Saturday, December 22, 2012

What If the Newtown Shooter Had Been Black, Muslim, or Latino?

Katelin Hansen writes of the Newtown shooting and other recent mass murders:
There is a double standard that exists around the explanation of such events. It would not take very many mass shootings in which the perpetrators were black, Muslim, or Latino before we would hear comments about “violent cultures” and the ‘moral bankruptcy‘ of an entire group.
Think that race should have nothing to do with it? Maybe not. Yet when the perpetrator isn’t white, race is routinely injected into the narrative. And no matter how many white male mass-shooter we’ve had, we still live in a society that fervently fears Black men.

This is the danger of maintaining cultural white male default. We are blind to the ugly aspects of a culture that is perpetually considered ‘normal.’ If these shooters were black men, there would be a collective shaking-of-heads at their ‘inherit violent nature‘. If Latina women were committing mass shootings at a similar rate, the media would certainly be asking what the cause of it might be. But after the Newton shootings, we will see no law enforcement policy changes that will increase the racial profiling of white men.

It is a chilling aspect of white privilege to be able “to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group” (Chauncey DeVega). Time and again, the white men who commit these mass shooting are framed as “lone wolves” and “outliers,” with little examination or reflection on a broader cultural responsibility.
Hard as Hansen's assertions may be for people in the white community to take, she raises important points. White Americans, by and large, expect "those people" to behave violently while viewing the spate of mass murders perpetrated by young white men as aberrations.

I'm not suggesting that all young white men are murderers or wannabes. My own son is a young white man presently studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

But I am suggesting that the profiles of mass killers bear chilling similarities suggesting that they are drinking from the same cultural waters, are falling through the same mental health system cracks, and are imbibing the same lionization of the violent misuse of firearms and the US Constitution's second amendment.

However government deals with these matters with policy, the Church, it seems to me, is bound to address their spiritual dimensions in several ways:

First, we must find ways in which we can reach out to loners. One of the things I noted in the first parish I served was that in that rural community in northwest Ohio, there were fewer people who were marginalized. People who in other locations would have been seen as "weridos" were simply accepted members of their families and churches.

You see, the people in that highly Lutheran area thought that, just as the grace of God given in Christ could accept them as they were in order to help them to become what they could be as children of God, it was important to extend similar opportunities for grace and significance to others.

It worked. There seemed to be far fewer mental health issues than I have observed in the other settings in which I have done ministry: small town Michigan, suburban Cincinnati, small town southeast Ohio.

Abraham Lincoln was once criticized for being charitable to his enemies. But Lincoln asked, "Haven't by befriending them destroyed my enemies." A community that finds ways to incorporate and love and, when necessary, find treatment for "loners" will erase their loner status, making resentful, antisocial, violent behavior less likely.

Second, we white Christians must accept that the culture of violence has infected the young people who come to our predominantly white churches. We need to offer them wholesome, life-affirming activities that spread the love God has given to the world in Jesus Christ. This, actually, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a pastor.

Third, we who proclaim the gospel must be honest in showing that the problem of sin is common to all human beings and it was this very problem, which threatens us with eternal death, which Jesus came to destroy through His death and resurrection and our faith in Him. All have fallen short of God's intentions for human being. Christ is God's way to wholeness and a lifelong process toward renewing purity.

Fourth, we need to be in constant prayer that God will bring an end to this scourge of violence that afflicts America, in all our communities.

Therefore, fifth, we must empower our church members to spread the good news that sin and death need not have the final word over our lives. "All who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved," the Bible promises. "For God so loved the world," Jesus told a man named Nicodemus, "that He gave His only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christ comes to transform those who surrender to Him from enemies of God to friends of God. No Christian ever feels alone. "I am with you always, even to the close of the age," Jesus promises believers in Matthew 28:20.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of potential mass killers? One suspects a kind nihilism, a belief that nothing matters. Or a belief in their own rights to act as kinds of supermen who can play the role of a cruel god, deciding who gets to live. Or maybe they believe that, in the end, nothing matters but making a splash.

Whatever the case may be, it's difficult to refute Hansen's observation that the bulk of these mass killers are coming from the white community.

Consequently, those of we Christians in congregations composed of largely white populations have a role to speak God's truth in love. Who knows, it may be that for a time just such as this, we have been called to reach out to the young white people in our communities and assure them that as children of God for whom Jesus Christ came to die and rise, their lives do matter, they have value and needn't prove it in violent and antisocial ways.

