Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Barack Obama

A culture of fear

Recently I posted on the fact that in the West we live in a culture of addiction, where we continue on a pathway that is destructive, despite overwhelming evidence of its negative consequences. In this post I want to explore another part of Western culture, one that has been tragically highlighted by the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

The US (and Australia to a lesser extent) has long lived in a culture of fear, in which the response to tragedy has been to respond with fear-based actions. 9/11 was a classic example of this. Within weeks of the terrorist attacks on the US, military strikes commenced in Afghanistan, which was followed by a dubiously argued war in Iraq. Back home, the response was the Patriot Act which restricted the liberties of ordinary Americans while proclaiming the idea that they were intended for the security of the nation.

Source: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1910204_1909321,00.htmlA similar response has been seen in the actions of Americans to the Colorado shootings. The emotional response to tragedy reflects where a culture is at, and the fact that gun sales in the US have skyrocketed since Aurora is alarming to say the least. You would think that people would want less guns to be available when yet another shooting takes place, so to arm yourself to the teeth is a reaction that is purely based on fear. Make sure you kill them before they kill you. Check out some of these quotes from a Time magazine article on the shooting:

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Thoughts on the American psyche

My wife and I recently returned from spending some time in the United States. Having been there a few times now, and having some family over there, I have decided to pen my thoughts on this country of contrasts, of opportunity and of deprivation.

We were in Florida on the 4th of July, and we spent the evening with a few hundred other people watching the fireworks and celebrations. As I watched and took on the reactions of the people, I was impressed by how much Americans love their country, and by how genuinely patriotic they are. While I do believe that Americans go over the top with their sense of patriotism, there is a reason for it, and on the other hand, I don’t think Australia goes far enough with it. And frankly I am sick of people who constantly bag America for this and other reasons when they have probably never even been there. It is easy to be judgmental from afar.

Americans really believe they are the greatest country in the world, not necessarily in the sense of being superior (though of course there are indeed many Americans who believe their country is superior than others; and that attitude is not just limited to those who believe that America is somehow God’s promised land), but in the opportunities they have in this country. Freedom is everything in this land; it is what has made it great. But it has also led to an arrogance that will one day be its downfall. For example, for Barack Obama to say, in response to the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, that “no matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country” was the height of American hubris.

But despite the claims of freedom that this country is built on, I am convinced that Australia has more freedom than the US. Our health system is not out of reach for millions of our citizens, we do not live in nearly as much fear of a major terrorist attack on our shores, and our level of poverty is generally not as high as in many places in the US.

As I watched the fireworks and was impressed by the love of Americans for their country, I was equally impressed by the view that America does not have a right to impose itself on the rest of the world. No country, however powerful, has that right.

Martin Luther King once made the point that a true patriot is one who loves their country enough to criticise it. He was responding to those who said his criticism of America came out of a hatred of its ideals. King though, loved his country, and wanted it to be the best it could be, to live out its ideals of equality and freedom for all. His criticism did not come out of any resentment or an attitude of judgmentalism or superiority. It came out of a dream he had for his country.

Any criticism must come out of a motivation of love. Otherwise it is tainted with self-interest. I tend to think that there will be many people gloating over the problems America is facing at the moment, looking forward to the decline of the American empire. I have to admit I struggle win that myself at times, but it is not the way of Jesus.

It is easy to be seduced by America and the very consumer culture that is the source of many of its problems at present. The ideal of freedom of enterprise, private ownership of property and individual opportunity are the unshakable bottom lines of this nation, and they have provided both opportunity and heavy costs over the years.

My relationship with America is one of both love and anger (as opposed to hatred; I don’t believe in hatred). Having a brother who has lived there for half his life, and having been there myself a few times, I see both sides of what, in my limited opinion, is both good and bad about this country.

One of the privileges we had while in the US recently was watching in person the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch of the shuttle. The word ‘awesome’ is bandied around everywhere these day to describe things which are really incredibly mundane. But watching this live was, for me, truly awesome. To watch as people are blasted into space was to realise, as my brother who was with me at the time said, that this is the very frontier of exploration. It was estimated that 750,000 people lined up on the Florida coast that July morning. It was a sight to behold, seeing the enormity of what a country can do in terms of technology. No wonder the patriotism on that day was so strong.

It must always be remembered though that, while this technological brilliance of America has certainly driven its innovation, it has been at the expense of social safety nets for the millions of less fortunate and less free, those who miss out because of billions of dollars spent on the space program.

