Idealism Redux

I make no apologies for being an Idealist.

Of course, I have been criticized for it, as have many with shared values. We’ve been called naïve. We’ve been told that our Idealism is “unrealistic”. We’ve been told we need to “grow up”.

But I, for one, have a hard time equating the process of “growing up” with abandoning our dearest principles and rejecting our inclination to serve our fellow man. To my mind, Idealism means believing in something better than what we have, that we are capable of more. Believing that there are noble pursuits and goals that we should strive for, rather than accepting the status quo, which is so often marginalizing, self-serving, and oppressive. When we cease fighting for Idealism, we abandon the very things that makes us human: Compassion, Hope, Love. Shortly before her husband became the first African American President of the United States, Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about our “moral obligation to strive for America as it should be.” This is not an abstract concept or empty platitude; it is a call to action. It is a call many of us have heard and answered.

In responding to this call, we join many “grown up” Idealists throughout history. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an Idealist. He dreamt of a future where people of all skin colors lived in harmony, where discriminatory treatment was a thing of the past. I dare suggest he even dreamt of a day when a Black man could become President. Dr. King’s teacher, a brown-skinned Palestinian carpenter, was also an Idealist. Long ago, this woodworker-turned-itinerant preacher called us to love our neighbors, not to bully, degrade, reject, or strangle them in the noose of our own stubborn prejudices. Five hundred years before him, yet another Idealist, a nobleman of the Indian Shakya clan, called us to relieve humanity’s suffering by offering unconditional grace to our fellow beings, and to recognize our union with others, rather than our differences. Our capacity to care for others, regardless of personal cost or sacrifice, is an Ideal that has been promoted by countless saints of the past, prophets of today, and, God-willing, by the generations of tomorrow.

But right now, in this moment in America, we are struggling to hear this call. We have abandoned our national Idealism, erasing the “Ideal” in favor of a toxic nationalism that is wholly self-serving and absent of grace. And as those of us who persevere continue to push back against this tide of hate and callousness, we grow weary.  We find ourselves constantly having to redirect our brothers and sisters to freely available facts that have been drowned out by recycled fiction. We fend off allegations of ignorance while attempting to refocus the conversation on the many who need our help, rather than the few who exploit an already tragic situation. Even non-Christians are having to cite the most basic tenets of the faith to self-professed believers, who seem to have conveniently forgotten every word Jesus said.

It’s exhausting.

We are called to be better than this. We are called to care for the widow and the immigrant, to help the poor and treat everyone as our neighbor. Why do so many seem to believe that we are instead called to judge the many for the actions of the few, to disregard the basic human dignity possessed by all people, and to refuse to care for anyone but ourselves? Why do so many succumb to fear when the Book in which they claim to believe repeatedly demands that they “fear not”? And how does a simple truth like “black lives matter” elude so many? This phrase is not the “symbol of hate” our President would have us believe. As even staunch Republican Mitt Romney recently said, “I state the obvious, which is black lives matter.” It’s not rocket science; it’s an intuitive Truth. One that our President and Vice President and so many of their followers flagrantly refuse to concede. I find their reluctance to do so appalling.

I’m exhausted of being continually criticized for stating the obvious. I’m tired of the willful hypocrisy and the lack of common decency. I’m disgusted by the greed, insensitivity and hate. I’ve had enough of the accusations, finger-pointing, and demagoguery. If you aren’t willing to stand with the marginalized, then, for the love of God, please stand aside. Or better yet, take a seat. History is not on your side. You will fail. And we’re tired.

We’re tired of you. We have enough work ahead to change the systems of oppression that got us to where we are, that created people like you, and that bound us in complacency for so long before reaching this moment. We don’t need the added burden of dealing with your ignorance.

So, for all those in the back: Generosity is not weakness; selfishness is not strength. Benevolence and compassion are not “unrealistic” or “naïve”. They are the bedrock of our humanity. We are better than the individualism and selfishness that pervades our society today, and we must all learn to be Idealists if we want to have any hope of a better tomorrow.  Dr. King was right about the arc of the moral Universe bending toward Justice, but we’re the ones who have to stand up and bend it.

So if you are having trouble empathizing with our brothers and sisters of color, if you can’t quite wrap your mind around why claiming “All lives matter” might be considered offensive in the face of ongoing, systemic mistreatment of “Black lives”, if you fail to realize that wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic has nothing whatsoever to do with your liberty, then I urge you to take a lesson from another wise sage:

It’s not about you.

Maybe, just maybe, you should stop and listen for a change.

And if you’re very lucky, in that space of silence, you just might be surprised to hear a still, small voice chanting the same mantra.


