Tuesday, February 17, 2015

American Sniper and the Power of the System

There are many viewers of "American Sniper" who consider Chris Kyle an American hero. Some of these, who are also Christians, even see him as an example of Christian heroism. These are folks who collapse obedience to God into obedience to country, making one inseparable from the other.
Chris Kyle was a much more complicated individual than the one portrayed in the movie. Nicholas Schmidle wrote a profile on Kyle for the New Yorker where he noted, in addition to Kyle’s work to help veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. (which Kyle also suffered from), his propensity for bar fights, his deep disdain for the people of Iraq whom he called savages, and his bravado tales of killing looters in the aftermath of Katrina and two carjackers who tried to steal his car. Also, there are passages in Kyle’s book that reflect a passion for killing that Director Eastwood’s reluctant soldier did not adequately capture.

While Eastwood understandably downplayed some of the negative qualities of Kyle’s character to make the movie more marketable, I do think, however, he accurately profiled both explicitly and implicitly the beliefs and commitments that ordered Kyle’s life.

There is no question that Chris Kyle was unquestioningly dutiful and unflinchingly loyal to what he was asked and expected to do. And that, I think, is a problem that the film powerfully and subtly portrays.

Early in the film Kyle’ father imparts to him a very simple philosophy of life that Kyle never questions, which becomes his guiding compass:

“There are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist in the world . . . These are the sheep. And then you got predators. They use violence to prey on people. They’re the wolves. Then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. They are a rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. We’re not raising any sheep in this family. I will whip your ass if you turn into a wolf. We protect our own. If someone tries to fight you, tries to bully your little brother, you have my permission to finish it.”

In a post-war consultation with a psychiatrist Kyle was asked if he had any regrets. Kyle was resolute. He expressed no remorse at all. He said he was willing to face his Creator for every shot he took. His only regret was that there were Americans he couldn’t save.

In a review Patton Dodd calls attention to a Bible that Eastwood employs in the film as a kind of visual symbol. One Sunday while his family is at church, listening to a sermon about discovering God’s plan for one’s life, young Kyle takes a Bible from the church pew. Next, we see a close-up of the Bible sitting on a table at the Kyle home. This Bible reappears during Kyle’s first tour in Iraq. We see him pull out the Bible and place it carefully inside his vest before his mission, which he does before every mission.

In a later scene, Ryan Job (Biggles) points out to Kyle that while he noticed Kyle always carrying a Bible, he never actually witnessed him opening it and reading it. Kyle shrugs this off by saying, “God, country, family, right?” implicitly implying that he already knew what his purpose was – he didn’t need to read it. Job asks Kyle if he had ever reflected on what the war was actually about and why they were there. At this point Kyle shows some frustration, and then walks away.

Patton points out that the Bible (which, no doubt, was an Eastwood invention) seems to be a symbol suggesting that Kyle’s sense of self and his sense of the world and what was expected of him was “an unopened, unexamined sense.” Patton observes that while “the Kyle of the film is a figure of American bravery; he is also a figure of how that bravery and nobility can be compromised – misguided in motivation, uninformed in duty.”

I don’t know if Eastwood intended this or not, but I, too, see the unopened, unread Bible as a symbol of conformity, an emblem of an orientation toward the world, God, country, and life in general that was never examined, questioned, or critiqued.

Kyle embodied a simple philosophy: Americans are the good guys. Iraqis are the bad guys. His job was to kill the bad guys. (Eastwood’s portrayal of all Iraqis as evil – children and women on suicide missions, men on housetops with cell phones identifying troop locations, and families hiding weapons under trapdoors in their houses – ironically, may say something about his own unexamined prejudice.)

The social systems of family, church/religion, and the military shaped him, and he totally bought in to what he was taught. The system certainly hails Kyle as a hero because he did what the system asked him to do and he did it better than anyone else.

Kyle’s blind obedience to the version of “God, country, family” passed on to him is an example of the power of the system to tell us who we are and shape who we become. And this is why Kyle’s life can never be held up as an example of Christian morality or obedience.