Perhaps my response to the shuttle launch was also linked with my thoughts on the cultural hegemony of this nation. When we were in America, it hit me about how much we are infiltrated by American culture through television. It is so constant that we aren’t even aware of it. This cultural hegemony is largely what makes America so powerful. Through television, American culture has for years been exported around the world. The idea of American freedom and the American way of life has been shown to billions around the world, non-stop, 24/7, and, quite simply, it is part of our identity. That is why, when many people visit certain parts of the US, it feels familiar, they feel like they know the place; there is a level of comfort with the surroundings. Such familiarity also gives America more power. Image and perception is everything, and the America that is exported around the world is the America of Hollywood and dreams, whereas the other side of America is often hidden, for instance the side that has 46 million of its citizens living in poverty. This is one example of the lack of liberty that many people experience in the land of the free.

A final word must be taken from the Gospels. America was founded on the belief of many that they were a nation blessed by God, a light on a hill. And the constant refrain we hear from American Presidents at the end of every speech is ‘God bless the United States of America’. Well, my word toAmericais “be careful what you pray for.” The God in whom the Pilgrim Fathers placed their faith said “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The way of Jesus is inevitably the way of suffering. And this is the tension with which America lives. It is truly a remarkable nation, one that has given much good to the world, but it is also one which has inflicted untold suffering on innocent millions in the name of the very freedom which it proclaims to the world.

The psyche of America is indeed a wounded one. Today of all days the nation will be feeling this. The Founding Fathers seemed to have great motivations for the new country, but it has been greatly misguided over the years, leading to equally misguided hatred on the part of those who would destroy it.

On the statue of Liberty in New York harbour, the sign proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. And in Matthew 25 when the nations are brought together, it will be those who treated these very people as Christ did who will go into the glory set aside for them. Will America heed the call? On this day when many are mourning, may God truly bless the United States of America.

Bin Laden, justice, and the victims of 9/11

As opinions over the death of Osama Bin Laden go viral over the world-wide web, I have been both impressed and saddened by the responses I have seen. Like most people of civilised mind, I am glad that Bin Laden can no longer terrorise the innocent victims of his murderous, monstrous and unjust actions. The man was a monster and deserved to be brought to justice in the most powerful way possible. It’s a pity that he was not.

This is where President Obama is wrong. Justice has not been done in the killing of this terrorist. The words of America’s greatest prophet, Martin Luther King, echo through the ages: “peace is not the absence of conflict; it is the presence of justice.” Because justice has not been done in the killing of Bin Laden, peace will not be the result. As surely as night follows day, the forces of al-Qaeda will be planning revenge attacks, and the cycle will continue. And where will it end? In this day when we have the capacity to destroy the only planet we have, King’s words cry out to us again: “it is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; it’s non-violence or non-existence.” Rejoicing in the death of Bin Laden reduces us to the level of his brutal actions.

The thing about the word of the prophet is that it is timeless. King spoke those words more than a generation ago but they ring true today more than ever. Violence begets violence and hate begets hate. It is a never-ending cycle.

The fact is that we simply must get over the myth that non-violence is somehow weak and that might is powerful. Myriad examples through the centuries simply disprove this idea. Sojourners has an excellent collection of resources which expose the myth of redemptive violence and illustrate the power of non-violence through actual examples of it over many years. I have also blogged about this myself, particularly about the misunderstandings over what Jesus was really referring to when he said to turn the other cheek.

It is love and non-violence that will triumph in the end, not the weakness and impotence of violence. Miroslav Volf touches on this in his reflection on the Christian Century website, where he has included a quote from a young Christian leader from the Middle East – a view forged in a majority-Muslim country:

A huge opportunity now–after the death of bin Laden–is for Americans to intentionally free themselves fully from the domain of fear and those who manipulate it for their own agendas. Politicians will be looking for the next “enemy” to continue to distract you from being truly the “land of the free.” You are not free until you eliminate all your fear. Love drives out fear.

As Daniel Sturgeon points out, “Osama bin Laden’s mistake was to believe that violence could bring righteousness. He acted in line with this misbelief and the consequences for the whole world have been catastrophic.” And those who believe justice has been done by taking him out fall into the same trap. This is where the response of some of the tabloid media in Australia has been shockingly predictable. Headlines like the Herald-Sun’s ‘Unarmed – just like his victims’ promote the same hatred that Bin Laden did. It was Gandhi who said long ago that this old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.

