When “Me Too” means “You Too.”

I’ll start with a TRIGGER WARNING. I will be discussing sexual violence and coercion in this post.

 

 

 

 

This blog post is spurred by the recent “Me Too” posts on social media. The campaign is meant to give women an opportunity to come into the light about being victims – and survivors – of sexual violence. The idea is to highlight the widespread nature of crimes committed against women.

But, there is an implicit invitation in these stories. The invitation is for abusers to come forward and name themselves as perpetrators in these crimes. Too often women suffer this pain in silence, because there is a very real and justified fear that naming the men that assaulted them will result in blame and shame against the victim of the violence.

So, I am issuing my own invitation: I demand that we take responsibility for our own actions. I demand that we discuss – openly, painfully – our behaviors as men. How have we been complicit or active participants in this culture of sexual violence? Why did we think that it was okay? How can we ensure that our sons – or the many other young men in our life – don’t continue this awful and destructive cycle?

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was in a long-term relationship with a very nice young lady. We met through a relative and attended the same church. I made a decision to go to the same college.

She made it clear to me, at the beginning of our relationship, that she intended to abstain from sex until she married. I told her that I respected her decision, and that we would abstain together.

I lied.

It wasn’t an intentional lie. I didn’t have nefarious motives or a detailed plan to make her have sex with me. I just changed my mind by degrees.

First, I decided that I would be the one to marry her – a decision that was sincere, and that we discussed – and that I would honor her decision to abstain.

Next, I decided that we didn’t need to wait. After all, if we were going to get married eventually, why not just start the sex now? I was sure that, in the eyes of God, it would be alright.

So, I began to push. I pushed verbally, slowly making most conversations about sex, trying to convince her that it would be great for us to do it before marriage. I pushed physically, never forcing myself on her completely, but always trying to move our physical relationship just a bit further. I touched her in ways that she wasn’t comfortable with. I always took the “no” seriously,  never trying again right away. But, I never took the “no” as permanent either.

Eventually, we broke up. I couldn’t wait, and she wouldn’t compromise her principles. For years, I convinced myself that it was her fault, that she was being unreasonable, that my desire for sex was natural and her abstinence was just puritanical religious brainwashing.

However, that  year and a half of my life has taken on a new meaning for me in the last few years.

I realized that what really happened in our relationship was that I decided I had more right to her body than she did. I decided that I knew better than she did what was best for her relationship with herself, and her relationship with me.

I never forced, but I coerced. I used emotional manipulation to obtain sex.

I committed a form of sexual assault.

 

It’s both freeing and shameful to type those words. I grew up with the idea that sexual assault dealt exclusively with forcing intercourse. Whether explicitly or implicitly, I was taught a concept of sexual assault that didn’t include coercion, manipulation, or failure to gain affirmative consent.

I knew that uninvited groping was inappropriate, but I always assumed that it was mostly innocent – as long as I respected the “no” that came after.

I knew that “no means no”, but I also thought that the lack of a “no” meant “yes.”

What I now think of as “coercion”, I used to think of as “persuasion”, part of the process of any relationship with a woman.

I thought of women as conquests to be won, and sex with a woman as the “final battle”.

And, I don’t know whether my behaviors as a teenager and a pre-marital young man are more damning of me or of the culture that I grew up in, because I wasn’t abnormal in my attitudes. I look at myself back then, and I see a rape waiting to happen – because I didn’t understand that sexual violence was far, far more than just physically forcing a woman to have intercourse with you.

Every time that I touched or groped a woman without waiting or asking for consent, I was committing sexual violence.

Every time that I waited until a woman was drunk to try and gain her affections – even if those affections were never more than making out – I was committing sexual violence.

I wonder if any women out there think of me as their “me too” experience.

 

I don’t know how exactly I came by those attitudes and behaviors.

Perhaps it was the culture at large that made me think that I knew better than the women I interacted with what they wanted to do with their bodies.

Perhaps it was a poor interpretation of Scripture that led me to think of women as nothing more than receptacles for my penis.

More likely, it was a combination of factors.

But, it stops with me.

Several weeks ago, I began explaining sex to my “tweenage” son in multiple short installments. My first discussion was just a quick rundown of what is meant by the word “sex.” What is the purpose of sex? When is it okay to have sex?

As I talked to him, I realized that the most important thing that I could say was this:

“Son, people can only have sex if both of them agree to it. That goes for any kind of sexual touching. If they don’t say yes, it means no. And, we call unwanted touching ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault.'”

We talked about situations in which sexual touching is never okay: when someone is underage, when someone can’t say no.