A follower of Christ must outright refuse to blindly obey the system.
To be a follower of Christ means allowing and trusting the light, power, spirit, and revelation of the life and wisdom of Jesus to expose all the prejudice, greed, falsehoods, idolatries, injustices, and destructive "isms" (sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, exceptionalism, etc.) in our personal lives and in the corporate systems (family, church, school, government, business, country, etc.) we are part of, so that we might be led by Christ to a new place - a better place.

Only then can Christians function as new creatures in God’s new creation and grow into the loving, compassionate persons and communities that constitute the body of Christ in the world.

(This piece was originally published at Baptist News Global.)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Rethinking Salvation (A sermon from Mark 1:29-39)

Most Christians, I think, think about the good news and Christian salvation the way they were taught to think about it. Isn’t that true? I know I did, for many years. I was taught in the church of my upbringing and in my early Christian training a particular version of salvation. I was taught: “this is what it means to be saved.” And for many years I never questioned it and when I read the Scriptures I read them, I interpreted them in light of what I was taught. In other words, what I was taught about salvation became the filter through which I read the whole Bible. And even though what I was taught didn’t really fit in a lot of passages, I somehow made it fit. The fact is, however, there is no single, unified picture of salvation in the Bible. And the fact is, that some images and depictions of salvation are more helpful and transformative than others.

Several years ago, former Baptist leader, professor, and author John Killinger wrote a book titled, The Changing Shape of our Salvation. Killinger, by the way, grew up at First Baptist Church in Somerset, Ky. In the Introduction he makes this remark,

“The so-called ‘biblical’ view of salvation is itself a somewhat muddled concept. Actually, there are several biblical understandings of salvation, depending on which part of the Bible we read. Not only that, there was a jumble of ideas about salvation in the early Christian milieu, and it took at least three centuries to sort them out. And, even then, there is no guarantee that the general view that emerged was the ‘right’ one, or that it prevailed over other views for any sound and justifiable reason.”

Whenever I am in discussion with another Christian over some issue, and when the person I am dialoguing with claims that his or he position is the biblical view, I always ask, “Which biblical view?” I like to point out that that on any topic or issue in the Bible there are several biblical views or perspectives. One of the things we have become aware of with the discovery of such documents as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and some other ancient Christian writings is that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars thought. There never was a time when Christianity was uniform in its beliefs and practices. It was much more uniform in the time of Constantine, when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. His purpose was political, not spiritual. He wanted to unite the empire. This, too, was the real driving force behind the formulations of the creeds that emerged at this stage in history. Early Christianity was diverse. Unfortunately, deviations from what the counsels determined as normative became heresy, which is a terrible word. We ought to do away with that word. So when it comes to “salvation” there is no single biblical view; there are several different biblical perspectives.

I am particularly drawn to Mark’s perspective/version of salvation. In I:14-15 Mark says, “Now after John was arrested , Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

There is no end to the discussion and debate on what Jesus had in mind when he burst on to the scene in Palestine proclaiming the good news of the kingdom or rule of God.  On one level, the kingdom of God is a subversive phrase that stands in direct contrast to the kingdom of Caesar and all the other kingdoms of the world ordered by power and force. The nonviolent, peaceful, just kingdom of the Christ confronts and challenges all other kingdoms. On another level, however, the kingdom of God includes all the kingdoms of the world, even when they operate by greed and violence. In this sense the kingdom of God is the kin-dom of God that includes all. Jesus teaches us how to hold these tensions together, and this is how we learn to love the enemy.

In some passages in the Gospels the kingdom is a future reality, but in many passages (probably most) the kingdom is a present, dynamic reality – a reality that is here right now and constantly breaking into the world. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God, rather, he told stories about it. “The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow . . .” He would say, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God . . . It is like a mustard seed . . .” Mark says in 4:33, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them.” Jesus spoke in riddles and paradoxes and used common images which he sometimes turned on their heads.