Another of the better articles (in my opinion) I read during the week was from Gideon Boas and Pascale Chifflet in The Age, in which they pointed out the pertinent fact that saying that killing Bin Laden was a good thing because he is scum that deserves nothing less belies the very notion of ‘us’ being the good guys (“who believe in the value of life, the rule of law and fundamental human rights”) and ‘them’ (“murderous hateful souls “) being the bad guys. What is the difference between us and them when we engage in the very same actions that they do? This is not justice; it is revenge, and the two are as far apart as east is from west.

One of the points that I have not heard from those on the Christian Left (I hate that term but I can’t think of anything better to describe such a group at the moment) is that of sparing our thoughts and prayers for the victims of 9/11 and for our brothers and sisters in the US in general. The events of this week will bring all the nightmares of that terrible day flooding back for them. I can’t imagine the feelings they must be going through. Many would be feeling huge relief, many others would be convinced that justice has in fact been done and nothing anyone says would convince them otherwise, whilst others – and I suspect the majority – will be thankful but ever mindful that even the death of the mastermind of those terrible attacks cannot bring back their dear ones. We must spare our thoughts and prayers for them this week as well. While I cannot agree with those who rejoice at Bin Laden’s death, I have to ask myself how I would respond if I were in their shoes.

So, opinions abound, as they will for a long time to come. But perhaps the best sociological reflection of this event comes from Mark Sayers, who explores the responses of both the Christian Left and the Christian Right, among many other groups (Here I will add that the reason I hate the terms ‘Christian Left’ and ‘Christian Right’ is that they label people. At different times I could find myself in either camp. The only label I want to be stuck with is ‘follower of Jesus’. Having said that, I see where Mark is coming from to make his point). In the end Mark says that he does not celebrate Bin Laden’s death, nor does he mourn his passing. Most of all he waits for the return of him who is both perfect love and justice. Wonderful words. In the end that is our hope. We have the promise of a day when there will be no more need to justify killings in the name of God or anyone else, when death and violence will have passed away forever. Until then we mourn and as we do we are blessed by the Man of Sorrows who mourns with the victims of injustice everywhere.

Truth in a postmodern culture

Showing Christ to be relevant in a postmodern, largely secular society has its share of conundrums. I will say upfront that I am not an expert on postmodernism; the following are simply my observations of being a follower of Jesus in 21st century Melbourne, as well as some insights picked up from other followers on the way.

I have a deep conviction, and in fact I can say – and I understand that this will seem like an incredibly arrogant assertion to make in a postmodern culture – that I know that Jesus is the answer to the question of life, of what it’s all about and how we deal with it. He is the only one who delivers on the life that humanity is after. This conviction has been borne out of years of surrendering my life to this Christ, asking for His will and not my own to be done in my life each day. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” You can’t prove that by the logic of reason, and that is one of the benefits of bringing across Jesus today. Many people are not seeking ‘proofs’ these days. As John Smith has said, you could convince someone that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but they could at the same time turn around and say, ‘so what?!’.

People want to know that Christianity works. But whilst it is important to bring that across, it is equally important to remember that Christianity isn’t true because it works; it works because it’s true. Again, this will come across to many people as another seemingly arrogant assertion to make. But I learnt from Rikk Watts some time ago, and I agree with him, that truth is something different to what I had always thought. In these postmodern times where what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me, I believe we have forgotten what the definition of truth is. I believe we have been looking at it the wrong way. We are still caught in the trap of our post-Enlightenment thinking that sees truth as a concept. But the Scriptures never describe truth in such a way. Have a read through John’s gospel and you will see it. Truth is personal. The truth has come to us in a Person, the person of none other than God incarnate. A concept is impersonal, and truth is not that.

When talking about truth we have been asking the wrong question. Ever since Pilate asked Jesus that great existential question, ‘what is truth?’ (John 18:38), we have thought of truth as a concept. But John tells us that truth is a person. Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). And John in his gospel says that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). This Truth is the great ‘I Am’, a designation that the Jewish hearers of Jesus would have instantly recognised as nothing other than the outrageous statement of someone who is claiming to be the living God. No wonder they tried to kill him. How dare he make such claims in front of those who claimed to have a monopoly on truth!

