Sometimes I feel like my local Christian radio station basically tells me this:
“Focus on your family,
Take your vitamins,
Hate your local Democrat,
And love your money!”
And sometimes I think of passages like these and wonder what sort of Bible they’re reading:
Mark 3:31-35 (Just who IS my family, anyway?)
Matthew 6:25 (Is life really all about feeling super because of my expensive vitamins?)
I Thessalonians 2:12 (What are my political allegiances supposed to be?)
I Timothy 6:17-19 (What kind of investment portfolio should I have?)
Well, tomorrow is July 4th, and I’ll be spending the weekend with some family members who think I’ve gone “liberal” or am “left-leaning” because I’ve moved away from my right-wing, conservative, capitalistic, war-hawk roots. (The truth is that my political imagination is no longer restricted to the false dilemma of American left or right wing; rather, I’m committed to the Kingdom of God.) Should be lots of fun hanging around a campfire, walking the beaches, going out on my brother’s boat, and so forth.
Perhaps it’d be good to gather everyone around to play a bit of a Bible trivia game. I was thinking this might be a good question:
Which of the following is NOT found in the Bible?:
A) — Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
B) — Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.
C) — Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.
D) — But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
D!… (As in Declaration of Independence!)
I have never really cared for the popular and cute definition of insanity that calls it “doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.” I don’t care who is supposed to have said it, whether Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein or someone else. Perhaps this is one of your favorite sayings, and you’re presently asking your computer monitor what’s so bad about it.
Well, many things, I think. First of all, even if the claim made by the saying could be fairly well established as true, it would not be a definition of insanity. That much, it seems, is quite clear. But if not, I would suggest looking here.
More importantly, this saying mockingly precludes the virtue of persevering in one’s endeavors. What if it takes one-hundred Chinese university students to perish under the tracks of the tanks in Tiananmen Square before the government stops its injustice? Would we say that the thirty-first through the ninety-ninth were all insane for trying something that the first thirty could not accomplish?
Another problem with this saying is the fact that it always comes on the lips of a hypocrite. Every time I’ve heard it, the person who says it seems to think it only applies to the specific course of action they don’t like. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they do the same thing in other ways; that is, in some other area of life, they can be found doing the same thing again and again, as if it might possibly go differently or better this time. In fact, we all do this.
The saying really bothers me when it is used by those who have been working to block the success of the people they are calling “insane.” So Democrats and Republicans work to oppose each other’s efforts, then point to their opponents’ failures—which they themselves helped to ensure—and then call them “insane” when they want to try again. I feel for the person who cries foul and says, “Well, if you would just get out of the way and really let me try to do this, maybe it would work!”
But this brings up what is perhaps the worst thing about the saying. Its pithiness seems to keep people from noticing its assumption of a sort of hyper-pragmatism as a worldview. Doing something that “succeeds” is sane. Doing something that “fails” is insane. I suppose all worldviews look at others and see them as examples of faulty thinking. But the pragmatism implied by this saying sets up earthly, measurable success as the measure of a person’s very sanity. It turns out to be rather rude to anyone who does not embrace the pragmatist’s worldview.
Having given all of these objections to the saying, however, perhaps we could admit that there is some kernel of a good point trying to make its way through the rude utterance. Perhaps if we added some qualifying words to the saying, it would become something more worthwhile, if a lot less pithy. I suggest this modified version: One major kind of foolishness is that which does the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result without having good reasons to hope for such a difference.
“Redemptive Violence” and the Question of Pragmatic Sanity
Now let us take a moment to bring this idea to bear on the myth of redemptive violence.
In my many discussions with people who believe in redemptive violence, one theme that continues to surface is the pragmatic anxiety over whether Christian nonviolence could actually “work.” My conversation partners who bring this point forward usually misunderstand me to be claiming that, if we just hug those who hate us and mean to do us harm, their hearts will soften toward us, and we’ll join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Rightly, then, they tell me that Christian nonviolence will not work. That is, it will not bring about this happy, hippie result.
The problem here actually lies with what we view as “success.” If the goal is to win my enemies over to my way of thinking, or even to prevent them from doing violence to me and others, then Christian nonviolence is not likely to “work.” If, however, the goal is to bear faithful testimony to the Lamb who has already conquered, by His death and resurrection, the wicked and violent powers of this world, then it cannot fail. And we cannot lose. This is the argument of Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On the other hand, we might do well to consider the “success” record of the pragmatic approach to securing the good. The mentality that says that the “only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” has ruled the world since the days of Cain. And how has it done? Has there actually been a “war to end all wars”? Just who is it that keeps doing the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result?
The truth is, if we believe that a good and necessary violence is actually a solution to problems, we will always, ALWAYS be involved in necessary violence. Even in our fleeting, momentary reprieves from live battle, we will necessarily be training for war.
The vision of the prophet Micah tells us that there is a day when
“… they will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war” (4:3).
The world simply does not have the resources of the Messiah and His shalom. In their own powers and efforts, the people of this world will never be able to see this day come. Yet the Messiah Himself will one day bring His shalom to the world.
But what about now? In the meanwhile, do we not need to protect ourselves from the forces of evil in a fallen world? The answer is No. We do not. We have already been protected. In fact, the people of God, the church, is to be the firstfruits of that coming day of shalom. Here. Now. In this fallen world. We follow the way of the Lamb who conquered the powers by letting them kill Him. His resurrection proved that He won and they lost. It’s over. Now we follow Him. And we too have already won.
What could be more sane than that?
