Monday, January 27, 2014

MennoMovieNerd: Judgement and The Hunt

Last week, I had a friend of mine tell me that I lived a double-standard.  That wouldn't have been so bad by itself, but she based it on a statement that she remembered me making that I had never made, nor implied. And no matter how much I clarified my point of view, it did not change her judgment of me.

I was watching a fantastic episode of the West Wing ("Isaac and Ishmael") in which an Arab American was accused of being a terrorist, and every time that he was previously falsely accused of this before was being brought up against him as proof of his guilt in this circumstance.

It is a commonplace that we live in a world of pain and that the hardest story must be the truest one.  "You may not like it, but it's true."  But in reality, this assumption that the most difficult must be true leads us to false judgments.  The Passion of the Christ is brutal... in reality TOO brutal.  Historically, it is inaccurate because there are too many beatings and too much blood.

When we take this point of view to our lives, we find that we think the worst about people because it is the "harsh reality" we believe in, not because there is any real evidence of the fact.

The Hunt is a Danish film that shows us the experience of a man in a small community when he is falsely accused of sexually molesting a close friend's child.  This is a difficult movie, because the reactions of the community seem so idiotic and unnecessarily judgmental of a man whom they have lived with and loved for decades.  But when we see it, we recognize that it is true.  People really are that idiotic, because they often assume the worst.

The Hunt gives us the harsh reality that reality is more harsh when we assume the worst.  The worst criminal activity happens when people assume someone is a criminal, with or without evidence.  Our fears create more harm against the innocent than they protect the innocent.

The Hunt deals with judgmentalism and forgiveness by just telling the story of an individual that applies to everyday situations, much as the Dardenne brothers do.  Each performance is remarkable in the everyday quality of the reactions, despite the unique circumstances. By the end of the film, I was telling characters what to do or not do at the top of my voice.  I apologize to my wife.  She told me that I shouldn't watch it.

Despite my wife's objections, I highly recommend the film to those who prefer their morality dramas to be fully human and complex.

Thanks to Jessica for turning me onto this film.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Psalm 22: A Pictorial Essay

In my desperation, I feel forgotten by God.  If God saw me, if He saw my plight, He would be there, He would deliver me.  My God is love, my God is merciful.  Where is His mercy?  I don't even remember what it looks like.

In the end, I know that I have been forsaken by God because of my own sin, my own preoccupation with self, my own weakness.  How can the Almighty rest with such a weak man? Why should He even look at me?  
I know this because there are many at my shoulder reminding me of my humanity, of my sin.  They mock me because they know how distant I am from God. I can't argue with them, honestly.

I am at the end of myself.  There is nothing left of me.  Nothing else for me to give.  Nothing for me to love with, nothing left for me to act with. I am destitute, the funeral is over and I am desolate in my grave.

Somehow, beyond the end, after the story is over, the credits have rolled, He appears.  It turns out He hasn't forgotten me after all. He listened, and He acts for me.

Thank you, thank you.  You looked at my weakness and didn't hate me.  You saw my pathetic nature and lifted me up from the grave. I swear, all shall hear of Your deliverance for me.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Throughout history, there have been people who have decided that the best way to deal with the world is to escape it.  In the Christian tradition, this begins with Antony of Egypt, who would live in a cemetery and then later in the desert to escape the temptations of the world.  Of course, Antony then found temptations in the wilderness, and he bravely overcame them.  His solution to the temptations and struggles with other people was to get away from people, become a hermit, and to isolate himself as much as possible.

In later years, the hermit became one of the primary examples of a saint, of living as a holy man.  However, this is not the way of God.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus declares that to be right before God our primary way is to love.  We cannot obtain any kind of righteousness without loving.  And this means that we have to be with other people, not to isolate.  Running away from people isn’t living the life that God calls us all to.   To love is to deal with others’ pain and to weep with them.  To love is to face the temptations others give us and to overcome them.  To love is to be made angry by others and to do what is peaceful in return.  To love is to be rejected by others, but to respond in kindness. To love is to be available with others need you, with whatever you have.  God calls us to be with others, for without others we cannot achieve His will for our lives.

God has made us in such a way that we can only be happy if we are with others.  Mind you, people are often the cause of our unhappiness, as well.  People frustrate us and mock us and wound us and hate us and yell at us and irritate us.  So we often have temporary unhappiness by being with others.  But God has made us so that our long term happiness is by being with others.  If you want to be self-centered and depressed, spend most of your time alone.  Our soul is made to work better with other people, no matter how frustrating they are.