I wonder how society would react if He made those claims today. I don’t think it would be much different to 2,000 years ago. We live in interesting times. While we live in a time when modernity seems a relic of the past, there are still strong glimpses of it. People know integrity when they see it. You will not meet many people have major problems with the church who will also write Jesus off. As Dan Kimball has noted in his book of the same title, ‘they like Jesus but not the church. And, as N.T. Wright says, “we generally know deep down what is good. When we see someone living out a Christian life, we don’t ask ourselves if it’s good or not; we just wish there were more people like that around.”

Throughout the ages, from modern days to these postmodern days, actions still speak loudest. If we want to find out whether or not Christian faith is relevant in the 21st century, we need only look at the actions of those Christians who are walking their talk. The fact is that Christians have had a profound impact on society. I have written elsewhere of the massive contributions that people of faith have made over the centuries. It is that more than anything that has convinced people of the reality of God in the world.

If we want to see what Scriptures speak best to a postmodern culture, I think the relevance of Christ today is seen most profoundly in those magnificent words of Colossians 1:15-20. This is what brings it all together for me. Check it out:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I think this is one of the most radical passages we can think of for the 21st century. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And, contrary to popular church opinion, God did not make everything for our glory. Colossians tells us that it was all made for Him. The creation and all that is in it was not made for us. We don’t own it. We are stewards, and stewards take care of what they have. If the church would only grasp this and get over its mind-numbing superficiality and obsession with growth and success, we would be more of a fragrance of life than a fragrance of sameness and conformity. And we would actually have something powerful to say to a society that is drowning.

We need to be more aware that society has largely given up on modernity and its failed promises of the good life and inevitable progress. But, as alluded to above, people still want to believe in something bigger. Witness the extraordinary outpouring of hope in Barack Obama in 2008. It’s interesting that such an outpouring of emotion and hope occurred in a country with Christian roots, nominal though its Christianity generally is now. It has largely been overtaken by a consumerism that has taken it to the eve of destruction, as Barry McGuire put it so many years ago.

In such a consumerist society, with so much choice, we suffer from choice anxiety. When our only commitment to life is the commitment to – in that postmodern catchphrase – ‘keep our options open’, we become confused people. We become terrified of missing out because we’re addicted to experience. As a result of this we become wired, unable to settle with being committed to something for the long term. That’s why I think Facebook has taken off like it has. It is a service that both reflects and shapes our times. On the other hand, as I have said previously, it is why marriage is so good for the soul: it’s about a commitment for life to one person.

When we ‘keep our options open’, we rarely take up any of those options and we miss out on much of the joy of being alive, of standing for something, of living with purpose. The line from a John Mellencamp song from the 1980s rings true today more than ever: “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”

Having said all this, some thinkers, notably Mark Sayers, believe we are moving away from postmodernity back into something more akin to modernity. Sayers adds though that while there has been a decline in the concept of postmodernity in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of the ‘New Atheism’ with its modernist catchcry of ‘celebrating reason’, the reality of postmodernity is being lived out by average people in the suburbs. Consider this comment by Sayers:

“Postmodernity is seen most clearly in the ethically incoherent lives lived by Western people. Its beat of relativism is heard most clearly in the contradictory hedonistic/altruistic, nihilistic/optimistic, spiritualistic/materialistic lifestyles of average people everywhere in the West.”

Sayers goes on to say that therein lies the challenge of mission in the 21st century. We do well to remember that postmodernism too has made the same mistake as the church. It too still has traits of modernism about it in that it still sees truth as a concept. It just sees truth as relative instead of absolute.

Whilst in our conversations, the use of modernist concepts like reason (an essentially Christian idea by the way) and logic can have its place, there is a challenge to be given to those who live a contradictory lifestyle. But the challenge first has to be faced by people like me who often decry the subversive effects of the very materialism we secretly still hang on to at times; in my case the very technology I secretly want more of. We too need to walk our talk. That will speak louder than anything.

I wonder if we have let ourselves be walked over by the claims of postmodernism. Can we say that truth still has a claim on the hearts and minds of people today? Can we talk about truth in a world where there is no meta-narrative, no greater over-arching story anymore? We can, but only if we remember the nature of truth, that truth is a Person, that it is about relationship, something that goes to the very core of our identity as human beings. Jesus never spoke in abstracts; he told stories, and people respond to stories because there is usually something in them they can relate to. The Christian message is a story. It is the story of creation, fall, Jesus, redemption, and new creation. Stories touch something deep in us. That is why the Christian Gospel will always touch the deepest part of our soul, that part which wants a place to call home, which wants to know absolutely that all will be ok, that there is love in the universe, and that good will triumph in the end.