He didn’t seem shocked or confused by this conversation, because I have been teaching him for his whole life about bodily autonomy and consent. You can say no to any kind of touching, even if it’s a hug or good-natured tickling from a family member. You don’t have to hold my hand, unless it’s for safety. When you say “no” to any kind of affection, we will stop.

We have to teach our sons that women are individuals who make decisions for their own bodies – but we have to start by teaching them that they also have bodily autonomy. This way, when our boys become young men, they understand both sides of a sexual assault.

Women aren’t just victims; men are perpetrators. Women aren’t just sexually assaulted; men sexually assault them.

Jackson Katz says this best, and I believe that I will close with his quote:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how  many  men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”

“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them… Men aren’t even a part of it!”

It needs to stop with us, men. Because, “Me Too” is also an accusation of “You Too.”

 

Final Note: I understand that sexual violence is also perpetrated against men. It is not my intention to ignore or minimize this. I choose to talk about assaults against women because it happens at a much higher rate than it does to men.

 

 

 

 

 

Sinners In The Hands of An Angry Gunman

To say that I’m horrified this morning is like saying that… actually, I can’t think of a good simile. I’m horrified. I’m sick to my stomach. I’m counting up the casualties – both dead and wounded – in my head, and I’m boggled.

I’m a combat veteran.

While I slept last night, a lone man with a stack of rifles killed and wounded more people than most individual units in combat will lose in a year. In the course of minutes, one man killed or wounded the equivalent of a battalion of soldiers.

As of this writing, over 50 people have died as a result of last night’s shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over 400 are wounded.

To lose almost 500 people to wounds in a day is unthinkable.

To put this in perspective: the casualties at Utah Beach in WWII numbered 197.

The number killed during the entire Tet Offensive was 543 (over 2500 were wounded.)

I shouldn’t see casualty figures from a country music concert that are comparable to a day or a week in combat.

That’s what I’m seeing today.

We are being held hostage in this country by a series of “lone gunmen,” who are being aided and abetted by both “2nd Amendment” organizations and citizens who would rather fall on their sword than admit that we have a gun problem.

Let me say that again, in case you didn’t hear me in the back.

We have a gun problem.

I am not holding every single gun owner in the United States responsible for our gun epidemic. Many people in my family own firearms. Many of my friends own and carry firearms. I am personally trained to operate several different types of firearms – though I choose not to own one now.

But, if your first response to the suggestion that we have a gun problem is to become defensive, you might be one of those who would rather watch our country go down in a hail of small arms fire than admit that we need to fix this.

As a Christian, I have been raised with the belief that we are all sinners, that there is something in us that is fundamentally flawed or broken. I have been raised to believe that our desire to do evil will always war with our desire to do good.

I’m not sure that I believe that now, but I have a question for those Christians who do believe that.

Why trust a bunch of sinners with deadly weapons?

Our nation, our culture, is driven by unholy rage and irrational fear – qualities that are not the Fruit of the Spirit or the “good fruit” that Jesus talked about, but we have allowed a nation full of angry and fearful people nearly unlimited access to firearms.

By and large, Christians are silent.

We’ll vote for an immoral candidate based solely on their stance on abortion or gay marriage. But, we won’t lift a finger to aid the victims of gun violence. All we have to give them are our thoughts and prayers.

Our thoughts and prayers are worthless.

Our condolences are empty.

Our cries to God to save us are unheard.

Until we decide to place our faith in something besides guns, we will be a nation under siege, held hostage by a series of angry gunmen.

We have chosen to live by the sword. We will continue to die by it.

But, there’s Good News.

We can change.

We can demand action by our elected officials.

We can expend our energies spreading a message of peace, a message of love, a message of justice.

We can repent.

 

 

Learning to Love Who We Hate

I hate Donald Trump.

That’s not hard for me to say, and I don’t even feel bad for saying it. I hate Donald Trump. I hate what he stands for. I hate the things that he says. I hate the things that he does. I hate the people that he puts into power. I hate looking at his face. I hate hearing his voice.

To me, he is exactly what I was taught Anti-Christ would be. He’s a power-hungry dictator, who basks in the mindless worship and adulation of his followers. He’s a corrupt man, who has made millions by mistreating and oppressing his workers. He’s a sexual predator, who brags openly about groping, objectifying, and forcing himself on women. He’s a charlatan, who uses the name of Christ to bring Christians – people who should know better – into his fold.

But, why do I hate him so much?

The world is filled with dictators, corrupt businessmen, predators, and charlatans. The Church Universal is filled with wolves in sheep’s clothing, men who spread hatred and falsehoods from pulpits.

