On Toxic Theologies, Part I: Let Bad Religion Die

With a bomb strapped to his chest
With a bullhorn in her hand
They both bow their heads and pray
To do God’s will, fulfill the faith
And walk into the crowd

If all the outsiders are wrong
If your questions don’t belong
If your doubt is called a sin
And you’re not to search within
Let it go, open your eyes

Let bad religion die
Let bad religion die
All belief demanding blood
If your god gives you a gun
Let bad religion die
Let bad religion die
If it spreads violence more than peace
God, let religion cease

A million lives for Jesus Christ
They spread the word with genocide
The crusades were meant to save
But who’s this god who hates and hates?
What’s this love that draws the lines?

Let bad religion die
Let bad religion die
Their authority is a lie
You are free and you’ll be fine
Let bad religion die
Let bad religion die
If it spreads violence more than peace
God, let religion cease

“Let Bad Religion Die” by Michael and Lisa Gungor

* * *

On that note,

I’d been wanting to do this blog series for a while. It was one of the first concepts I had in mind since this blog’s inception two years ago, but I was always hesitant to really go in depth with it for, what I think, are obvious reasons. One, who am I to talk about such things? I’m just a 20-something with a Bachelor’s degree in Bible and a self-run blog. Two, I’ve never been one to stir up controversy, and something like this is perfect Double-Double-Toil-And-Trouble* material. And thirdly, who am I to talk about such things?

But I feel like it’s important to talk about these issues, and so darn it, I’m going to do it. So without any further ado, here’s the introduction to my blog series on toxic theologies.

As we all know, there’s good theology, and there’s poor theology. But there is also straight up toxic theology. Toxic theologies are beliefs that taint and misrepresent the Gospel of Christ, but even worse than that (the Gospel can handle being misused and misrepresented, as it’s encountered such heresies likely every day of its existence), toxic theologies ruin lives. They turn people away from God. They can lead people to mental, spiritual, and literal suicide.

And what is worse, they’re much more prominent than many of us even realize. I’m not necessarily talking about the things that Westboro Baptist Church and other fringe groups preach that gain a lot of media attention. While they are the worst examples of bad theology gone awry, they are also symptoms of greater and much more common issues within the Church, issues so rooted in our DNA that we do not even see them until they are rudely and riotously revealed to us.

Paul McCartney Westboro Edited
We all probably know what WBC signs say, so here’s Paul McCartney’s more pleasant, edited version. Faces marked out by me.

So I want to try to locate those roots. You don’t have to be a LarryBoy superfan in order to know that weeds not pulled from the roots are still capable spreading. I want to dig as deep as I can into these theologies, find out how they started, how they spread, and how they affect us all today. And while it’s admittedly quite hard to narrow these things down to a quaint little amateur blog, I still hope that I can help plant seeds of dialogue, growth, and healing. I hope that my writing and researching helps me to find the ways that these toxic theologies have affected me, and more importantly, how they’re being perpetuated by me. And I hope that your reading this–no matter who you are–helps you to examine these topics, as well, in a way that can lead to nurturing more healthy ways of viewing God and God’s Church.

This examination means that toes will likely be stepped on. I might step on yours, and you, in response, may step on mine. Who knows? We may both end up stumbling over our own feet. I was never really very good at two-stepping, so I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. But the best dancers in the world never made it to where they are today without falling over a few times. Feelings were hurt, tears were shed, but still they pressed on. So I hope and pray that that will be the case for us here, as well. I truly pray that all who read this (and write this) will engage in this conversation humbly and leave this conversation humbled. I pray that we will learn all the more how vast the Kingdom of God is, and how great the love of God is, but that we also learn what the Kingdom of God is not.

Someone tweeted at some point a few months ago that they no longer lament at someone leaving the church, because some gods/churches/theologies are worth being left behind. I can’t even begin to imagine the truth and backstory behind that statement, and while I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, I also don’t think that makes someone leaving the church any less heartbreaking. So let us talk about why. Let us address the theologies that make people leave the Church for good. And may we, the Church, own up to our errors and help bring about love and healing instead. And may we all proclaim, however awkward we may feel in saying it, “Let bad religion die.”

This is currently the first post of several upcoming posts on toxic theologies, and I have even recruited some friends to help cover the topics I might not know as much about. The topics we will be covering in this first leg, which will be posted throughout these next couple of weeks, will be retribution theology, nationalism, individualism, patriarchy, and misconceptions about dominion. If you feel like there are other toxic theologies that need to be discussed (again, hoping to get to the root of these issues), and if either you or I feel up to the challenge of writing about these topics, you are more than welcome to shoot me a text, email, message, or comment about it, and I’ll be happy to try to work something out from there!

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

 

 

*Completely unrelated, but huge shout out to Patrick Doyle and the music he wrote for the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is not an easy task to follow the legendary John Williams, but the originality and creativity he brought to the movie is superb, and I’m kind of bummed that that’s the only Harry Potter movie he did the music for.

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“Great is Thy Faithfulness”

 

Carlsbad Caverns
Photo from http://www.newmexiconewsport.com/what-is-carlsbad-caverns/, who apparently found it on the German Wikipedia page for Carlsbad Caverns
During Spring Break in my junior year of college, three of my housemates and I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. Among the countless sights witnessed and memories made on that voyage that will surely stick with each of us for the rest of eternity, the one that I would like to focus on at this particular moment comes from our day exploring the caverns.