There is only one path of God.  It is the path of compassion, the path of gentleness, the path of mercy, the path of patience, the path of self control, the path of sacrifice.  We do not stay among others just to survive their presence, but to benefit them.  In that pattern of benefiting others, even in small ways, that is the way of life, eternal life. The only way God has presented is the path of love.

This doesn’t mean that occasional bouts of isolation aren’t good for us.  There are times we need to be alone to focus on God, to recharge our ability to act right toward others, to bask in the joy of God’s creation, apart from the tension that others bring.  Jesus took a break from people for forty days. But we, like Jesus, must not remain in isolation.  We must always, regularly return to be with others. 

Because without those irritating, frustrating, horrifying, idiotic people, we do not have God.  The way of God is found in others, as much as we might wish that were not so.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What Jesus Taught

Matthew and Luke have two versions of Jesus' great sermon.  Matthew's is the most famous version, called the Sermon on the Mount, (found in chapters 5-7) and Luke's is called the Sermon on the Plain (in chapter 6, beginning at verse 19).  Although they have slightly different content, they have the same outline and are basically the sermon that Jesus taught all throughout his ministry.  Matthew added much more, and gave a different sense to the sermon.  He gives the sense that Jesus is a new Moses, standing at the mountain, giving a new law.

There is no question as to this is exactly what Jesus was doing, giving a new law.  But in a sense, Jesus was giving a commentary on every law book that ever existed.  Matthew's version gives us a specific look at Moses' law, with Jesus contrasting his interpretation of Moses with other teachers of Moses.  But every law book is commented on by Jesus' sermon, every church manual, every policy book for every government or corporation.

There are a few basic themes in the sermon:

First, that God is on the side of the outcast and poor, not the powerful.  Jesus emphasizes in both sermons that it is the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the meek that are granted God's blessings, not the wildly religious or those well-off.  Thus, if we are to gain God's favor, we are better off to be lowly than to be great and religious.

Second, Jesus emphasizes that all laws are to be marginalized by love.  Mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness are going to survive to the next age, while judgment and vengeance will not.  If we want to survive, we must focus on love, not on our limited notions of "justice".

Finally, Jesus emphasizes obedience.  Not obedience to the specific laws of men, but obedience to the higher law that He is teaching.  If we do not follow the higher law, then being a good citizen, a good mother, a good employee on earth will mean nothing in the long run.

In the end, the whole of what Jesus said can be summarized like this:

If you want to be on the in track with God, be a rebel for love.  Be punished for loving too much.  Get rejected because you had compassion.  In the end, you will benefit, because God is a God of justice for the unfairly harmed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Community of Dependence (Poverty of Spirit 6)

The community of God is begun by a woman or man, alone in faith, committed to the burden and shame of poverty, in complete dependence on God.  They have desperately sought God and are given from the mouth of God a work to do.  Their work is not professional, but an act of love for love, for God’s work is always founded on love.

It may be working for the poor, it may be raising children through difficult circumstances, it may be assisting the disabled or elderly, it may be offering compassion and a listening ear to those who are lonely, it may be healing the sick, it may be supporting the dying... there are unlimited lifestyles of love.  But it is always among those who have been rejected and so have an empty hole which only love can fill.

This work doesn’t pay well.  They may not gain much personal reward at all, but are sometimes mocked or hated because of the work of love.  Their bodies deteriorate, they can’t pay their bills, they struggle with depression.  Many people look at the cost of the work and honestly say, “You need to find a different line of work.”

They work not for reward but because they are called.  They work because it is an honor to work for the King of the universe, and because love is the most noble of all tasks.  At times the work is head, but they trust that it is worth it for the sake of the world and they trust that it will be worth it for them.  Eventually.

This is the life of faith.

These are among the most lonely of people, and they surround themselves with the lonely, the outcasts of society.  Yet this ragtag group have something that the society around them doesn’t value—they have dependence. 

At first they depend on the central figure of faith who seems to have such abundance of love that it stretches the boundary of humanity.  Around this saint there is healing.  The hungry are fed.  The depressed find joy. The grieving find encouragement.

As the central personage enters deeper into their personal poverty, being eaten by sickness or depression, love flowers in the Spirit of the community.  It isn’t just one Lover, but a group and finally a multitude of lovers, all dependent on each other for support, for food, for housing, for relief, for restoration, for welcome.
Poverty together is not poverty.  To be truly poor is to be in community with the poor and in that community poverty melts away like butter in a campfire. To be poor is to see the poorer, and to share what little one has with the needy. It is the poor who see the hungry and give their food.  It is the poor who see the naked and give them an extra coat.  It is the poor who see the homeless and give them their last inch of space in their tent.  For the foundational moral truth of poverty is to be the one who sees, and the one who shares. 