I don’t hate all of them. I fought against foreign insurgents, who were supposedly in service to a brutal dictator. But, I didn’t hate them or the dictator himself.

I have met with and counseled people who have committed sexual crimes against women – against children – and I didn’t hate them.

I have known megalomaniacs and narcissists, people whose entire world consisted of their own desires, and I didn’t hate them.

What is it about the 45th President of the United States that makes him so different?

It has taken me almost a year to figure it all out, to put it into words.

I hate Donald Trump because he is my enemy.

As a former soldier, I should know what enemies are, and I should be familiar with having enemies. But, I never considered those insurgents or that dictator to be my enemies. They were men and women in service to a cause that they saw as right, just as I was. They were my foes out of necessity, but I never really saw them as enemies.

Donald Trump hates me. He hates people that I love. He hates ideals that I have dedicated my life to. He is doing everything that he can to hurt people who are already hurting: to ensure that sick people stay sick, poor people stay poor, and imprisoned people remain imprisoned. The Good News that I have dedicated myself to preaching, the uplifting of the poor and oppressed, the freedom of the captives, stands in opposition to his goals and actions.

He is the Captor, the Oppressor, the Accuser, the Adversary.

He is my enemy.

Jesus is very clear about enemies.

I once self-righteously preached about love for enemies, because I had yet to meet an enemy that I really hated. Intellectually, I knew that this was a hard teaching, but it wasn’t hard for me.

My discipleship has suffered mightily during the reign of Trump, because I have not been able to fulfill this basic command of Jesus: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)

How the hell am I supposed to love Donald Trump? How am I supposed to love the Confederate-flag-waving racists and swastika-wearing neo-Nazis? How am I supposed to love the wealthy politicians whose every vote is a big “f**k you” to the poor? How am I supposed to have any kind of good feeling about these monstrous people?

I don’t have to feel anything.

Loving your enemies has nothing to do with feeling a certain way about them. Loving your enemies doesn’t mean letting them harm others without interference.

Loving your enemies doesn’t mean passively accepting the evil that they do.

I can love Donald Trump best by protecting his soul from the evil that his corrupt and twisted mind would have him do. I can love Donald Trump by protecting his victims.

I don’t have to send him Christmas cards or say nice things about him. I don’t even have to pray that God blesses him.

I do have to make sure that the revulsion that I feel when I think of him doesn’t turn into a desire for vengeance against his person. I have to make sure that I don’t wish the harm that he does to others on him.

I don’t have to accept who he is or what he does.

I just have to find a way to make my love stronger than what I feel.

I don’t know how, but I don’t think that following Jesus requires a perfect understanding. I think that following Jesus requires a willingness to learn more each day.

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God.”

Being Bilingual

I spent my teenage years in the southern tip of Texas, about a 30 minute drive to the border. Many of my classmates in Junior High and High School had either been born in Mexico, or had parents or grandparents who immigrated.

Being a friend of families who had immigrated was a singular experience that I would not trade for the world. The culture was similar in so many ways, but different in many others. It was not uncommon to find a house with grandparents, even great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – either living there or as very frequent guests. It’s hard to remember any time I went hungry at a friend’s house – fresh tortillas, tamales, or just good American pizza.

Most of my friends who came from immigrant families were fully “Americanized”, and lived their daily lives in the same way you’d expect from any family. All of them spoke English – either as their first language, or as a slightly broken, second language.

It’s that bilingualism that I’ve been thinking of a lot recently. For many of my friends who spoke English as their first language, Spanish was still spoken frequently in their home. And, I also had friends who spoke English at school, but whose family spoke nothing but Spanish at home.

Then, there were the friends whose English was halting, who struggled to find words at times. I am ashamed to admit that many of us laughed when they struggled (they laughed with us, but probably not because it was funny.) They spoke slowly when they spoke in English, with great deliberation and concentration.

But, when they spoke Spanish, they came alive. Suddenly, they were speaking fluently, excitedly, with inflections that I didn’t know they were capable of. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but it was almost enough just to hear the way that they were saying the words.

Eventually, they would remember that I couldn’t understand, and they’d slip back into English. But, those few moments that they were speaking their native tongue, they were home.

Faith has a language all its own. We speak in Scripture verses, in the lyrics to hymns, in Common prayers. We learn creeds and call-and-response, and we respond to those liturgies and litanies automatically.

“The Lord be with you.” And also with you.

“The word of God for the people of God.” Thanks be to God.

Who among us can fail to be moved by the words of 1 Corinthians 13 when spoken at a wedding? Love is patient and kind. Love is not proud, it does not boast…. the greatest of these is love.