If you don’t know much about the caves of Carlsbad Caverns or similar natural structures, slowly dripping from the ceilings are formations known as stalactites. They basically look like polluted icicles. And for my fellow Texans who might not have much experience with icicles either, they’re the horrifying objects that scarred your young children for life with this image from Frozen.

I've Been Impaled.gif

Catching the stalactites’ drips are stalagmites, which are slowly but surely climbing their way up to the stalactites, preparing to meet their makers once again. In time, the two join together to create columns, the only normal-named formation in the lot.

Andrew's Best CC Pic
You can see some stalactites and stalagmites getting close to creating columns here. Photo taken by my old housemate, Andrew Collins.
It was in my encounter with these bits of creation that I had a personal theological breakthrough:

God is still creating.

Experts say that Carlsbad Caverns began forming almost 4 million years ago*, and that its contents are still evolving even today. This means that what we see today could, in some ways, be different from what Cowboy James White (as opposed to James White the Patriot) saw when he first explored the place in 1898, and different still from when Ansel Adams first got the chance to photograph the wonder in 1941. Imagine, if you will, how different it might look in a thousand years, in a million years, or even in 100 years?

This helps us to see that God is not the God that Thomas Jefferson and other Deists of his time envisioned, a kind of “clock maker God” who wound the universe up in the beginning and let it go about its merry way from there. Rather, God is one who is intimately caring for us as we grow and evolve as individuals and as a society, and is working right alongside us in the process.

I’ve been reminded of that moment recently in light of recent events, which is why I wanted to talk about it now.

As I’ve shared on this blog before, I have always been hesitant when it comes to praying, be it publicly or privately. I understand its importance, but the struggle, of course, comes in understanding its relevance, as well as in the practice itself. And so at the moment, I am working my way through Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, bluntly titled Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?, in attempts to discover why it’s important to pray. I also decided to start reading this book after Hurricane Harvey hit (yes, it was intentional). Disasters have a certain way of reminding us why prayer is important.

The part that has resonated with me most so far–which is also, of course, the part that ended up reminding me of my trip to Carlsbad Caverns–comes about a third of the way in, when Yancey discusses prayer as being a sort of “partnership” with God. He writes,

From the very beginning God has relied on human partners to advance the process of creation. After equipping Adam to cultivate the land and supervise the animals, God left the work of the garden in his hands. All throughout history, the pattern continued….

“I will build my church,” Jesus announced, proclaiming the new reign of God’s kingdom on earth. That, too, has taken shape gradually and fitfully over twenty centuries, with many embarrassing setbacks to go long with the advances… God has made the work of the kingdom dependent on the notoriously unreliable human species….

We are Christ’s body on earth, to borrow Paul’s metaphor. We are “in Christ,” a phrase the New Testament repeats 164 times. Those we minister to, Christ ministers to; those we forgive, Christ forgives. When we extend mercy to the broken, we reach out with the hands of Christ himself. (pgs. 109-112).

This quote might appear as though it is somewhat contradicting what I was saying earlier, but I would beg to differ. The way I see it, it helps bring my previous realization fully into fruition. It makes the prayer, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” a call to action for us, one that walks hand-and-hand with the commands God offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It gives us reason to rejoice and stand in awe every time someone plants a garden, builds a bridge, has a baby, or stands for social justice, because through us, life is being created, nurtured, celebrated, and perpetuated. It makes the blueprint of the Church not a copy of the first century Church, but rather a reflection of the first century Church for the purposes of the the twenty-first century and beyond. This was the initial goal of the Kingdom of God, and that goal still remains today. To piggyback off of Henri Nouwen again (as I’d done a couple months earlier), the pursuit of the Kingdom of God today is a continual affirmation of life itself.

Thus prayer now has a purpose: to ask for God to reveal what that pursuit of love and life looks like in our lives. To ask that we learn what it means to be for life and for creation, including the lives of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and including the creation that is in constant danger of being destroyed both by natural disasters and by the very creatures God called to protect it. To ask that we strive to be faithful to God’s earth, just as God has always been faithful to us.

After exploring Carlsbad Caverns, I was reminded of the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,”  which is inspired by one of my favorite passages in scripture, Lamentations 3:21-24. And I wanted to add to it, not to improve it by any means, but as a personal reflection on the faithfulness of God. This faithfulness is one dating far beyond the even the writers’ time, and will–most assuredly I say to y’all–persist even still long after we die. I wrote the first two lines on the same day we were there, and could not think of a good second half until now (which is, I guess, a testament to my own lack of faithfulness). While I, again, did not write this to try to improve the initial hymn, I still wanted to share it here as I conclude this post.

The additional verse I wrote, which admittedly does not even try to imitate the old-timey language of the initial hymn (it was written in the 1920s, anyway), is as follows.

Throughout the ages, God, You’ve been creating
All that we know and have yet to explore
Draws to recall this one plain truth about You
In our destruction, Your healing endures

You can also listen to one of my favorite modern versions of the hymn, sung by Jimmy Needham and Friend (they never mentioned her name, unfortunately), in the video below. A similar recording of the song, sung by Jimmy Needham and Kevin Price, can be found in the Jimmy Needham album, The Hymn Sessions, Vol. 1.

Thank you for reading. May we build God’s kingdom here.

 

*In my study, discussion, and prayer on Genesis 1 and 2, I’ve come to the personal conclusion that they are much more concerned with the Who than they are about the How and the When. Whether the earth is 13.8 billion years old or 6,000 years old, that does not take away the fact that our God is one who created us, loves us, and is constantly making all things work together for our good.