Poverty of spirit embraces the poverty of one’s community and gives what little one has into that poverty in the hopes that there is enough for all.  Individual poverty is lessened by sharing with community.  A single stick is too poor to carry the weight of a human being.  But a multitude of sticks can carry a fully grown human over a river.  Even so, an individual poor person is helpless.  A group of poor people can withstand a great burden.

This is the community of God.  It is the community of mercy, the community of sacrifice, the community of fellowship.  The community of God is the community that takes joy in depending on one another, as well as depending on the God who gives them all.

A wealthy person may also enter into this community and take part in the joy, but only if they give all.  For no one is really a part of this community unless they are dependent on each other and dependent on God.  And that can only happen when the crutches of power, of riches, of income, of importance is all cast aside into that black hole of deep poverty.

This is the community of Jesus who cast aside all his riches, becoming poor, so that we might all participate in His wealth.  His dependence becomes our participation in the fulfilling, joyful community of dependence. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Shame (Poverty of Spirit 5)

It could be rightly said that the theology of Christianity is the management of guilt.  Yet the theology of the New Testament has less to do with guilt than with shame.  Guilt is the personal experience of wrongs we have done.  Shame is the pointing of the finger, the rejection of our community and the judgment of those who do not consider us worthy.  The New Testament divides the judgment of God and the judgment of the community, which is unique among ancient writings.

The modern depictions of Jesus on the cross go into agonizing detail as to the pain of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion.  But pain was never the point of the gospel writers. Rather, they focused on the tremendous shame and rejection that Jesus’ experienced. We read not about blood and crushed bone, but rather betrayal, mocking, denial, false accusation, judgment, proclaimed worse than a murderer, hung on a tree outside the city of God, associated with bandits, misunderstood, forced to accept what he did not want, and finally surrendering long before his hung companions. 

Yet this flood of shame parted within his own will.  Despite all appearances, Jesus affirmed his right place with God, his ability to sway God’s forgiveness and quoting Scripture that declared God’s ultimate approval.  The power of Jesus’ death is that the truly righteous before God are denied that very place before men.

Jesus best experienced poverty when he was in this sorry state, receiving the greatest measure of rejection.  For truest poverty is not simply hunger, nakedness and homelessness.  Poverty of spirit knows not only economic loss, but is the reception of repudiation due to that loss. 

Poverty is the shame of not having what the average person seems to obtain without effort.  It is the recognition that one is an economic failure in a world in which economic gain is the only measure that truly counts.  When one’s worth is determined by income and one’s status by neighborhood and home, where does that leave the one who has no income or home? 

Poverty is the shame of having to admit one’s poverty.  To call a social service, to fill out a form requesting utility assistance, to discuss one’s situation with a social worker, to have one’s children go to school with holes in their clothes—it is freely admitting one’s failure.  It is an exposition of unworthiness, and the sidelong glance, the distrust, the assumption that the poor are trying to get something for nothing, just adds to one’s disrepute.

But perhaps the greater depth than this admission is the response.  If they say “yes” then the social worker is in agreement with our failure, and admits that we are truly pitiful, truly pathetic, among the least of the earth.  If they say “no”, despite our desperate need, then we are lower than pitiful, we are among the unworthy poor.  We are a failure, but we are undeserving of assistance.  We are only worthy to die on the street, cast within the stocks of public poverty.

Should Jesus come today, his cross might be to live on the streets, treated as a criminal by the police, having his spare bedding and clothing stolen by public servants, beaten by ruffians, and dying of hypothermia after having stumbled in exhaustion through a stream and falling into a gutter.  Perhaps Jesus’ cross today would to be committed in a state facility, declared incompetent, forced to take medication, forcibly bathed and stripped naked before nurses, mocked by other inmates who declare him more insane than they, dying isolated in a room with an IV pumping into an arm, declaring again and again “It is finished” until it finally is.

Yet shame need not end in shame.  For shame can be exchanged for peace, when experienced in community.  The community that is rejected together is not fully outcast.  Shame in loneliness is sorrow, but when that sorrow is shared and empathized, then shame evaporates into true mourning. And mourning, when accompanied with welcome hugs and support, can be transformed into full joy.