Who would object to the words of Psalm 23 being spoken over the grave of a loved one? The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Or, when the song Amazing Grace is sung or played over the same grave? Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found – was blind, but now I see.

People of faith come alive when we hear our language being spoken. Not everyone we know can understand our first language, and we learn to slip back into the less familiar language of the world we live in now.

But, those cadences and inflections are forever echoing in our hearts.

I’ve thought of this many times before, and a dear family member reminded me of it a few weeks ago: no matter where I roam, no matter whether I am in the church or out, my primary language will always be the language of faith.

I will never hear the problems of a friend without an encouraging Scripture coming to mind.

I will never see a cross or a dove without hearing the words of familiar hymns and songs in my head.

I will never face a dangerous situation without whispering a few words of prayer under my breath – even if it’s just an exercise, a habit, a comforting ritual.

No one can take that language from me. I can be cast out, tried and convicted as a heretic, lose my church membership, be ostracized from the community of faith, but I will never unlearn this language.

So many of us spend most of our lives in communities of faith, and then later find that we have to go. No matter the reasons, we share the experience of losing our foundation, our family. Many of us return to the Church, if for no other reason than because we don’t know who we are without it. Many more stay away, and do everything that they can to scour the presence, language, even the memory of religion from their minds, their hearts, and their mouths.

But, there are some of us who choose to live as immigrants – strangers, foreigners, who love our new home as much as our old one.

We know that we’ll probably never go back to our old home, our old way of living. The reasons that we left will still be there, as are the reasons that we came to this strange land. We know that there are others like us, people who come from similar places, who speak in familiar tones, and we just can’t help to slip into our first language when we see them.

So, don’t be afraid to speak in comforting Scripture, or sing familiar songs. Don’t be worried that you still pray under your breath. You might do these things and not believe. You may do these things and be unsure if you believe or not. These rituals and words are sometimes only tangentially tied to beliefs. Sometimes, speaking familiar words is enough.

No matter where you are or what language that you’re speaking, know that there is a whole community of spiritual immigrants who understand what you’re saying, and we’re probably ready to speak back.

 

The Detox (Who Am I Without This?)

I am sitting in my home on a Sunday morning, and every fiber of my being tells me that I need to be in church.

It feels like I haven’t been to church in ages. It has only been two weeks.

As I took a shower this morning, I mulled over the central question of this post: “Who am I without this?” My next thought was, “I know what I am without this! I need to go to church!” I nearly stopped the shower then, got dressed, and drove down the street in time to greet folks before Sunday service.

It’s not a sin to enjoy going to church. For many people, the church is a place of comfort and healing, a place where they truly belong. Not going to church might make them feel sad or lonely, but it won’t cause them physical pain to be absent.

When I can think clearly about this, I realize what’s going on.

I’m detoxing from church.

Addiction runs pretty deep in my family, and I have a lot of secondhand experience with it. My only firsthand experience is with nicotine (which is a hell of a drug.)

I was smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day until about a year and a half ago. Over the years that I smoked, there were many attempts to quit. Every attempt ended in failure – even this last attempt is a very qualified success – but each attempt shared a few characteristics.

First, there was the elation. I’m finally quitting. I’m quitting for real this time. I’ve got this.

Then came the sullenness. This sucks. I don’t know if this is worth it. I feel like shit.

Next comes the anxiety. Oh my God, I’m never going to have another cigarette in my life. I’m going to die.

Who am I without this?

It might seem like a silly question to ask about nicotine or alcohol, but it’s a question that every addict asks themselves, in one form or another.

What am I without this? What am I going to do to fill this aching need? Who am I without a cigarette/drink in my hand?

When you give up an addiction, whether by colossal amount of will or with proper treatment – and the second option is much more viable – when you give it up, you do more than just leave the drug behind. You also leave behind an entire community of people.

For smokers, you leave behind all those folks that you used to light up with behind your workplace.

For alcoholics, you leave behind your favorite watering holes, and all the people who welcomed you in and helped you into an Uber when you were too shitfaced to drive.

You leave family behind. You leave community behind. You leave a thousand little rituals behind.

And, you know that you can never go back.

To go back means that you fall right back into those old habits and rituals, because you’re among the community. You belong there. This is who you are. Who are you without this?

There are many people at that old watering hole who can come in, have a few drinks, and then leave. They’ll never understand why you can’t walk into a bar without leaving in an Uber.

There are people out there who can smoke a cigarette or two at a party, and not even think about smoking for months. They’ll never understand why you can’t take even a drag without immediately needing a pack.

There are people at the church who can come to church and love every moment of it, but can also take a vacation without feeling the absolute, aching need to be in church. There are people who don’t feel like they have to apologize when they miss a Sunday or two. There are people who don’t come back after a short absence with the frenetic, manic energy of someone who is finally getting a fix after weeks without.