Be Someone: Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

Houston Harvey Skyline
My favorite human-made skyline, rocked by a natural disaster. Photo: Richard Carson (Reuters).

This past half-week has been, needless to say, life-altering for millions of people along the Texas Gulf Coast. On Friday, Hurricane Harvey hit the Corpus Christi-Rockport area as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds flattening towns and leaving many homeless. Then on Saturday, the same beast, now a tropical storm, plastered the greater Houston area, leaving floods like the city has never seen even after two major storms these previous two years and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Areas that had never been flooded before were now almost completely submerged; residents who had entered this weekend confident after 16+ years of experience now find themselves spending their days and nights in makeshift shelters–places that are usually churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, convention centers, or even furniture stores–and they’re awaiting the chance to survey their homes and inspect the damage for the first time since they were forced to evacuate.

A lot of these details are common knowledge at this point–and while I certainly do not intend to underplay the devastation brought about by Hurricane Harvey, I do hope to instead underscore some of the lessons learned from this storm, particularly the positive ones. While the storm is not even finished passing over Houston, and the recovery will take weeks for some elements, years for more, and an eternity for the rest, I think it is essential that the good things are highlighted if any attempt to move forward is made.

Among the greatest things we have learned with Harvey is new vocabulary. Apart from the expansion of categories meteorologists had to add to account for the floodwaters Harvey provided, I have also certainly noticed an expansion of definitions of words we use every day. For many of us before Harvey, words like “rescue,” “refugee,” and “evacuee” seemed to be such distant words, always pertaining to strangers and foreigners. No one I know would ever have to be rescued. No one I know would have to flee their homes and become a “refugee,” “displaced,” or even “homeless.”  But because of Harvey, the Rescued are our coworkers. The Evacuees are our family members. Or to put it more simply: the distressed, homeless, and those in greatest needs, are our neighbors. While I would wager that that has always been the case in theory, through Harvey, many of us have come to begin to realize that in practice, and we’re beginning to see that here.

These past couple days, I’ve seen my old neighborhood in the news, looking like the setting of a post-apocalyptic movie. I’ve also visited my old high school, and volunteered at the Methodist church that was serving as a shelter, a congregation where many of my friends attended growing up, and the very first place where my mom allowed me to drive after I received my learner’s permit. And I got to witness community firsthand.

Because of Harvey, journalists and reporters broke their rule that required them to be indifferent observers, and went out of their way to help other people. They showed us their own flooded homes, they wept in front of the camera, and they fumbled their words because they were distraught hadn’t slept in days.

Because of Harvey, first responders were given the chance to shine and be a light even when all around them was dark and disastrous, and everyday people became heroes. Influential people made room for others to become influential people, as well.

When I was at the shelter, I was astounded by what I saw there. People of all ethnicities and creeds were flooding the entryway offering food, clothing, their cars, their resources, their selves. I was blessed to be a part of a group that helped a man we had never met before locate his motorized wheelchair from his house that he had to leave behind, dry it off, and lift him back onto it. He shook our hands afterward and thanked us for helping him feel comfortable again. I also saw kids running around with balloon animals, playing board games, and head to the other part of the church to play in the gym. Local pizza and Chinese restaurants dropped by offering business cards and free food. We even reached the point where we had to drive to other nearby shelters to give them some of our extra stuff. And when I stopped to look at all the people around, it was almost impossible for me to tell who all was helping and who all was hurting. They all seemed to just treat each other as neighbors.

When nature provided its worst, Houston provided our best.

As some outside of Houston may know, one of the most iconic sites in the city is a vandalized train track overpass with the simple message of “Be Someone” written across it (you can read more about it here). This petty crime has caught the eye of a countless number of people, and has even been made into shirts and paintings (such as these by local artist Laura Luna) and basically everything aside from coffee mugs (hint hint, Houston artists).

Be Someone Houston
From: https://twitter.com/byxbreezy/status/514432068760391680

In a lot of ways, this saying has become a mantra for many Houstonians, especially now post-Harvey. It has encapsulated the compassion and, dare I say, the “badassery” that many of us have come to know and love about Houston. And it’s reminded us that being someone of value to others means that we need to first become someone who values others.

During the worst leg of the storm, I saw a photo on Facebook of that sign being almost submerged itself (I have since been unsuccessful in trying to relocate that photo). But the message still managed to keep itself above the water, serving as a call for everyone to not let the worst of situations keep us from persevering.

So may we take that to heart today. May we be someone who loves and helps our neighbors when they are in need. May we be someone who addresses and dresses the wounds we encounter in order seek healing. May we be someone who capitalizes on every opportunity to make society better.

Even if you are not in the Texas Gulf Coast, there are still plenty of ways to help provide recovery. While there are, of course, big charities like the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, the Houston Food Bank, the JJ Watt Foundation, the Greater Houston Charity Fund (the one I’m donating to) and others to which you can donate (I included links for each of the aforementioned charities in the names themselves), I implore everyone to not forget the smaller towns that were also hit. Houston, needless to say, is big, and while we still need help rebuilding, it can be easy to forget the smaller towns that were hit even harder, such as Corpus Christi, Rockport-Fulton, Port Aransas, Port O’Connor, and Victoria. If you would like to donate to any of those towns’ food banks, I included a link to some of the local charities I could find, as well, in most of the town names. Furthermore, Texas Monthly, the New York Times, and Vox also had good places to look into if you’re interested in something more specific or that you think might not get as much attention. I’m throwing in links to Habitat for Humanity in Houston, Corpus Christi, and Golden Crescent (Victoria), too, because I’m not sure if I saw any links to those.

