me that is a former soldier: “What a badass.”

The second was the part of me that is me: “What a fucking waste.”

I didn’t know this soldier at all. I’m not even sure where he was. But, I can imagine his last moments with a high degree of sympathy, because I know what it is to know, in your hearts of hearts, that you are about to die.

Sometimes, you walk away from that moment. You know that you’re going to die, and then the universe changes its mind about your demise. Sometimes, you know that you’re going to die, because you are about to die.

But, regardless of the outcome, that feeling is the same. The panic, the anger, the sadness, the sense of loss… and, finally, the acceptance of your fate and the resolve to make it mean something.

I read the transcript of this soldier’s final radio call (I haven’t checked the veracity of this, but I can tell you that the language and tone of it feel right.) As I read his words, I felt that chain of emotions that I just described in what he was saying. I won’t post it here (a quick Google search can find it, if you’re at all interested), because it’s not really important to what I’m trying to say here. I honestly only have the barest of ideas of what I am trying to say here. I just know that I need to say it.

A few weeks ago, a person that I deeply respect sat me down because they were concerned about my attitude towards the military, and that this attitude might rub off on the youth that I try to pastor at my church. This person comes from a military family, and is married to a retired military member. So, the ties to the military are ingrained since early childhood in this person, and these ties have only been reinforced throughout their life.

I was told that, no matter what happened to me while I was in the Army, that I needed to tone down my criticism in front of the kids.

I have avoided posting about this for weeks, even though I have felt a desperate need to speak my mind. I have avoided it, because the person that I’m speaking of – though I feel that I am going to great lengths to conceal that person’s identity – might see this post and feel angry or betrayed that I have written about a private conversation. They might feel that I am attacking their own deeply held beliefs about the military by post my own in a public forum, and using my conversation with them as a launching point.

My need to write this has overcome my caution about this person’s sensibilities. Because, even though I sat through this conversation with a (relatively) calm demeanor, even though I agreed (reluctantly) to avoid any topics that might touch the military… in my heart, in my belly, I was absolutely seething with anger. It’s an anger that has touched many of my thoughts over the last few weeks.

I live and minister in a military town. Our town contains half of one of the largest military bases in the country (the other half of the base is in Kentucky). As a result, we have a large community of active duty soldiers, veterans, and retirees. Many of the kids in my youth group come from families in which one or both parents are or were military, whose parents have been deployed multiple times to “hazardous duty areas”, whose parents are still deployed overseas to different bases and missions.

Of course, I try to be sensitive to the needs and situations of those kids. Hell, my own children are part of that population. I missed my elder son’s 2nd birthday due to deployment to a “hazardous duty area”, along with 2 Thanksgiving’s, 2 Christmases, multiple wedding anniversaries, and more “minor” holidays than I can count. I have spent weeks and months on field exercises, missed countless dinners, weekends, and fun excursions due directly to my military service. (This is not even touching what I have missed out on due to the way my brain was completely rewritten as a result of my time in the military.)

So, you can generally assume that I’m very fucking aware of the challenges faced by military families.

And it is because of, not in spite of that fact that I will never have a positive word to say about the military – especially not to teenagers.

We’re always told about how impressionable teenagers are. I always have that in mind when I speak to these kids. And, if I ever want to leave any single impression on a group of teenagers, it is that joining the military is a waste of their time, talents, and the very best parts of themselves.

My own kids know that joining the military would be the worst thing that they could ever do for themselves or to me. Unlike a lot of parents who went to war and survived (looking at you, Vietnam vets), I don’t sugarcoat my wartime service or refuse to talk about it. I want my kids to understand what happened, why it happened, and why it was a terrible, terrible thing for all involved. Of course, I’m giving them the “PG” rated version of events, but I will never, never attempt to water down the emotional toll of what happened to both the Coalition soldiers and the Iraqis that were affected by our military misadventures in the Middle East.

As I read these endless articles about this 25-year-old Russian father and husband, as I read the transcript of his final moments, I was struck again by how we are wasting some of the very best young people in a profession and cause that will only ever cause suffering and death.

Imagine, if you will, that this young man – this young man who had enough courage to give up his own life to accomplish his mission – imagine if this young man had been encouraged and guided towards doing something that actually helped people. Imagine that he worked as a humanitarian, or as a doctor, or as a political leader. Imagine someone who had that level of courage, that level of conviction, that he would be willing to sacrifice everything to aid those in need, to help and heal the sick and injured, to fight against unjust laws and for a better society. Imagine thousands of men and women like that being steered towards something better than fighting wars, and preparing to fight wars, and supporting those who fight wars.

When I was in Iraq in 2006… every time I heard one of our bombs being dropped, or heard the .50 caliber machine guns firing from our guard towers, I had the thought, “What if we just killed the cure for cancer? AIDS? What if we just killed the next Einstein, the next Saint Francis, the next Da Vinci?”

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of young men and women, just in the last decade have been thrown uncaringly into the meat grinder of war. All the while, they’re being fed a steady line of absolute horseshit about duty, honor, country. About becoming a man, caring for their families, keeping America safe and freedom secure. They’re being fed romantic lies about military service, and it all starts when they’re kids and teenagers.

These “military boosters”, from good military families, will always have those wonderful stories from their parents and grandparents about the “Band of Brothers”, all the good things about the military. But, no one wants to tell them about the other side, the side that you’ll see most often.

They won’t tell these kids about what it sounds like when someone screams for help after being wounded.

They won’t tell them what burning flesh smells like, and how you smell it everywhere you go afterwards.

They won’t tell them about how you are constantly afraid, and how that fear infects everything after you leave the “hazardous duty area.”

They won’t tell them that the military will discard you like a tissue once you stop being useful.

They won’t tell them that their families will be an afterthought, at best.

They won’t tell them that the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological wounds that they carry from their service will make everyone around them uncomfortable, and that they will receive the absolute bare minimum of care to help them.

Impressionable teenagers everywhere will be told a stirring lie, and people who try to tell them the truth will be told to sit down and shut the fuck up.

The truth is that I came to the idea of non-violence before I ever realized that it was a Christian concept. I came to the idea of non-violence when I realized the truths of military life, of warfare. But, my dedication to the Christian faith has reinforced my belief in non-violence, has reinforced my total rejection of the military and the system of lies and misinformation that convinces teenagers everywhere that it’s a valuable contribution to society.

The truth is that there is absolutely no room for a philosophy of violence, warfare, or nationalism in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, until we’re willing to put away our swords – both literal and metaphorical – we’re abandoning an important part of discipleship. We’re rejecting an important part of the message that Jesus came to bring.

The fact that I embrace a philosophy of total non-violence, the fact that I want to keep these people’s kids out of a destructive organization… that fact shouldn’t make me the most controversial figure at a local church. That fact shouldn’t give cause for concerned meetings about and with me. I don’t expect a ticker-tape parade for preaching one of the most basic tenets of the Gospel. I expect to be called out and denigrated by the American people at large. But, I have to admit to genuine surprise to be confronted about it in a Christian church.

George Santayana (not Plato) once said: “Only the dead see the end of war.” This has been used to justify mankind’s continued organized killing of one another for a long time. But, I call bullshit on such blatant fatalism. Maybe the American public can’t create a peaceful society (though we should continue to work for it, as part of our evangelism.) However, the Church – the so-called Kingdom of God on Earth – should at least be willing to reject the blatant nationalism of a society that is built on the bones of its own young people. Until the Church is willing to do this – until it is willing to break ties with the great Military Machine – we can’t really claim to be following Jesus.