Those people – those wonderful, loving, amazing people – will never understand why you’re not happy. They’ll never understand why you cringe during the sermon, or during the song service, all the while saying, “Amen” and raising your hands and singing along.

Because, you don’t belong there. You don’t really want to be there. But, you don’t know who you are without these people. You don’t know who you are without these rituals, these songs, these sermons.

These aren’t good reasons to keep doing something. These aren’t the signs of a properly devout religious person.

These are the signs of an addict.

 

This journey isn’t done. I’ve tried to quit before. But, “cold turkey” is never a good technique. You, my dear readers, are my support group.

Some of you might not understand this. For you, church is something completely different than it is for me. If that’s you, please give me grace. If you can’t understand me, then at least continue to love me.

If you’re reading this and you attend my wonderful, loving church, please understand that there is nothing wrong with you or our church. The bar isn’t to blame for the alcoholism, nor are the patrons.

If you see me at church, most of you will hug me and say, “Welcome back.” Just like most of my old smoking buddies will offer me a cigarette when they smoke in front of me. Just like most of them would never judge me for bumming one.

But, I hope that at least one of you will be like that rare friend of an addict. After greeting me and hugging me, I hope that at least one of you will look me in the eyes and say, “What are you doing? I thought you quit.”

Because, I don’t know who I am without this. But, I need to find out.

A Journey Away

Friends, there has been a long silence on this blog, and I’d like to explain why.

I have always striven to make this blog as honest as possible: about mental health, about military service, about theologically difficult concepts. But, I don’t know that I’ve been as honest about what the Christian religion means to me – where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I see myself in the future.

My faith has meant many things to me at different times in my life. At times, it’s been a blessing and a strength. At other times, it’s been a great burden and a thing that injures. I have been faithful at times, and I have strayed at times. I have counted the cost of discipleship, and I do not shrink from the price.

Something different is happening inside me now. I no longer have the patience or the grace that I have struggled to maintain in the face of toxic theology and those who practice it. It no longer seems like something that I can fight, this battle for the soul of Christianity. I have tried to dedicate my life to following the Jesus that I see in the Gospels, but so many Christians seem to have found a completely different Jesus than the one that I see.

Perhaps they’re right, and I am in the wrong. Perhaps the God of the Universe is actually as petty, capricious, and vindictive as many Christians would make him out to be. Perhaps he is simply indifferent to our plight, seeing us as beneath his Divine Notice.

Perhaps he is not even there.

Or, there could be something entirely different going on. Perhaps, the God of the Universe is so vast, so all-encompassing, that it is impossible to know it. Perhaps God is Nameless, Faceless, forever a Stranger to those who would seek to define and worship it.

Where does this leave me, this constant exploration that always leads back to doubt? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m not sure that I will ever understand my own thoughts on the matter. But, I know that I am journeying away.

This is not a journey away from the one that I have set my feet to follow. If anything, I feel closer in discipleship than I ever have. Rather, this is a journey away from all the toxic ideas that have led to a faith in a God that you can only really worship with fear and self-loathing.

This is a journey away from the lines that are drawn around God, and the lines that are drawn in the midst of people – to keep some out and some in.

This is a journey away from the idea that we are all doomed from birth to lead lives of barely contained evil.

This is a journey away from the idea that action is somehow less important than an intangible faith, and that we must accompany the first with the second in order for it to have any value.

Mostly, this is a journey away from the lies that I have told myself for years, the molds that I have constantly tried to force myself into. This is a journey away from both passionate declarations of faith and renunciations of it. This is a journey away from the conservative fundamentalism that declares itself infallible, and the liberal fundamentalism that declares itself unassailable.

And, as hard as it is to admit, this is a journey away from the Church that has been my life vest and safety blanket for so much of my life. This is a journey away from the creeds that have defined me, the worship that has shaped me, and even – sadly, but almost inevitably – a journey away from friends and family that will see any such journey as a damnable heresy.

In the next few weeks, I hope to write about what this is a journey towards. Something is waiting down this road – perhaps something and Someone. As frightening as a journey can be, I need to see where it leads.

As Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And, “not all those who wander are lost.”

America’s Porn Addiction

The first snuff film that I ever saw was in March of 2003. I was sitting in my bedroom, in my apartment at Blinn College, when my roommate ran down the hall and yelled, “They’re bombing Baghdad!”

Without thinking, I tuned my TV to the first news channel that I could find. I watched, engrossed, as my country dropped thousands of pounds of ordinance on one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I called my father, and I remember saying something like, “This is horrifying.” I was watching as thousands of years of culture was vaporized by high-yield explosives, and I knew what I was watching.