Finally, here’s a photo of the first sunset Houston has seen in days, taken by Michael Ciaglo of the Houston Chronicle. When he posted it on Twitter, he called it “Maybe the best sunset Houston has ever seen, or needed.” I think I might agree.

Houston Harvey Sunset

Thank y’all for reading. Be blessed, and be a blessing.

Communion Thoughts at Impact Church of Christ: August 20, 2017

 

Communion Stock Photo
Stock photo. Found online.

I had the chance to offer the communion thoughts at my church this morning, and I wanted to share the transcript with you.

Movement I: The Bread and Cup

Good morning.

I am very glad to be here this morning with y’all. And I would like to take this opportunity to help everyone here recognize the gravity of this moment, this event in which we are now taking part, as the very root of the Church’s theology and ecclesiology centers around this moment.

Since the Beginning, our God has been in communion—Father, Son, and Spirit—and has celebrated that fact ever since. This is evident every time we witness God’s creation first hand: every time we step into a forest, or an ocean, or an inner-city church. The communion of God and God’s creation is present in the diversity that’s displayed. In the many becoming the one.

And because we are created in the image of God, it is imperative that we insist on making community—and communion—the heart of our focus as a Church. In the midst of all the turmoil taking place in our nation and in our world, it is essential that the Church stand as the contrast to the division we witness every time we catch wind of the latest headline.

God’s greatest act of communion came 2,000 years ago, when God became flesh and blood and Jesus the Son came to live in communion with human beings like us. But it was not the pious, the perfect, and the religious that he came to be with; rather, it was the poor, the oppressed, the heartbroken, and the ostracized—those who had historically been denied the opportunity for communion.

And so the case should be with us, God’s followers. In the same way that God came to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and captivity in Babylon, so should we seek to free those held captive by the sins of injustice, pride, racism, greed, and privilege of all sorts—be they the victims or the perpetrators, be it subtle or systemic. Likewise, in the same way that Jesus cast out demons and healed those who were sick, may we seek to heal those possessed by the demonizing mindsets that dare to put themselves on a pedestal above anyone else. In the same way that Jesus broke bread with those that society hated, may we choose to do the same.

This moment we are taking part in right now is revolutionary, because love is being shared indiscriminately. The body and blood of Jesus are being broken into enough pieces to fill the emptiness found in everybody in this room, and—like the five loaves and two fish—they will be able still to feed the thousands, the millions, the billions, even beyond this moment right now. And as we pass this bread and “wine” to our left and to our right, we may or may not know the person we’re passing it to. We may or may not know how this person stands on the latest news story. But God does. And he still chooses to offer love, grace, and mercy to each and every one of us, anyway. May we be brave enough to do the same. Please pray with me.

“Lord, God, You exist in communion, and You have made us in Your image. May we continually seek to learn what that means in our lives with each passing day. When you were on the cross, you said to Mary, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Son, behold your mother,’ because you knew that following you would require a bond that only blood could create. As we take part in communion this day, may we not forget those You broke for. We pray all this in Your name, Amen.”

 

Movement II: The Offering

I am proud to say that I attend a congregation as diverse as Impact is. In a lot of ways, I feel as though I experience a small sample of what heaven will look like whenever I’m here. It’s incredible, because the Kingdom of God seems so much bigger, in that we can witness the diversity of the Kingdom, but at the same time, it also seems to get smaller (in the best way possible), because the people we interact with are so immediate. They’re right here in front of us.

Which brings me to the offering. When we give to the Church, when we offer a part of ourselves for the cause of Christ, the Kingdom gets bigger, and our impact (no pun intended) becomes something more immediate. We realize that the cause of Christ requires self-sacrifice and self-service. God becomes greater in our eyes and in our hearts, while we become less.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. You don’t need money to give to the cause of Christ—though we encourage you to give that if you have any! But just as Christ gave himself for the cause of the Kingdom, we too can do the same in our offering, as well as in the way we live our lives. My prayer for the offering is short and simple, but at the same time, I hope that is serves as a challenge to us all. Let’s pray.

“Lord, God, help us learn humility and sacrifice, not just now, but with every time we take a breath. May our giving bring us closer to You. We ask this in Your name, Amen.”

I Attended my First Rally Last Night

Charlottesville Photo
Not intentionally fuzzy, but that’s okay. Not my photo.

I showed up at the bar at around 7:15, though the event I found online said that they were going to be meeting at 7. My shift ended at 7, however, and I didn’t know anyone that was going to be there in the first place, so I figured that didn’t really matter that much. I wasn’t even sure who I was supposed to be looking for. I stuttered a little when telling the bartenders who I was looking for. “A group of people, but they wanted this to remain a private event, so they’re probably not going to be very showy.” Two different bartenders pointed me to the party in the back, but that did not look right at all.

I planted myself at one of the tall tables, and a third bartender convinced me to get a beer while I waited. I was eyeing the group outside who I thought was them.