Beyond that, churches should work closely with the mental health community and parents in helping to identify young people who need the extra doses of Godly TLC our churches can provide and in helping those young people get the counseling that qualified mental health professionals can offer.

[Thanks to Geoff Talbot of Seven Sentences for linking to Hansen's blog post over on Twitter.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why None of Us Knows When the End Will Come

There probably hasn't been a year I can remember since I was conscious of the things people talk about, that there hasn't been some new prediction of the day on which the world will end.

As a Christian I know to disregard such talk even when it comes from misguided Christians.

Christians believe that there will be a day when the risen Jesus Christ will return to finally and fully establish His kingdom. The old creation will be brought to an end and Christ's new creation will bloom to full flower. Preparation for that day is, in fact, a key theme of the Advent season we celebrate before Christmas, a season that starts on December 25.

But we have it from Jesus Himself that speculation about when it will happen is pointless. Jesus says: "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son [Jesus Himself, God the Son], but only [God] the Father" (Mark 13:32).

This statement is mysterious on several levels, of course. Christians believe that God has revealed Himself to be one God in three Persons. The New Testament speaks of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and Christians have come to use the shorthand term, the Trinity, to describe God's three-in-oneness. But in the words above, Jesus seems to be saying that there are some aspects of their work that each Person of the Trinity keeps to Himself.

Be that as it may, there is no mystery about Jesus' fundamental point, which is that to speculate about when this world will come to an end is pointless. That day is shrouded in a mystery we're not meant to know.

In the meantime, Jesus goes on to say, we have work to do. "Beware, keep alert," Jesus says, "for you do not know when the time will come...Keep awake!" (Mark 13:33-37)

Our work?
  • *To entrust ourselves--including our past sins, our present decisions, and our future destiny--to Jesus Christ alone. "This is the work of God," Jesus says, "that you believe in Him Whom He has sent" (John 6:29). Jesus is the One sent by God the Father (cf. John 3:16-18)
  • *To use our talents and gifts in ways that are productive, expressing love for God and love for others, including our families, and that glorify the One Who gives us our gifts. (Romans 12:1-2)
  • *To tell others about God becoming one of us in Jesus, Who died, taking the punishment for sin we deserve, and rose again in order to open up new, everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and believe in Him. (Matthew 28:19-20)
The end--whether of this world or of our own lives--will come when it comes. When we follow Jesus, we're set free from trying to micromanage or control life, set free to live, not stew over what some dead civilization might seem to have predicted or what some new "wise man" may claim to know. If Jesus doesn't know the day, they don't know either.

Get busy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where Was God Last Friday in Newtown?

An acquaintance from another part of the country wrote the other day to ask what she could tell her friends who wonder about where God was when the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded last Friday.

Here's a response I shared with her. It was written "on the fly." If you find it helpful, that's great. If its rambling nature puts you off, I apologize. Like all of us, I am still reeling from this horrible tragedy and continue to pray that God will comfort and help the survivors and all who grieve.
Dear _____,
Your question and others associated with the Connecticut tragedies have been coming up in my interactions with people ever since Friday, as you can imagine. I don't have any easy "answers," but a few thoughts.

This tragedy has particularly struck us all because twenty of those who died were children. In a sense they, along with everyone who was at the Sandy Hook school last Friday and will be haunted by these events for the rest of their lives, were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. In this, they don't differ from the hapless victims of the Holocaust, of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the killer tsunamis of a few years ago.

It's heartbreaking!

When considered in this way though, I'm bound to conclude that in this fallen and imperfect world, unspeakable things can sometimes happen. In Romans, Paul talks about how, though through Christ, we have a certain hope that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay an will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God," right now all of creation and we ourselves groan, like women in labor, for that moment when Jesus returns and all who have trusted in Him will live in a new world, where suffering and tragedy are no more. (Romans 8:18-25)

Paul, a man well-acquainted with suffering and grief, starts out these thoughts by saying, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

Jesus says, "In this world you will have trouble. But take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). With these words, He encourages us to know that until we rise again with Him in eternity, we live in a place in which we are all subject to the possibility of such tragedies.