But, I couldn’t look away.

A bit over a year later, I watched the grainy video of Nicholas Berg – a freelance, radio-tower repairman – being gruesomely beheaded by militants in Iraq. I sat in my father’s office, with headphones in my ears, sitting close to the screen and listening to the man’s gurgling screams as he died painfully.

I was in Ramadi in 2006, and personally witnessed countless gunfights and had who-knows-how-many mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched at the outpost I lived in. And, we videotaped it. And, we watched it, over and over again. (I still see these videos pop up on my Facebook feed from friends that were there.)

We have an addiction to violence in America that is pornographic in the way that we consume it.

Just yesterday, I began to see alerts from friends on Facebook about an ongoing violent incident in Cleveland. After a breakup, a man went on a killing spree – he went so far as to murder a man on a Facebook live video.

Ever since, I have seen this video on the news. I have heard from people who watched it. And, all I could think about was that moment in my father’s office – over a decade ago – when I watched a man get his head chopped off.

We know what’s on that video, just like I knew what was on the Nick Berg video.

But, we can’t look away.

Last week, many churches put on a “Passion Play”, which is a dramatization of the death of Jesus. Mel Gibson went so far as to put a Passion Play in cinematic form – “The Passion of the Christ.” Even in Christendom, we aren’t content to imagine the horrible way in which our Messiah was killed – we have to see, we have to watch, we can’t look away.

Everywhere you look, this pornographic violence saturates our culture. There is no escaping it. Turn on the news, and you get videos of hard-core police shootings, murderous rampages. Log onto your favorite social media site, and you are inundated with images of beaten and bloodied bodies, videos of people bleeding to death and being shot in the head, of children being gassed and drowning. And, we sit in front of our computer screens consuming this porn, complete with heavy breathing and sweating.

And, if your interests are more soft-core, the news is happy to drown you with images of missiles being launched, of bombs being dropped, of aircraft launching from carriers in a blaze of glory, of naval destroyers speeding towards hostile waters to obliterate our enemies, dear Jesus Christ can we PLEASE look away?

For just a moment, could we refuse to consume? Could we somehow protest violence without constantly viewing it? Could we celebrate our Savior without having to watch a snuff-style re-enactment of His brutal death?

I don’t know. But, dear God, I hope so.

On Being Simon Peter

When I was in high school, we had “visiting evangelists/prophets” that would come into our church for revival Sundays – or whole weekends. Because this was a very emotional time, I would always find myself at the altar at the end of such services: with hands lifted high, tears in my eyes, praying for God’s forgiveness for whatever misdeeds I had committed recently. On one such occasion, the visiting evangelist came up to me, put his hand on my chest, and announced that I had “the heart of Simon Peter.”

I reflect on that moment a lot. It was formative for me in my spiritual upbringing. When I was younger, it was a point of pride for me that someone had recognized my closeness to Jesus.

Of course, the legacy and the heart of Simon Peter is a bit more complicated than that.

I have been given more reason than usual to reflect on that experience, those words, this year. Our church is putting on a production called “Twelve Seats at the Table.” It’s a dramatic interpretation of the thoughts of the twelve disciples after Jesus announces that one of them will betray Him. And, I was asked to be Simon Peter.

Naturally, the director had no idea that I had once been compared to the disciple as a young man, nor that so much of my spiritual formation has been centered around the idea that I have the “heart of Peter.” I didn’t tell him. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I told anyone, because it’s just been the background noise of my Christian experience. But, as I have delivered the monologue – in rehearsals and last night for our first performance – it has really struck home how much Peter’s story is my story. In fact, Peter’s story might be all of our stories.

How could a man who loved Jesus so faithfully turn so faithless? How could a man who confessed Him so strongly as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” turn and deny ever knowing Him when his back was to the wall? How could a man who followed Him so closely misunderstand Him so completely?

It’s easy to view this story through the lens of two thousand years of history and assume that we would have done things differently. It’s easy to scorn Peter for loving his safety far more than he loved Jesus. But, how many times have I denied Jesus with my lips, just because it became to hard to believe in Him? How many times have I denied knowing Him, because the world didn’t make sense – or because I was grieving, or because I was angry, or because I was afraid?

Worse, how many times have I denied Him with my life?

Simon Peter was a man of bold promises and rash action. I sympathize, because I am such a man.