My sister had shared a link earlier in the day on Facebook containing the locations of all the rallies and vigils throughout the country going on this weekend for people who wanted to stand in solidarity with the victims of the recent events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I clicked on it and put in my ZIP code, about 96% sure nothing near me would pop up. But to my surprise…

I took another sip–I was making sure to finish the drink fast enough to be ready to move by 8 (it was only a beer, after all). 8:00 was when the group was going to be meeting in Town Square, mere steps away from the bar I was in. The bartender who’d convinced me to get the beer said he was looking for the group for me, and wished me support in my efforts, because he appreciated my going out looking for strangers for a cause such as this.

At 8:00, I left a $5 tip for my $6 drink and followed the group I’d been watching as they all stood up and made their way to Town Square. I straightened up my polo shirt that had never de-wrinkled from when I stuck it in the dryer in the morning and joined the circle they’d created. Someone had handed me one of the small, battery-powered candles they’d brought in bulk, and I was greeted casually by some of the members who saw me “sneak” in.

Several people spoke about who they were, what they were doing, or why they were there, and others, myself included, took quick photos and videos to share on social media. Some bystanders took photos, some stood behind the circle for a moment, some joined in spontaneously, some didn’t. They asked for volunteers to read a page of 10 ways to peacefully and effectively speak out against injustice, and I read number 7, though had I seen the options beforehand, I would have preferred to read number 10.

At 8:34, the event ended, and the people who’d organized the event encouraged everyone to get to know their neighbors standing next to them. The woman next to me shook my hand, and eventually gave her card, as she’s running for a seat in the Fort Bend County Office.

Throughout the “rally” (I’m really not quite sure what to call it), participants were adamant in making calls for unity and love. Occasionally a small chant of “Stronger Together” were made, but those never carried on because while the event was certainly political, it was never supposed to be partisan.

I left at around 8:50, feeling relieved that I’d sucked up my reservations and just went. It helped that the initial meeting place was a bar, where I could calm some nerves before doing something I’d never really done before.

* * *

Internally, there was a lot more going on than what was presented above.

When I had first found out about the event going on just 5 miles from where I lived, my initial reaction was actually to look for something else. ‘Surely there is a church nearby doing something tonight,’ I thought, ‘A place where there will be prayer. A place indoors, and not public.’

During my breaks at work, I Googled and Facebooked every church and denomination I could think of, in hopes of finding some church somewhere nearby that would be hosting something.

But I found nothing.

In the past, I had attended prayer vigils for refugees and human trafficking. In the past, I’d spent hours in conversation with church groups talking about race relations. In the past, many of these events still had a sense of distance and/or control to them, as well. But that does not appear to be the case anymore.

While I will never be opposed to prayer vigils–in fact, I believe they’re necessary elements for building a stronger Christian and a stronger Church–I am starting to believe that more needs to be done. The Church must be active in matters of injustice. I understand many of the reservations many mostly-white, mostly-conservative, mostly-evangelical Christians possess today (because I, myself still have most of those reservations), but we cannot let that be a part of our identity. We cannot stand idol-ly by in our awkward comfort zones while the oppressed and marginalized–the very people Jesus came to love–are left abandoned by Jesus’s followers. I do not know if that always necessarily entails going out and protesting–though I believe that that is also an important element for building a stronger Church–but it allows no room whatsoever for complacency.

Complacency to injustice is incompatible with people who are called to mourn with those who mourn.
Complacency to injustice is a repellent to the magnetic force of the love that Jesus expects of all Christians.
Complacency to injustice is not and cannot be an ingredient in the recipe for the Peaceful Kingdom of God. It is a poison.

So where is the Church when people–many of whom claim to be fellow followers of Christ–hold rallies promoting racism? And murder innocent bystanders? And deface the image of God that had been embedded in their victims’ genes since the beginning of time?

These situations will always be complicated. But the Church should not be afraid of standing up for the Condemned (see John 8:1-11). Public acts of solidarity are amazing at making the world much smaller than it often seems. Those we are supporting become our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. They become something tangible. They become human (in our minds, at least. They’d always been human). They become Beloved.

The pursuit of peace and justice is long, trying, and harrowing. But it is always a goal worth pursuing.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

Below: “All is Not Lost” by The Brilliance.

 

Together Strong: A Brief Review of the Planet of the Apes Reboot Franchise

War for the Planet of the Apes Poster
(C) 2017 20th Century Fox
Most people who know me know that I love movies and that I also love writing reviews for movies. So far: I’ve written one for Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, both starring Andrew Garfield. I very much hope to write even more reviews on a variety of different movies as time goes on.

My most recent movie kick has been the new Planet of the Apes movies (2011-2017), starring Andy Serkis (also of Lord of the Rings franchise fame) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (the first film) and Matt Reeves (the second two). I saw the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for the first time last summer, and was completely blown away. The film had far exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. While I had initially expected just another CGI and action-driven blockbuster full of explosions–essentially, another Transformers franchise–I instead saw depth, symbolism, traditional senses of ethics being put into question, quality acting (for the most part–sorry, Tom Felton), and genuine and believable character development. And a bunch of CGI and explosions, which, hey, is still pretty enjoyable.

In light of the third film being released this past weekend, I decided to re-watch Rise (2011) and purchase Dawn (2014), and ultimately, ended up watching all three films in three consecutive days. And I just had to try and digest all that went on in these three movies as best as I could, which led me to writing this. So, in breaking from writing a review about a movie starring Andrew Garfield, but easing into the transition by still writing a review about a movie starring a white British guy named Andrew, here’s my attempt to adequately capture the symbolism, philosophy, ethics, and even theology of the Planet of the Apes reboot series in 2068 words.