In Defense of the “Articulate F-Bomb”

Language is a funny thing – composed of these strange symbols, which allow us to transfer recognizable images from one mind to another.  Through our spoken and written words, we are able to communicate complex ideas, instruction and insight, and even pass along our accumulated knowledge from one generation to the next.

In short, words have power.  But not all words are created equal; the power spectrum of words runs the gamut, from feeble, mono-dimensional words to the most provocative and profound oratory.  The ability to use words to tap into the psyche of others can be a tremendous asset.  Choosing the words we speak is very much like a gifted artist selecting the shades and hues with which to create his masterpiece.

Since language provides such a powerful, engaging toolset, it is easy to see why the abuse of these tools can be damaging.  Irresponsible use of vocabulary has always been a problem, and will surely continue as long as humans continue speaking.  And while they may change over time and over generations, there are certain words that remain taboo.  American comedian George Carlin introduced us to seven of them in 1972.

One of these infamous words is “fuck”.  It is called “the F-bomb” for a reason; the power it contains, when used effectively, is unparalleled (at least in the English language).  Now, don’t misunderstand; I am in no way defending gratuitous swearing.  Ill-timed or unnecessary profanity is considered offensive to many, and is rarely useful in civil dialogue.  However… there are those rare occasions when dropping an F-bomb can completely reposition what is being said.  It can evoke a visceral response in the hearer that is more profound than anything a lesser word might be capable of.

A perfect example of this viscerally appropriate use of the F-bomb can be found in the Noah Gundersen song, “Jesus, Jesus” (2009, track 5).  After a verse lamenting the current state of world affairs and expressing his desire to experience life and love, the artist gives us these lines:

“Jesus, Jesus
It’s such a pretty place we live in,
and I know we fucked it up.
Please be kind.”

I can think of no more evocative way to convey the sentiment behind those words.  He’s expressing his deep affection for our world and how the beauty and purity of nature is being slowly strangled by our human selfishness.  We haven’t simply “messed up” this “pretty place we live in.”  We haven’t “damaged” it, “abused” it, “ruined” it, or even “raped” it.  Though that last one comes pretty close.

No.  We fucked it up.  Royally.

Even the pleading tone of the singer’s voice on the next line, “Please be kind”, seems to be an acknowledgement of our abject unworthiness of that kindness, in light of what we’ve done to the precious gift we call home.

Art has always been capable of manipulating human emotions, and songwriters are perhaps uniquely gifted in this ability.  Music can effortlessly bring us to tears, drive us to the brink of rage, or enfold us in meditative peace, depending on the notes that are played and the artist’s choice of words.

Words also have the potential to change minds and hearts on critical political and social issues. Who can overstate the impact of Alexander Hamilton’s essays on the formation of the United States, or the ability of religious leaders to incite positive change in their communities? Who questions the influence of a political candidate’s fiery rhetoric to galvanize their base (or their opposition)?  It is precisely because words have such power, that they must be used responsibly. Remember that it was the words of Adolf Hitler, which were used to provoke one of the greatest travesties in human history.

So when is it appropriate to drop an “articulate F-bomb” into a sentence or a song?  It really comes down to intentionality.  The speaker or vocalist must know the audience they are communicating with, and choose words deliberately to emphasize a specific point or concept.  Superfluous use of profanity does little to enhance art or conversation, but the occasional “articulate F-bomb” can evoke an emotional response that would be otherwise unattainable.

In order to be an effective communicator, all options must be left on the table. We should not expect people to tie one hand behind their backs by stigmatizing and excluding certain words from their vocabularies. It is important that we not lose sight of what words actually are. They’re just symbols, after all. Symbols, just as stop signs, corporate logos, and hand-drawn illustrations are symbols. The point is the meaning they convey and how well they convey it, not the particular form being used. Rejecting certain symbols out of hand can impede our ability to communicate.  The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, but only if we allow it to be wielded to its maximum potential.

Gundersen, Noah. (2009). Jesus, Jesus. On Saints & Liars [digital]. Seattle, WA: Independent.

Thoughts on Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Part 1 of 2

In this first part of a 2-part series, we’ll take a look at the Christian doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  What is it?  How did it come about?  And what does it mean for our lives today?

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the current prevailing interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Western Christianity.  This doctrine is based on several interdependent premises:

Premise 1:

Human beings are inherently sinful by nature.  Known as the “total depravity of man”, this is a belief originally popularized by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century CE.  It is claimed that this sinful nature is the result of the so-called “original sin” of Adam & Eve, who disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Premise 2:

Because of our sinful nature, human beings are entirely unworthy of being with God, and have thus been “cut off” from communion with Him.  With no way to justify ourselves morally, we can never earn our way back into God’s favor.  Unfortunately, the ultimate price of sin, which we are automatically guilty of from birth, is eternal damnation in a literal, burning Hell.  This last part may vary by denomination, but the end result is permanent exclusion from God’s presence.  This is the inescapable fate of every human being descended from Adam & Eve.  (Gee, thanks, guys!)