Are we all? On this day of all days – on this Good Friday – do we make bold promises to Jesus and the world about our faithfulness, our steadfastness, our willingness to follow Him even unto death? Do we do this, and then deny ever knowing Him only a few hours later? Do we deny Him with our lips, or do we confess Him as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” with our lips and then deny Him with our lives – both in our personal lives and in the life of our nation? Do we deny Him by denying the homeless person on the side of the road eye contact, the money we have in our wallet, or the dignity of a fellow person? Do we deny Him by waving our swords (or Tomahawk missiles, or 21,600 pound bombs) in the face of our enemies when He has told us to put them away?

Do we tell others that we “don’t know Him” by worshiping on Sunday and being uncharitable on Monday? Do we say “I don’t know the man!” when we wear a cross around our necks but scream our disdain at people of color, at immigrants, at refugees, at LGBT persons, at all the other marginalized and oppressed in our society and around the world?

And, if we do, do we even bother to “weep bitterly” when we realize what we’ve done?

When I was young, I thought that being Simon Peter was about being faithful to Jesus.

Later, I thought that being Simon Peter was about denying Him when it mattered most.

Now, I understand that being Simon Peter is about constant, passionate repentance for failing Him.

Will we all repent for our denial?

The Temptation of Jesus

In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar – which feels like the soundtrack to my life sometimes – there’s big number where Simon the Zealot is dancing around with a bunch of people singing, “Christ, you know I love you!” (It’s actually my least favorite song in the opera.) But, there’s a moment that I’ve been reflecting on this morning.

Simon sings, “There must be over 50,000/Screaming love and more for you!/And every one of 50,000/ Would do whatever you asked them to.”

He then leans in conspiratorially to Jesus, and sings, “Keep them yelling their devotion/But add a touch of hate at Rome./You will rise to greater power/We will win ourselves a home!”

It’s pretty well accepted, both historically and as an article of faith in Christianity, that the term Messiah was used for someone who was going to deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. It wasn’t a term that invoked images of lions lying down with lambs or a “suffering servant.”

There’s also a story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, before beginning His public ministry. Satan comes to Him, and the third temptation is, “I will give you all the Kingdoms of this world, if you will only bow down and worship me.”

Of course, Jesus refuses. And, all my life, I have assumed that the refusal to lead the Jewish people in violent revolution was just as easy as refusing Satan’s offer of power.

But, what if it wasn’t?

 

Words have always been my most powerful tool. Even as a kid, I always seemed to know just how to say something to get my point across. It’s why I take so much pleasure in blogging, or writing on social media: there’s such a feeling of triumph when your words turn someone’s head or change someone’s mind on an important issue. The greatest words that I’ve ever heard or read after I’ve written something is, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Lately, my words have been turning ugly. The election of Donald Trump and the ugly, public hatred that led to it and has followed from it has put me in a state of constant anger. And, my words have turned from a tool into a weapon. Instead of preaching love and forgiveness, compassion even for our enemies, I’m advocating punching Nazis. Instead of praying for those who curse and hurt me – and those I love – I’m lashing out, calling names, even going so far as wishing for their deaths.

It’s like I’ve become all the worst parts of the Old Testament, a copy of the vengeful God that commanded the Israelites to pillage every village and kill every foreigner in their path to the Promised Land.

It feels so damn right, though. I mean, I’m on the side of justice. My anger is righteous. I’m advocating punching Nazis… because they’re fucking Nazis who publicly talk about black genocide and follow a man who killed 6 million Jews. I’m wishing for the death of people who would leave refugees out in the cold, detain and handcuff old people and children because of their country of origin.

These are truly bad, awful people, and I feel so good and right about hating them.

But, then I reflect on this moment in Jesus Christ Superstar. Even though it’s a fictionalized account, I imagine that this was a constant temptation for Jesus. He might have easily said “no” to Satan’s offer of power… but, how easy was it to say “no” to the endless crowds who wanted Him to deliver them from injustice. How hard was it to refuse that power to bring righteous anger onto the people who were oppressing his followers and countrymen? It wouldn’t have taken much. All He had to do was change the tone a little, stop speaking against violence and loving enemies, let His rhetoric stir up just a little bit of that anger that was simmering beneath the system. It would have all been for a good cause.

But, He wouldn’t. He still taught that we need to love our enemies, to not resist evil with evil methods… because He knew that we become that evil. He knew that the slide from righteous anger to outright, blind hatred was quick and steep. He told Peter to put away his sword because He knew how easy it was to take it out and keep it out.

I would have rejoiced at Peter cutting off that Roman toady’s ear. I would have burned with righteous fury.

But, Jesus didn’t. He kept feeling that compassion, that love for the people who were ready to kill him. Somehow, Jesus resisted both the narrow-minded, bigoted, moralistic religion of His detractors and the militant, violent, revolutionary spirit of some of His followers.