 

BASIC PREMISE (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

To start off, it seems necessary to cover some of the general plot points of the first film in particular, hopefully without giving too much away to those interested, in order to help understand some of the themes and symbols discussed later on.

The first film begins at a biotechnology company in which several different species of apes are being tested for a drug that seeks to cure Alzheimer’s. Initially, it works incredibly well; the test subjects are displaying the ability to learn and grow even beyond normal capabilities. However, one day the most exemplary subject rampages the laboratory and is put to death, along with all the other apes in the building. The company is not only shattered physically, but also emotionally and financially; their (mostly) good intentions had all gone awry and their investors had all pulled out almost immediately. When the damage is being examined, one of the leading scientists in the lab, Will Rodman (played by James Franco), discovers a newborn ape in the room once occupied by the one who wrecked the building. He realized that she wasn’t being aggressive; rather, she was just being a protective mother. Not being able to bring himself to kill the newborn, he decides to take him in, and, eventually, raise him.

Rodman quickly sees that the young ape, who was given the name Caesar, had inherited his mother’s abilities. He became rapidly and dramatically smarter and was almost human-like in his mannerisms, from his ability to eat with a knife and fork to his desire to wear human clothes. However, the son ends up becoming a parallel to his mother: he brings harm to others in a misunderstood fit of rage, and is placed into an ape “sanctuary” that feels about as much like a prison as the laboratory had felt. After being held captive and mistreated for too long, Caesar leads the other apes to revolt, inducing the same drug he’d been given into their systems to help make them smarter, as well. When one of his new caretakers, Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton), incites violence against him yet again, Caesar, understandably, fights back. Then one of the most horrifying moments in cinematic history takes place. Caesar grabs hold of Dodge, and, echoing a line from the original movie (1968), Dodge yells, “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” to which Caesar puffs his chest and yells as heartily as he can, “No!”

Clearly, Caesar’s intelligence has reached levels no one could have ever imagined, and everyone, human and ape alike, is left dumbfounded.

From there, Caesar and the apes begin a continual struggle to build a healthy relationship both with humans and with each other. Each species contains characters whose lack of trust for outsiders end up only making things worse for everyone. And throughout the series, we witness several layers of character studies, symbols, and themes, which are discussed (albeit briefly) below.

 

SYMBOLS AND THEMES

  • Good intentions gone awry: I’d touched on this earlier when humans hoping to find a cure for Alzheimer’s ended up killing a mother trying to protect her young. At its core, this theme is found throughout the entire series. Pursuits of peace end up getting thwarted, either due to a misunderstanding or because someone else intentionally addressed the situation with, well, bad intentions. In all three movies, Caesar encounters at least one human who holds no malicious intent against him or any of the other apes, but apparently, they seem to be a rare breed. Instead, most of the characters are driven by fear. The main difference is: whereas the apes’ fear is mostly based off their history as an oppressed and inferior species, the humans’ fear is mostly irrational and based off their desire to remain the dominant species, the oppressors.
  • Humans and animals: This leads to a rather obvious theme exploring the dynamics between what constitutes human action and human nature vs. what constitutes animal action and animal nature (another word that can perhaps be used in place of animal is “beastly”). Where we tend to rely on extremes–humans having morals and thinking about others vs. animals being tribalistic and survivalistic–we see those lines blurred in this franchise. Humans murder ruthlessly. Apes show compassion and mercy to those who’d wronged them. And of course, all of our perceptions are constantly being challenged. One of the most fascinating lines comes in the second movie, where Caesar admits, in broken English, “I always think… ape better than human. I see now… how much like them we are.” How’s that for a turnaround? Theologically speaking, this a reflection of the Fall of humankind. Knowing the difference between good and evil is part of what makes us “like” God (Genesis 3:22a), but so often we err toward our human tendencies, our animal tendencies. Humans are still animals; humans are still not God (more on that later).
  • Shakespearean/Literary References: No, a human and ape do not fall in love with each other in this franchise. But we know that any work of art whose main character is named Caesar is bound to be aptly named. We know that that name foreshadows future plot points and emphasizes certain themes. We know that because there’s a character named Caesar, there’s also bound to be another character who’s just an absolute brute. I know this, et tu. Now, I wanted to find an article that really, really expands on these references, which are especially prominent in the second movie. The best article I was able to find, though, was this one, which still wasn’t terrible.
  • “Apes Together Strong”: This phrase was uttered first by Caesar in Rise, and was repeated several times throughout the next two movies for some reason. As is displayed below, Caesar was explaining to his friend, the Orangutan, Maurice, that his ambitions for apekind cannot be achieved by himself. He breaks the stick in his hand a couple times, saying that like the stick, he is weak when he is one. But then he bunches the now four sticks together and tries to break them, saying that when he’s with others, the overall unit becomes something strong and valuable.Apes Together Strong.gifThis simple phrase showed its own flexibilities and fallibilities as the series progressed. At its best interpretation, it’s a call for unity and harmony. At its worst, it’s something detrimental. Referring to all apes as a collective, it automatically implies a sense of exclusivity against everything not-ape. But what happens when an ape betrays the group? And what happens when a non-ape seeks to build a bridge between them? All these challenges and more and thrown into the mix throughout the series, and it’s quite honestly incredible to observe.
  • Emotion: This seems like something odd to point out, but I’d say it’s actually especially true in a franchise such as this. A large portion of the communication in all three movies is done nonverbally, either through sign language or facial expression. And a whole lot is to be said about the intentional decision by the producers and directors to maintain that concept throughout the series, not to mention Andy Serkis’s performance (watch this) and the work of the animators. It made these movies all the more a work of art, saying (by not saying anything) that you don’t need to know a lot of words in order to be articulate.
  • Playing God: The PotA franchise doesn’t appear to display any explicitly religious themes until the third movie (the one in theaters right now), so I won’t expand too much on that for those who would still like to see it. But it is worth noting the series’ intentional commentary on human attempts to claim superiority over creation. In a lot of ways, it echoes the Tower of Babel story. Every time we try to overpower others by means of force, oppression, or power, it eventually comes back and bites us in the butt. On the surface, it seems like a pessimistic view of human progression, but I would argue it’s more a testament to community and seeing others as equals rather than as superiors or inferiors. This doesn’t necessarily have to imply a literal interpretation against the notion of humans being superior to animals, but it could certainly be seen as an allegory to oppression brought about by racism, sexism, classism, and anything else that sees a self or a group as something greater or more valuable than another person or group. (Though it should also be kept in mind that anyone who wants to make commentary on matters such as this should do so cautiously, especially during tense political times like today’s. For example, this Buzzfeed article, of all things, touched on a pretty interesting detail concerning the most recent movie and one of today’s more prominent Black Lives Matter activists.)