But we also have promises:
  • Jesus says, "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). 
  • Romans 8:31-39 contains the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 
  • Hebrews 13:5 quotes the Lord as saying, "I will never leave you or forsake you." 
  • And in John 14:8ff, Jesus told the disciples apprehensive about talk of Jesus' "departure," "I will not leave you orphaned." 
  • He then goes on to promise that He will send His Holy Spirit to all who call on Him.
For me, the question of where God was last Friday when this tragedy occurred is wrapped up in the story of Christmas. The prologue to John's gospel (John 1:1-18) talks about the God of all creation Who entered into our lives, then suffered what we suffer so that, through His death and resurrection, He could buy us out of our slavery to suffering and death and decay and sin for new and everlasting life with God. All who are "in Christ" are part of His new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), but truly we only see it in this world through a mirror dimly right now (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Because of God's compassion for those who don't yet know Christ, God allows this imperfect world to continue to creak along. (2 Peter 3:9-10) This should incite us Christians to be about the business of sharing Christ and His love with everyone we know!

The Old and New Testament refer to Jesus as, "Immanuel," "God with us." Evil happens in this world. Innocent children suffer. (I think of how Herod killed all the babies two years of age and younger after Jesus' birth.) But God is with the suffering in their suffering, I believe. The Lord Who wanted the children brought to Him and Who said that we adults needed to have the credulous trust of children, I believe is most especially with children, who aren't yet cynical enough to disbelieve, when they suffer. I have been with too many suffering children and watched how they have latched onto Christ and inspired others by their faith to believe otherwise.

The Bible also often described God as bearing "compassion" for people. This is a compound word meaning "to suffer with." God, I believe, suffers with us and that our suffering too is part of what He bore on the cross, its power to deny us life with God destroyed forever by His suffering and death. Hebrews 4:15 specifically refers to Jesus' ability to be compassionate toward us in our sins, but I think the passage also contains the promise of His "understanding" and presence with us when we suffer. It says: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin."

I guess what I'm struggling to say in all of this, is that there are no facile explanations of why God didn't miraculously intervene in the attack of last Friday morning. But I believe we aren't promised that this imperfect, sinful world is going to be easy: the innocent will suffer, marred minds will carry out evil deeds. These things have been ongoing realities in human history since Adam and Eve fell into sin and brought this alienation from God and neighbor into the human gene pool.

But I also believe that God is with those who suffer and grieve, giving them a peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:4-7).

And I also believe in the resurrection of the dead, that all who have trusted in Christ will be saved from sin and death and futility and live in the peaceable kingdom with God for which we were made.

In Matthew 24:12-13, Jesus says: "And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures [believing in Christ] to the end will be saved." Though the world is filled with mysteries beyond explanation, this is true: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will rise again. And Christ is with us.

I hope that these rambling words help in some way. God bless!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Agatha Christie, Ian McKellen, Michael Jecks, and 'Democratic Art'

Ian McKellen reprises his role of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings films in The Hobbit, projected to be the first of three films chronicling the prequel time before the Rings adventures.

In an interview with TIME, McKellen pronounced that the one playright in whose plays he's acted that he hates to be Agatha Christie, the noted mystery writer. McKellen claims, "I've done a couple of plays--misery, rubbish. No sense of what human beings are at all."

Coincidentally, in a recent Twitter exchange with contemporary British mystery writer Michael Jecks, we agreed that Christie's characters are somewhat thinly developed. I tweeted Jecks:
...have you read much of Agatha Christie? I just finished one of hers. She writes puzzles...
...People seem more like caricatures. Yet I find her mysteries addictive.  
In the meantime, Jecks wrote back:
Hah! You beat me to that one! Yes, but they are fun and entertaining. Turn off mind etc...
...Yes puzzles: no characterisation really, which is why actors love her. They can stamp their own mark very easily! I enjoy 'em...
Jecks and I may seem to be saying the same thing as McKellen about Christie's work. But I don't think that's entirely so.

You see, the lack of deep character development, at least in the supporting cast of characters--suspects, mainly--in Christie's stories doesn't necessarily denote "no sense of human beings at all."

Clearly, she had a tremendous understanding of the human beings for whom she wrote her novels, stories, and plays.

She understood that in a workaday world of confounding mysteries, there's nothing more appealing to our egos or to our desire for order than a mystery in which we join the hero in resolving matters and setting things right.

The proof of how well she understood these things about us is in the enduring popularity of her work, even though much of it takes place in a Jeeves and Wooster world long gone.

Christie, like Alfred Hitchcock, also understood something primal in all human beings: Our terror that, at any moment, our well-ordered world could come crashing down on us.

So, while Christie's characters may be plastic, her understanding of the characters of those who read or viewed her works was anything but. In this, she remains lastingly insightful.

And this is why her work is more vital, more infused with character, than McKellen's dismissal of Christie would have it.