In 1:34 Mark says that Jesus cast out many demons “and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” This demand for secrecy has been called by scholars the Messianic secret, which has spawned as you would expect a good number of theories and interpretations. One interesting feature is the irony that in several places the demons seem to be aware of who Jesus is, though his own disciples are not. And even when the disciples get the words right, like in Mark 8 when they confess Jesus to be the Messiah, they don’t really know what that means. Now, I know this is going to sound a bit judgmental and in a way it is, I guess, but I don’t know how to soften the blow. When it comes to Jesus’ proclamation of the good news here in Mark’s Gospel (this is true for Matthew and Luke as well) there are a lot of us (Christians in general) who don’t get it.

The good news in Mark’s Gospel is not about the afterlife; it’s not about heaven when we die. (Now, please don’t mishear me. I am not saying there is no heaven or afterlife, okay. If any of you have ever heard me preach a funeral you know I believe that there is more to life than this life, that there is life after life. So don’t misquote me here.) What I am saying, though, is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God here in Mark he is talking about something going on in this world and something that he believed would be fulfilled/realized in this world. When Jesus talks about the rule of God in Mark’s Gospel he is talking about God’s dream and plan for this world and God’s presence, engagement, and participation in this world and in our lives right now.

Unfortunately, a number of us (again, I am speaking of Christians in general) have made the good news of salvation nothing more than a kind of legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God that secures forgiveness of sins and the promise of heaven. We have made it about believing the right doctrines and performing the right rituals in order to guarantee one’s place in heaven. And so, for a number of Christians salvation is mostly an evacuation plan. And frankly, this is why some Christians seem to have very little concern for taking care of our planet and being good stewards of earth’s resources. This is why some Christians show very little concern for issues of social justice and compassionate care and advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Because they don’t see the good news being about such things.

In Marks Gospel the good news is about such things, it is about all things that pertain to liberation and wholeness. Here in Mark Jesus comes proclaiming the good news and then, he immediately begins to manifest and express the power of the good news, which, as we see in our Gospel passage today, is the power to liberate (to set free) and the power to heal (to make whole).

The power of the good news in Mark’s Gospel is the power of God to liberate us and our communities from the life-demeaning, life-diminishing, and life-destroying forces that are at work in our world and in our own personal lives and communities. It’s the power to liberate us from our inner demons, and the injustices that we get entangled in. It’s the power to heal us from our brokenness, from the many ways the image of God in us gets marred and maligned. The good news of salvation is the power to restore God’s image in us.

The power of the good news is the power to set us free from our prejudices, our greed our lust for power, position, and possessions, and our propensity toward violence. It’s the power to deliver us from the many ways we have allowed the principalities and powers to tell us who we are and form our lives. It’s the power to free us from all our negative self-images and negative judgments of others. It’s the power to heal relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s the power of new beginnings.

When you understand salvation in these ways then it is really good news, not just for ourselves, but for our planet, for creation, for our communities, for all the people we are in relationship with. It awakens us to God’s presence all around and in others. We become part of a larger story and become more compassionate and inclusive.

Back in the summer of 2006, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story about Billy Graham. Probably no figure in conservative Christianity has been more loved and revered than Graham. He has spoken to millions around the world, counseled U.S. presidents, and strongly represented the evangelical view of Christian salvation. When I was young Southern Baptist preacher beginning my ministry, like so many other young ministers we tried to imitate Graham. His famous gesture and phrase was the open Bible, arm and open hand extended, declaring, his most famous line, “The Bible says.”

In this rather remarkable interview with Newsweek, the elder Graham was much more humble and less confident in what the Bible says. He admitted in the interview that he no longer thinks one needs to take every verse in the Bible literally (that was a big admission). When he was asked whether heaven would be closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians he refused to be decisive. He said, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t.” Then he said, “I believe the love of God is absolute.” He told his interviewer that he was spending more time on the love of God in his final years and that he believed God loves everybody regardless of what label they have. If I remember, he took some heat from the evangelical community for that statement.  