I don’t know how He did it. I’m stuck on that steep slide into hatred. But, I want to get back up it. I’m trying to.

And that’s more than I could say yesterday.

The Revolution Begins

The Christian faith is about revolutionary spirit.

I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about the “language of faith.” Since the election last month… actually, it’s not just the election. Since I heard the first name in the long list of unarmed (mostly) black (mostly) men that have been shot by police, since I first heard the acronym ISIS and witnessed their takeover of places in Iraq that my friends died in an effort to make and keep safe… since I heard about a school named Sandy Hook… since I watched my own denomination stall and drag their feet in recognizing that Confessing and practicing Christians are actually Confessing and practicing Christian (no matter their sexuality) and then watched the larger American church enthusiastically approve an vile and evil man (and a vile and evil administration, by all accounts) to the leadership of our country…

In light of all of this, I have grown increasingly resistant and sometimes even hostile to the language that people of my faith have chosen to use to counter these very difficult times in our nation and world.

“God is in control.” (Or “Christ is on the throne”, or other dull variations.)

“Pray for our nation/world.”

“Love trumps hate.”

It’s not that the sentiments are bad. It’s certainly not that the people are bad. But, when we live in a time where very real and explicit evil and injustice are openly approved of and practiced, the language of faith seems inadequate. And, people of faith seem irrelevant.

I have sat in despair over the past month, mostly unable to even attend church, unable to pray, unable to read and meditate on the Scriptures. I have lamented that we seem to have no more Amoses or Moseses. No John the Baptists. No Samuels or Nathans. No Esthers, no Deborahs, no Miriams.

I know that they are there. I see them in the pulpits and the protest lines. But, they seem so few, when those who confess Christ are so many.

As I sit in my cave, I have had an opportunity to help some folks closer to home. Most of the time, I don’t even see those small things as ministry. They fall into the category of “Stuff that I do because I can.” But, I realized this morning (after getting an unexpected hug from one of these folks) that this “stuff” is revolutionary.

It is an incredible act of resistance – in a world that has declared its approval of avarice, infidelity, and hate – to live your life believing that you are not the most important person around. It is an act of upheaval to place the needs of others above your own needs or comforts.

The revolution really does begin in love.

But, it’s not the soft and safe love that so many churches try to sell – the kind of love that makes nice and whispers dull and useless platitudes to hurting and needy people.

It is not a love that just prays for those in need. It is a love that aggressively pursues the hurting, helpless, and hopeless.

It is not a love that soft-pedals on topics of grace and forgiveness. It is a love that is militant in its pursuit of reconciliation, justice, and peace.

It is not a love that simply “trumps” hate, or a love that passively “wins” against hate. It is a love that rebukes hate.

I believe that more prophets will rise up in the coming days, that the Spirit of the Lord will fall upon many, and that we will once again speak the unvarnished and unapologetic truth to the principalities and powers that threaten the fundamentals of our confession of Christ as Lord.

But, I also see the unlikely prophets that are already in the streets. They are feeding, clothing, and sheltering the homeless. They are welcoming the refugees and the immigrants. They are protecting – with their very bodies – the bodies of protestors and victims of police violence. They are speaking out and writing on opinion sites and columns. William Barber II, Tony Campolo, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey… the “lesser knowns”, like my friend the local campus minister and my Quaker cousin.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Unlikely Evangelist”, because I felt that “evangelism” was so far outside my calling that I was an unlikely person to spread the Good News (also, it’s catchy.) But, I realized today that it’s not me that’s “unlikely”. The Bible is full of men – flawed, reluctant men – just like me, just as unlikely. What the name really means to me today, right now is that the Good News is so damn unlikely. We live in a world that is so harsh, so hostile, so self-centered, so violent, so unjust… that it is nearly inconceivable that a Prince of Peace, a Lord that comes explicitly for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, that Lord is the physical expression of the Creator of the Universe.

As I am fond of saying, it’s a dangerous Gospel. It’s a radical Gospel. It’s a Gospel that leaves no prisoners, that demands revolution and does not allow for stagnation. It’s a Gospel that requires such a drastic and dramatic upheaval of the established social order, of the status quo, that the faint of heart shouldn’t even approach it.

It’s a Gospel that can only be told, retold, and described using dangerous, revolutionary language.

I leave you with a passage of Scripture that spoke volumes to me this morning, especially in the season of Advent. It uses the kind of language that we so desperately need to reclaim: the Scriptural, the prophetic, and the revolutionary.

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

The revolution begins in love. The revolution begins in peace. The revolution begins in justice.