Years ago, I remember reading an essay by Ralph Gleason in Rolling Stone about the music of Bob Dylan. Much of Dylan's work is filled with Dylan's penchant for, in a phrase by Joan Baez in a song about her relationship with Dylan, "keeping things vague." Cryptic language, the meaning of which is ambiguous, can initially drive a hearer away from Dylan, not to mention the thinness of Dylan's voice and the usual sparseness of his arrangements. But those who stick with listening to Dylan are rewarded richly. Dylan's music, Gleason said, represents a "democratic art," work to which each listener brings her or his experiences, fears, and hopes. Dylan, at his best, doesn't tell you what to feel. He takes you to a place and lets you feel what you feel. That, asserted Gleason, is democratic art.

In a way, this is precisely what Christie did and still does. Actors in Christie plays or in scripts based on her stories, as Jecks pointed out, love the freedom of infusing the characters with whatever meaning or quirks they can. Readers are given the same freedom when they sit down to read a mystery by Christie.

In essence, Christie invites us to become her co-authors, to flesh out the characters she trots before us in our imaginations.

I read other authors to find fully realized characters in more realistic life situations. But that doesn't mean, as McKellen says, that Agatha Christie had no sense of human beings at all.

I find, in fact, that she knows me, anyway, very well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

After the Newtown Tragedy: People Get Ready!

Luke 3:7-18
We have all been disturbed by the events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday.

And many of us in this sanctuary, I know, have been moved to pray God’s comfort for the families of the victims, for an end to the scourge of senseless violence that afflicts our country, and for the mental health of persons who would contemplate such terrible acts.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will likely be renewed debates about things like mental health spending, school security, and guns. And I hope that as Christian citizens, we all will inform ourselves and pray God’s guidance and wisdom for our leaders and for ourselves in these debates.

But all of the issues I just mentioned are topics for political discussions and as one called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I have no call from God to say what God wants governments to do or not to do about these matters.

However, I do know and I can say with the absolute authority of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit what God wants every human being to be about today, tomorrow, and every day they have life on this earth.

It’s summarized in the words of an old Impressions song written by Curtis Mayfield that Bruce Springsteen sang during this past Wednesday’s 121212 Concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy: People Get Ready!

That, in fact, is what this season of Advent is all about. It’s not just about getting ready for Christmas. After all, there are twenty sets of parents and grandparents and families who thought when they sent their little ones off to school on Friday morning that they were ready for Christmas. But no Christmas plans, no treasure picked up at ToysRUs, no planned holiday vacation could be preparation for what they faced this past Friday or what they will, in some ways, face every day for the rest of their earthly lives.

Advent is a reminder each year to get ready for the coming of Jesus because, whether at the moment of our own deaths or, should we still be around when it happens, at the moment when the risen Jesus returns to the earth to finally and fully establish His eternal kingdom, each of us has a rendezvous, an appointment, with Jesus.

Are you ready?

This is NOT a sweet by-and-by kind of question. God isn’t interested in creating porcelain saints who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.

In the face of the kind of evil we saw this past Friday, in fact, no person is likelier to have a practical impact on everyday living than the believer in Jesus Christ prepared to meet their Lord in eternity.

This world needs people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and eternity.

That is the theme of today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 3:7-18.

The lesson picks up where last Sunday’s Gospel lesson left off, with John the Baptist preaching repentance.

Repentance, as mentioned last Sunday, has (or at least starts with) two components.
  • First, sorrow for sin. 
  • Second, trust that, because of what Christ accomplished for us by His death and His resurrection, the sins for which I’m sorry are forgiven. 
You aren’t really repenting from God’s point of view unless both elements are present. Judas, for example, clearly was sorry for having betrayed Jesus‘ innocent blood. But his suicide bore clear witness that he didn’t trust the gracious God he knew in Jesus to forgive him.

On the other hand, there are no doubt Christians who, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, subscribe to “cheap grace”: “the grace we bestow on ourselves...forgiveness without...repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession...”

Look at our lesson. In verse 7, John sees all the people who are coming out to be baptized as a sign of their repentance. He doubts their sincerity. “Brood of vipers!” he calls them.

Sounds like, “Children of serpents!” to me and we know about the serpent, the embodiment of evil who, in the garden tempted Adam and Eve into sin.

John goes on, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

We think of wrath as an Old Testament word and words like grace and faith as New Testament words. Not true.

The Old Testament tells us, for example, that Abraham, the very first member of God’s chosen people, the Jews, was saved by God’s grace through his faith in God. It also says that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and even the book of Revelation, with its visions of the eternal future that belongs to all who trust in Jesus, speak about wrath.