For a while now, I have seen that there are six basic resources for living life. Recently, I have begun to see the need to include a seventh—namely, passions. This one would be our capacity to pour our hearts into some work or idea with zeal—our drive, if you will. With this new addition to the list, I believe it now covers just about everything in life when life is considered in this way.
Here is the full list of these life-resources:
In my ponderings of these resources, I have observed a number of truths about them. Here are some of my thoughts:
First, while there is often some overlap of these things, they are, in fact, distinct from one another. For example, at first glance we might think of ‘opportunity’ as being merely the aggregate of several of the other things already in the list, but it is more than that. A person could have all the other six in just the right ways and amounts for a certain purpose or undertaking in life and still lack the opportunity.
Second, each of us has these things in some finite measure. Everyone has a least a little of each. But no one has any of them in an infinite amount. If you think your way through the list, one by one, you will see that this is true. We all have some time, but nobody has all the time in the universe, and so forth.
Third, these seven resources are, in part, what the New Testament refers to as the stoicheia, the “elementary things” (Galatians 4:3,9; Colossians 2:8; Hebrews 5:12; II Peter 3:10,12). The stoicheia are the fundamental building blocks of reality in this world. They include more than our list of seven resources, of course. For example, basic ideas of morality and justice inherent in all people are also part of the stoicheia. But these seven things are that portion of the stoicheia which could be called our basic resources for the practical living of life every day.
Fourth, the powers of this world are the various structures and institutions which use the stoicheia (while simultaneously being partly composed of the stoicheia) both to make the world function and also to dominate the world and those who dwell in it. These seven resources are what God has given us to serve Him in this world. By our use of them, we help to enact His kingdom here in the fallen domain of the powers through a beautiful and mysterious paradox of submission and subversion to those powers.
And finally, when we stand before the Lord in the judgment, He will evaluate the use each of us has made of these seven resources according to the ways and amounts in which He has given them to us.
There is much more to say about all of this, but this should do for now.
I welcome anyone’s thoughts.
So it seems that I’ve been getting some traffic here on asthéneia from people out there in the blogosphere—people I don’t know at all. Some seem to be Christians of one stripe or another. About others, I could not guess. All are welcome.
I guess this sort of attention is what every blogger hopes for—or at least one thing that every blogger thinks would be really cool. But it never really occurred to me that such would happen on my little blog like it seems to be happening lately. I am honored.
But my primary aim in this post is to apologize for the fact that I don’t really have the time or the focus to respond with much reciprocity. It’s all I can do these days to put a thought or two of my own here on asthéneia. I’m afraid I just can’t squeeze in the time for visiting the blogs of everyone who drops by mine. I’m very sorry. Perhaps some day…
In the meanwhile, if you are not offended by my lack of reciprocity, please feel free to drop by asthéneia and/or leave your thoughts here any time. All comments will be posted just as soon as I can approve them, unless they are of a highly offensive nature (undue profanity, illicit subject matter, racist rants, etc.). And I will always do my best to reply to comments, of course.
With that, then, please allow me to wish you a blessed New Year!
This Christmas, I was blessed once again to have a conversation with a very sweet young person who espouses the worldview of naturalism (a.k.a. atheism).
At one point, the Nickelodeon cartoon called “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” came up. My young friend has not as yet seen the show, though she generally has an appetite for sci-fi and fantasy. I was explaining how I see some Christian values portrayed in the show, despite the sometimes rather overt effort of the producers to advance some form or other of Buddhism.
As a great example of Christian truth making its way onto the stage of the show, I referenced my favorite episode. It is the one called “The Southern Raiders.” In it, Katara, one of the main characters, learns that she will have the opportunity for revenge against the man who killed her mother when she was a little girl. Zuko, another character who understands the bitterness of having been wronged so badly, is prepared to help her. Aang, the title character also knows what it is to have people he loves savagely taken from him. But he tries to talk the two of them out of their revenge plot.
When he calls Katara to embrace forgiveness, Zuko says, “That’s the same as doing nothing.”
“No it’s not,” replies Aang somberly, “Doing nothing is easy. Forgiveness is hard.”
Though this does not by any means amount to a biblical or Christian sermon on forgiveness, it sheds a bit of light on the thing that makes Christian forgiveness different from all the other forgiveness the world knows.
My naturalist friend believes in forgiveness as a principle for a number of reasons. It frees the offended person from the torture of bitterness. It is crucial for the interrelationship of people and people groups which is so necessary for the healthy progress of the human race. And so forth.
But what she and others of my non-Christian friends cannot understand is that forgiveness provides the Christian with the opportunity to grow in the personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what the distinction between Christian forgiveness and other forgivenesses means at the ultimate and personal level. But this was the more communicable aspect of the distinction which I was able to share with my friend: All of the non-Christian notions of forgiveness boil down to a “letting go” of the offense. But Christian forgiveness is more than a letting go; it is a taking on.
When the Christian forgives an offender, he does not merely say, “You do not have to pay for your sin against me.” He says, “Someone must pay. But I will not make you be the one who does it. Instead, it’ll be me. I will pay for your sin against me.” And in taking on the sin of his offender, the Christian joins his Lord on the cross—his Lord, the One who ultimately took all of this sin upon Himself. In fact, what the Christian comes to find is that the Crucified Lord is actually the One who is forgiving the offender through him.
The Air Bender episode does not really come very close to teaching this truth, but I appreciate the honesty with which it acknowledges that “forgiveness is hard.” And I appreciate the opportunity it thereby affords to make the point I have been making in this post, the point which I also was able to make to my friend.
For the Christian, knowing Christ in His death and resurrection is the central thing in all the universe. And the death we experience when He extends His forgiveness through us becomes one of the most powerful ways we can ever know Him.