My conviction is that Jesus makes internal and external sense. Internal in the sense of giving meaning and real hope as well as joy and the ability to become more loving and more whole. And externally in the sense of being the initiator of the new creation, a world where justice rules, where everyone knows both their own and everyone else’s dignity, a world where all is renewed and in its rightful place, where people are truly humble – seeing themselves rightly in relation to God, a world where grace rules. And it is all because of Him, it is all for Him. He satisfies the hungry soul with goodness (Psalm 107:9) and fills our cups to overflowing (Psalm 23:5). A postmodern culture longs for such Truth.

Bono – 10 for the next 10

It’s a new year and I thought a good way to start it here would be to link to the thoughts of Bono on what the next decade could hold in store for us. Whether you think the decade has just ended or we still have a year to go, leave that debate behind for a few moments and have a read of the thoughts of one of this planet’s more soulful minds (I particularly like his thoughts on the upcoming soccer World Cup and the beautiful game’s ability to bring the world together, if only for a short time).

Addiction to growth will not save us

For all the talk and the satisfactory outcomes of the recent London summit, something seemed to be missing to me. As long as the world remains fixated on the idea that we must grow our economies, we will inevitably fall into the same trap, and probably worse than we are in now.

In the mid-1980s, our planet passed a tipping point. It was then that we started going into debt in terms of the available resources that we have to survive. It was then that we started to consume more than we could reproduce. So while we remain addicted to economic growth, we continue the slide into debt. Our way of living is unsustainable. That is why, as I and others have said previously, there must be a massive investment in green infrastructure, and now is the perfect time to do it. Kevn Rudd’s massive investment in broadband is not a bad start but it needs investment that will not just create jobs but that will create a sustainable economy and eco-system that will be the only thing that is of genuine long-term value.

In the meantime, check out this great blog from Simon Moyle called ‘Manna from Kevin’. It has some great ideas for what to do with your $900 stimulus present from Mr. Rudd. Instead of using it to prop up our consumerism, use it to prop up someone who is struggling to get by.

A prayer for the ages

It was only this morning that I had a good look at Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration. What a lovely prayer – a prayer of confession, humility and thanksgiving. It’s just the sort of prayer that we all need to pray, as individuals and as nations. May we all seek God and his kingdom in the spirit of Rev. Lowery’s prayer. Check it out below, or read the transcript here.

[youtube=http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=7pEH37JIgBU]

The President and the Son of God

Like much of the world, I was reflecting on the outpouring of deep emotion and sheer joy at the inauguration of Barack Obama last week. As I took it all in, my thoughts turned to how the disciples would have felt after the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine their joy. It was actually true! After 3 of the longest days spent in utter disillusionment at the death of the Messiah, they suddenly had the awesome realisation that what Jesus had said all along was actually true. Death really had been defeated. Joy inexpressible!

Barack ObamaWhilst not putting too much of a spin on it, I reckon Inauguration Day was a tiny glimpse of that. Hope had been realised. The dream had taken a massive step to fulfillment. After all these years (and for so many, after the despair of the Bush years), the sun had finally risen. This was a day when African Americans, and indeed Africans everywhere, stood taller. Finally, they were being recognised as equals.

Of course, the fact that Barack Obama has become a Messiah-like figure is actually quite dangerous. The expectation on the man is simply enormous. Kevin Rudd even called him the hope of our time. What a weight to carry. After all, to paraphrase Brian’s mother (of ‘Life of Brian’ fame), he’s not the Messiah, he’s just the President. He will never be able to fulfil the enormous hope put in him, and for this reason, he will inevitably disappoint. It is only hoped that when he does, we will not become disillusioned for it.

But despite the burden this man carries, this was a day when we caught a tiny glimpse of hope, of what it will really be like when the world is put to rights. Suddenly, for a fleeting moment, we knew what it was to have hope renewed. We saw that, when a person has hope, the attractiveness of living purely for yourself fades hopelessly into the distance. You see that choosing war reflects a loss of hope, you see that giving in to temptation reflects a loss of hope. And you see that when you have hope, it really is something better, that you have finally found what you were looking for all these years. This is how it will be on an immeasurably larger scale when the new heavens and the new earth come together. What one President may be able to do pales into obscurity when compared to the glory that awaits (Rev. 21:4). Hope does not disappoint.

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