 

IT SHOULD BE NOTED

Some of you reading this may have noticed that in my last post, I talked about being a self-proclaimed pacifist and a wannabe “peacemaker.” It seems like an odd turnaround to be speaking so highly about such violent movies immediately afterward. However, I feel that anyone who automatically writes off the PotA franchise as just being violent or mindless movies is clearly not paying attention to them. Caesar himself admits continually that he does not want war with humankind, but that he fights to protect his own–and sees no better alternative. Similarly, the third movie in particular is a character study of extremism, in which Caesar is constantly pushing himself not to fall into the same trap some of his old companions had fallen into, the same trap many of his enemies had fallen into, the same trap he himself had fallen victim to in the past to some extent or another. Our animal side is inherently violent and driven on survival (ahem, survival of the fittest), and one of the greatest strengths of this franchise is its ability to portray an animal that is oftentimes more human-like than real-life, actual humans.

 

CONCLUSION

Real humans, at their best, are filled with inner-conflict, contradiction, regret, and growth. We don’t always know how to address the situations life throws at us. However, one of the best steps forward is to acknowledge that we are all this way. Thus we arrive back to the central theme: when we are together, we are strong. Saying that can provoke a wide array of followup questions, but we know what happens when someone goes rogue, when someone exerts power over others, when someone decides they don’t need community. We become a planet full of apes.

Blessed are the Peacemakers: What Does Christian “Resistance” Look Like?

It should be no secret that a common theme found in this blog involves the pursuit of justice in my life (and, eventually, my ministry). It makes up the first part of this site’s odd, yet question-provoking name; and among the many reasons why I choose to place such an emphasis on it, one of the main ones is because I feel that the pursuit of justice is one of the most important and fundamental elements of Christianity, and yet it seems to also be incredibly under-looked, misunderstood, and even condemned in Western Christian culture today. That is a pure shame, and it’s a stigma I hope to continually work to put an end to.

We can go over some of the reasons behind this backlash perhaps in a later post (or two or three or more), but for now, I want to delve deeper into a concept that goes hand-in-hand with justice, as it is simultaneously the means to the end goal of the pursuit of justice, as well as, I’d say, the end goal itself. And that is the pursuit of peace.

I’ve discussed in this blog as well that I consider myself to be a pacifist, but a lot of the reasoning behind that is because I don’t quite know what else to call myself. “Pacifist,” like any other label (i.e., conservative, liberal, vegan, feminist, Muslim, Christian, American) is a loaded word, and can mean any number of things to any number of people. Very rarely, however, does it mean just one thing to everyone.

I think many people consider pacifists to be hippie leftist activists who attend weekly protests, smoke weed daily, don’t shave any of their body hair, and are also probably Wiccan or something. While about one-and-three-quarters of those seven descriptions ring true for me, much of how I came to accepting this philosophy and lifestyle has been influenced by my study of scripture and theology (for those keeping score at home, theology is another prong of this weirdly-named blog. I mentioned the second one earlier, too, meaning they all seem to be “intersecting,” or something).

Lately, I’ve found myself attracted even moreso than usual to the theme of peace. Many of the books I’ve read recently revolve around the topic, and much of the music I’ve listened to orients itself in that direction, as well. While I’ve been tempted to write on this topic more in depth since even before the inception of this blog, I finally decided to act on that temptation after having read the first part of The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. This book was published posthumously (he died in 1996 and the book was first published in 1998), and it is a compilation of a lot of previously-archived writings on the matter, and so I suppose it is not considered to be one of his “classics.” I didn’t even know it existed until I found it in the Religion section at the Half Price Books in Rice Village (aka my favorite Half Price Books store) a couple weeks ago.

The Road To Peace Cover

I was hooked from the very beginning, however, and I was struck most of all by the third chapter of the book, which was initially going to be a part, along with chapters one and two, of an actual, fuller book on peace. He builds it all up in chapter one by stating that peace is achieved first and foremost through prayer and contemplation. Before we can attempt to seek peace in the world, we must first seek peace within our own hearts. Next, in chapter two, Nouwen writes that peaceful prayer must then lead to action: to active resistance against the forces of death such as violence and systemic oppression. I very intentionally used a certain word in that description, as it’s both a word that he used frequently and a word that’s thrown around a lot in the political world today. You know what word it is. It’s in the title of this post. But more on that later.