When we experience the power of the good news to liberate and heal and make whole we grow in love, and it naturally moves us to be more compassionate, other-conscious, and inclusive. We become more aware of the sacredness of our planet and how we must care for all creation. We are set free to be and become, in our deepest and truest self, who we really want to be and become.

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at Patheos. It received over 6,000 shares.  (I don’t mean shares as in stocks and bonds, I mean shares as on facebook and twitter – that’s the only way most of us who engage in public theology get paid for our work.) When I submitted the article I titled it, “Rick Warren’s Conundrum.” John Shore, the executive-editor of the blog, changed the title to “Eliminating Evangelical Double-speak about Salvation.” (That will make sense to you in a minute.)

Rick Warren is the pastor of a very large mega-church in California and the author of The Purpose Driven Life which has sold in the millions (one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible). In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Rev. Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this was proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about the book and Rabbi Wolpe:  

“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clich├ęs and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . .

The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world.

Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

So that’s what Warren said in the Foreword. Now, keep in mind that Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not “faith in Jesus” which Warren believes is essential for salvation. In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded, “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. . . . I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the writer of John’s Gospel attributes to Jesus in his narrative the saying “I am the way . . .”, but as most all mainline biblical scholarship points out, the historical Jesus almost certainly didn’t say this.)

Next, Tapper pointed out that Warren had a number of friends of other religious traditions and that he was involved in interfaith dialogue with these friends (like Rabbi Wolpe). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?”

Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he sidestepped it. He said, “I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. . . I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. . . People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. . . . I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.”

Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So if everyone gets in by grace, does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace (in which case, grace really wouldn’t be grace)? Warren didn’t say.

Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him. I would love to hear Warren actually attempt to answer the question about his friends not going to heaven in a public forum where his non-Christian friends are present. That is Warren’s conundrum. My editor called it double-speak. How can Warren say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe and not believe that Rabbi Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to back to Warren’s very narrow view of salvation.

What if Christians like Warren developed a broader view of salvation (ironically, one could say a more biblical view)? What if they understood salvation in terms of “healing” and “wholeness” and “liberation” as salvation is, in fact, depicted in the Gospel of Mark (as well as in Matthew and Luke)? What if evangelical Christians experienced salvation as a process of growth in love, rather than as a reward for believing a particular doctrine about Jesus?

If they did, then Christians like Warren would actually experience the extravagance of a divine grace that reaches every person, not just those who conform to their belief system. Then Christians like Warren would realize that there is nothing they have to do or believe to be forgiven, they are already forgiven because God is a forgiving God, and all they need to do is claim forgiveness and then offer it to others. Then Christians like Warren could accept their friends of other religious traditions as truly their sisters and brothers without having to avoid questions about their going to heaven, and Christians like Warren could then spend the rest of their days talking about how good God is, instead of trying to get their friends to believe what they believe in order to be saved.

Now, let me close by making it a little more personal. What would it take for us to let go of our narrow views of salvation, and see salvation as God’s power at loose in the world to liberate and heal and restore and make individuals and whole communities whole? While we experience God’s saving power through Christ, what if we were to let go of our exceptionalism, and acknowledge that God may indeed use other means and mediators to accomplish liberation and healing as well?  

Our good God, expand our vision, help us to see beyond our particular group or family or church. Help us to see the many influences that have went in to shaping our particular view of salvation, and may we at least be willing to consider that there could much, much more to it than we have been taught or that we have experienced. But Lord, may we not just have expanded understanding, but give us personal experience of  your liberating and healing power in our lives, our families, our church, our larger community, and in our world. Let our lives and our faith community be channels through which your liberating and healing power can flow to touch others. Oh God there is so much woundedness and brokenness and suffering, and many are on the verge of giving up hope. Enliven us and inspire us to be a hopeful people who can offer hope to others because we know the possibility and potential of your loving, liberating, healing grace. Amen.