Wrath is the anger and punishment God metes out against those who willfully violate His will by sin. Wrath isn’t irrational or irresponsible on God’s part, as though it describes God being out of control. Quite the contrary! Read the ten commandments and you’ll find that there is no mystery about  what behaviors God calls sin.

But just as God’s mercy and grace can come upon people suddenly so, both Testaments say, can His wrath. When you and I come face to face with Jesus at a moment over which we have no control or say, we will, as I’ve mentioned before, either stand naked in our sin, susceptible to the rightful wrath of God, or we will stand clothed in the righteousness of forgiven sin through our faith in Jesus Christ. “Who warned you to flee from God’s impending wrath?” John asks the crowds.

And it’s here that John brings up a third important element of repentance. Look at verse 8: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

John thought that the crowds composed of his fellow Jews, fellow descendants of Abraham and Sarah, were just going through the motions. “Sure, we’ll do this baptism thing,” John might have overheard some in the crowds saying, “but after all, we’re already part of God’s people. We’re OK.”

Folks: The modern counterparts of the crowds who flocked to hear John preach and to be baptized by him aren’t the rising percentages of people in our society who claim to have no religious belief whatsoever, but the Christians who casually mumble their creeds, fill up the offering plate, sing a song, even receive the body and blood of Jesus and then, a split second later, conduct business, care for children, talk with a spouse, deal with other people, engage in gossip as though Jesus’ shed blood on the cross and His resurrection from the dead to give us life mean absolutely nothing.

You see, the third essential element of repentance is authenticity.

A dying world that produces tragedies like the one we saw in Connecticut this past week needs nothing so desperately as the witness of Christians who confess that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, that the God we meet in Jesus can fill our lives with a peace that passes all understanding, and that all who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live for all eternity in a perfect kingdom without violence or sin with God.

Truly repentant people regret their sin, embrace Jesus’ forgiveness, and then authenticate their trust in Jesus by the way they live their lives.

When we truly repent, truly turn to the God we know in Christ for life and meaning and purpose, God plants the seeds of new life in us and, as we, in Martin Luther’s phrase, live in daily repentance and renewal, the fruits of repentance--the results of living intimately with Jesus as our Lord and best friend--will be seen in our authenticity as Christians.

Don’t misunderstand. Being authentic believers in Jesus does not mean being perfect. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. That includes me. Just ask Ann.

Take a look at verses 10 to 14 in our Gospel lesson. John has, in effect, just warned the crowds confident about their family relationship with God simply because their parents were charter members of First Lutheran Church in Jerusalem that pretty soon, God was going to chop down their family trees, that the only people who can be confident about their relationship with God are those who turn from sin, trust in Christ, and live as God’s children.

“What shall we do?” the crowds ask John in verse 10. “If you have two coats, give one away to the person with none. If you have an abundance of food, set aside some for those who don’t have food.”

Tax collectors, people who had a notorious reputation for taking more money from people than they owed and skimming the extra for themselves, asked John in verse 12, “Teacher, what shall we do?” “Don’t steal any more,” John in effect says. “Collect what you’re supposed to collect.”

Then in verse 14, some soldiers, probably soldiers in Herod’s guard, asked, “And what shall we do?” Soldiers in those days often shook people down for protection money. So, John tells them, “Don’t intimidate people. Don’t make false accusations against people. Be content with your wages.”

You see what John was telling these people?

He wasn’t saying that they all had to go Iraq and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

He wasn’t telling them to undertake extraordinary acts of religious devotion.

He was saying, “If the repentance you offer this morning is for real, then dare to live with authentic trust in the One Who is so great I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal...

Turn from sin.

Trust in Christ.

Then, in gratitude for the gracious gifts of forgiveness and new life Christ gives to those who believe in Him, live ethically.
  • Love your neighbor, even the neighbor with whom you share a marriage bed. 
  • Hug your kids and grandkids. 
  • Pray for those who hate you. 
  • Give to those in need. 
  • Invite others to know and follow Jesus.”
I have no satisfactory explanation for why tragedies befall the human race other than the fact that this isn’t heaven. Sin and death are on the loose. Yet Jesus died and rose to ensure that their days are numbered. As Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

And I can say that we will be ready for whatever this life brings and ready for heaven itself when we turn from sin, trust in God’s forgiveness, and live authentically as God’s children.

Our children will be ready for anything when we teach them to do these same things.

Truly, this world needs nothing today so much as people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and by their faith in Christ, are ready for eternity.

May we be those people. Amen

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]