Premise 3:

Since God does not wish for all of humanity to be ultimately destroyed, he sent his “Son”, in the form of Jesus Christ, to live among mankind.  Although Jesus spent his life teaching a radical doctrine of love and acceptance, healing the sick and uplifting the marginalized, His ultimate purpose was to die on a cross by one of the most brutal execution methods ever invented.  This “blood sacrifice” was a fundamental requirement for any member of the human race to achieve “salvation”, and thereby be redeemed by God.

Premise 4:

This redemption is possible because the sins committed by every person, living or dead, past, present, and future, were somehow magically transferred “onto” Christ at his death, allowing his death to serve as an atoning sacrifice for mankind.  Thanks to this miraculous act of divine transference, God’s requirement of eternal damnation for any sin, even the smallest infraction, has now been met, and humans are eligible for reconciliation with their Creator.

It is worth noting that, although Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a widely accepted doctrine in the Western Church today, that was not always the case.  During the first few centuries of the Common Era, several alternative positions were held by different groups within the church.  The idea of “Christus Victor” was perhaps chief among these, and was embraced by the early church father, Irenaeus, in the 2nd century.  This interpretation viewed Jesus’ death and resurrection as a symbolic triumph over the forces of sin and death in the world, not as an atoning sacrifice required by God to pay for the sins of mankind.  Other, more radical positions, such as Universal Salvation, whereby all are saved through Christ, universally and unconditionally, were also taken up by other groups within the church.

A careful examination of Church history reveals that it was likely Constantine’s desire to make Christianity more palatable to the largely Pagan Roman population, that eventually influenced the Church to settle on Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the “official” interpretation of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  Human sacrifice was a practice familiar and well-understood by the people of the Empire.  The citizens of Rome were more likely to accept a religion they could relate to, than the unfamiliar theme of universal brotherhood that Jesus actually taught and practiced.

There are two chief arguments against the Penal Substitutionary Atonement doctrine:

1. First, it implies a limitation on God. It suggests that He is incapable of forgiving people just because He wants to, that there is some sort of “cosmic condition” that even God Himself is subject to. It suggests that God must receive a literal blood sacrifice to pay for sin before He will deign to forgive a single human soul.

This argument is perhaps best conveyed by an analogy.  What would you do if your teenage son took your new car out for a spin and totaled it?  Now, you might be tempted to get retribution; perhaps demand that he buy you a new car with his meager $6.50 an hour job delivering pizza, or turn over part of his college fund to pay for the damage he caused.  But would you?  He is your son, after all, and you love him.  You may, in fact, forgive him.  With no strings attached.  Without condition or retribution.  Might you?  So, are we saying that we love our son more than our Father loves us, that we are capable of greater mercy and forgiveness than the Holy God of the Universe?  But wait a minute; that can’t be right!  God IS Love… isn’t He?

2. And second, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is cruel and self-contradictory. When taken in conjunction with Trinitarianism, the argument basically goes that: “God was angry with mankind, so God sent Himself to pay the price that He Himself demanded, in order to save mankind from His own eternal wrath.”  This seems a rather circuitous route for the all-powerful God of the Universe to take, just to get to a point where he can commune with his Creation again.

There is also debate over the merit of sacrifices in general.  In Isaiah 1:11, we are told: “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.” Are we to believe that God takes no pleasure in the blood of livestock, yet demands that of His Son as an atoning sacrifice for mankind?

The doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement also leads to what could be considered an unhealthy preoccupation with blood.  Christians have possibly the greatest fascination with a person’s blood of any modern people group (besides vampires, of course!).  Christians talk and sing continually about: spilling it, shedding it, bathing in it, and yes, even drinking it, through the phenomenon of transubstantiation.  In any other context, this emphasis on someone’s, anyone’s, blood, would be considered gruesome at best, or downright psychopathic, at worst.

It seems that, despite our denunciation of the ancient practice of ritual animal sacrifice as barbaric, and the practice of human sacrifice as downright evil, we insist upon glorifying one particular example of it.  The fact is that the Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric.  It was supposed to be.  It was the worst possible way the Romans could come up with to torture and, frequently only after days of agony, rid themselves of those guilty of the most capital offenses.  Among these capital offenses was, of course, sedition and challenging the will of the Empire.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at an alternative view of the Cross, in light of the true meaning of the Law of Moses, as revealed by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.