Finally, in chapter three, Nouwen’s writings end up coming full circle (funny how that works). More than just being a rejection of the forces of death–a “no” to all the human-made killers in the world–the pursuit of peace is a loud, bold, affirmation of life itself. This idea requires the most attention, I believe, and so it will be the focus of the rest of this post. Even though it seems like such an anti-climactic epiphany, it becomes much more difficult once we begin to actually put it into practice.

Nouwen writes,

When all my attention goes to protesting death, death itself may end up receiving more attention than it deserves. Thus my struggle against the dark forces of death becomes the arena of my own seduction…. As a peacemaker, my temptation is to underestimate the power of the forces of death and thus attack them directly. Precisely because I am such a sinful, broken person, these forces have many handles on me and can easily pull me into their network. Only the sinless Christ was able to overcome death. It is naive to think that we have the strength to face death alone and survive (pgs. 40-41).

Nouwen wrote this, like almost everything else he’d written, during a very tense political era: the Cold War. Fear had become habitual and perpetual, like a breath or a blink. While the Vietnam War had ended over a decade before this particular piece had been written, he was still well-acquainted with plenty of people protesting nuclear warfare, poverty in South America, and other forms of injustice. And he himself often felt like a hypocrite when he didn’t join in on these protests. Of course he was opposed to the Trident submarine being built just a few miles away from him in Groton, Connecticut. Of course he thought more needed to be done to combat homelessness both foreign and domestic. But he still couldn’t help but push back against public acts of resistance and protest. He continues on:

One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about (pg. 41).

It is a bitter and cruel irony that life often can’t really be broken down into separate, distinct poles. People who claim to be pro-peace have trouble hiding their own anger, their own sense of fear, their own prejudices. They cannot claim a sense of self-righteousness if they themselves are flawed and imperfect human beings. Even protesting something that is inherently and inarguably wrong doesn’t automatically turn them into a superior, or even “good” person.

But herein lies the other side of the same coin. I am against war. I am against police shootings (both by police and toward police). I am against the death penalty. I am against the destruction of the environment for the sake of corporate gain (or for any sake, really). But what am I doing to combat these injustices? How can I bring about change if I do nothing? If I do not seek to be a part of the solution, does that not make me a part of the problem?

I’ve wanted to go to more protests and do more activist-type stuff. I had hoped to attend the Women’s March in Houston this year, but didn’t. And had I known about the Black Lives Matter rally that was going on the night of July 7, 2016 in Dallas (you know which one I’m talking about), I can assure you that I would have done a lot to try to attend. Instead, I’ve attended prayer vigils and safe, on-campus, geographically distant awareness rallies for sex trafficking (neither of which are bad things by any means, but still).

This brings me back to the Nouwen writing. To paraphrase his second chapter: challenging Death is just another challenge to Death. Death is sneaky, manipulative, competitive, and always prevails. Death will reveal your flaws, and Death will, over time, make you look like an ass in front of your friends and, especially, your enemies. And this is why it is imperative that we make the conscious effort to focus on Life instead. When we do that, Nouwen says, we are stating that “for us life is stronger than death, love is stronger than fear, and hope is stronger than despair” (pg. 43).

Nouwen offers three tools to help us achieve this goal, which he describes as “aspects of life that are in stark contrast to the powers of death” (pg. 44). These tools are humility, compassion, and joy. When we express humility, we are acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living beings. The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning soil, so when we are being humble, we are embodying the very root of the word, so to speak, as we are seeking to protect, support, and nourish the life that surrounds us. Secondly, when we seek to be compassionate, we choose to focus on other people outside of ourselves. Embodying the mindset of Christ himself, compassion makes matters of injustice people-oriented rather than issue-oriented. Nouwen writes, “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues” (pg. 46). Finally, if we want to seek peace, we must make it our goal to pursue joy, as well. Joy can be difficult to find and define, but as Nouwen points out, it seems to always run parallel to peace when used in relation to Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (pgs. 47-49).

Like Nouwen, we are living in turbulent and divisive times today. His writings seemed almost prophetic when I read them for the first time, as though they had been written today rather than 33 years ago.

I feel like I spend much of my life on the sidelines, observing carefully, waiting for my chance to do… something. I am not (usually) the person who posts regularly about everything wrong with the world, nor am I the person who naively thinks everything is fine and dandy. I do not wish to contribute to the divisive rhetoric of today, but I also do not wish to remain silent or complacent about my convictions. So I hope to be slow to speak, slow to judge, but also, even moreso, quick to love. I hope to resist matters of injustice wherever I see it, but not without claiming my own shortcomings. I will admit that I am often too slow to speak and too slow to act, and too slow to love, but it is something I am continually working towards in order to better myself and my community. I hope to never cease writing about the matters I care about–and especially the people that I care about–and I very much wish the same for you.

You might not be a fan of the words “resistance” or “pacifist” in the contexts in which they’re often used today. But my hope here is that we all, regardless of where we stand on the issues of today, seek to learn how to be peacemakers. Jesus refers to those who pursue peace as “blessed” and as “children of God” (Matthew 5:9). May we make that our goal. May we be instruments of peace. May we resist injustice wherever it is found. May we pray, may we act, may we write, may we speak, may we listen, and may we love.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.