The second of this two-part series (following “What Can Christians Learn About Devotion from Addicts?“) considers recovery from addiction, and the flawed belief that just quitting drugs and getting a job is enough. Too recover, an addict needs something as life-encompassing as the addiction was. We need a new religion to replace the old, false religion. To rely ion the things of the world to fill the hole we carry is misplaced faith. But we’re not the only ones who fall into that trap!
Talking about gender is like walking into a minefield. Some of the hazards are societal beliefs, some global and some more local, while others are reactions to those beliefs. Nevertheless, this post will venture where most sane people fear to tread. And please remember that I am speaking of what we might call archetypes– the so-called “norm.” Many of us don’t fit that norm. Yet our beliefs about gender often do.
Let’s begin with one of the Bible’s most radical statement about gender identity: that of God.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 [NRSV])
I was raised with the vision of a male God. To be honest, coming from a matriarchal family, the idea of a female God terrifies me. But the Bible tells us something challenging: God is both male and female. This is radical because most ancient cultures had a pantheon of male and female gods. But the Hebrews had only one God, and that God encompassed both genders. The “image of God” is both male and female. One might say that the image of God is the union of the two.
Obviously this doesn’t mean God is a hermaphrodite. God has no physical body, and therefore no genitalia. Though we tend to limit our vision of creatures to their physical traits, male and female are characteristics that go beyond physical gender. The sea, for example, has most often been seen as female, as are the ships that have sailed on her. The earth is often described as female, and the sun as male.
God encompasses characteristics of both genders: creating and loving and nurturing, building and tearing down and disciplining. These are archetypal characteristics for female and male respectively. But in us as creatures, these characteristics are rarely manifested in ideal ways. Males, we believe, are responsible for propagating and protecting the species, and females for nurturing it. We know that the male role is often abused, and the female role is sometimes abdicated. Or the characteristics may be twisted into destructive forces: male (the archetype suggests) is prone to violence, and female to manipulation.
But we don’t always have perfect alignment with the characteristics of our gender, and that’s true throughout nature. The characteristics of male and female are neither exclusively genital nor consistently presented. What do we make, for example, of the male seahorse carrying embryos to birth? Or the female praying mantis decapitating her mate when he has served his purpose? Or the earthworm, each of which is biologically both male and female?
Still, our society often finds a nurturing man suspect, or a female leader. Men are not supposed to be beauticians, nor women soldiers or politicians. When you think of the word “nurse,” what gender is the image?
Much of this presupposition can be traced back to the Mosaic Law, which defined male and female roles.
A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Dt 22:5)
These books were finalized at a time when order was extremely important. They defined who was “in” and who wasn’t. You see, when Israel fell to Assyria, ten tribes were taken into exile. They were never heard from again. When Judah went into exile in Babylon, they were determined to survive as a people. They wanted above all to avoid assimilation. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on category.
Here’s an example: animals with cloven hooves are ruminants and provide dairy. The pig has a cloven hoof but is not a ruminant and does not provide dairy. It doesn’t fit, therefore it is unclean. The camel and the rabbit are ruminants but do not have a cloven hoof, therefore they are unclean (Lev 11:3-7). Similarly, lobster is neither insect nor fish; it doesn’t fit and is therefore unclean (Lev 11:12).
And they emphasized that different categories do not mix. Don’t wear a garment made of two fabrics, or plant a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19, cf Dt 22:9-11). The practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together would have been an abomination, and a cotton-poly t-shirt would be strictly forbidden.
This concern with order extended to interpersonal relations. Just as Lev 19:19 forbids the mating of different kinds of animals– no breeding of mules in the Hebrew world– so a particular view of family was also emphasized. Not only was incest forbidden, but so was the marrying of your wife’s sister as a second wife (Lev 18:18, note that polygamy was assumed.) This is also where homsexualty is condemned. These are practices that “don’t fit,” and keeping category boundaries was imperative for survival. Similarly, men must be men and women must be women. Belonging to a category was everything.
This was embedded in Jewish culture for centuries before the birth of Christ. It was so important that, in at least one instance, category overrode the biblical ideal to “cleave to” your spouse (Gen 2:24) when, after return from exile, the Jews sent away all foreign wives (Ezra 10:3, Neh 13:23ff).
It’s only in this light that we can see how radical was Peter’s dream about eating unclean food (Acts 10:9ff). He was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Immediately afterward, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit coming to a group of Gentiles– non-Jews who were considered unclean. The dream was not really about food at all. It was about the inclusion of those traditionally seen as unclean, the “out” group, into God’s plan of salvation. The people who don’t belong, who don’t fit. Paul would later write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This turned Jewish traditions on their head! Category was no longer a barrier. The Jewish obsession with “in” and “out” had served its purpose.
Some of this reversal we accept. No longer do we recoil at mixed garments or different crops planted side by side. Mules may have fallen out of fashion, but labradoodles are popular. I was even recently served lobster at a Jewish wedding!
But other aspects remain challenging for us. Not long ago it was still considered scandalous for a woman to wear trousers in public. Based on the comments of some female pastors, for some people it still is! And I’m old enough to remember the comments made about men with long hair and women with short hair. Underlying these comments is a common concern: “They don’t fit!” For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, category remains important.
But God has overthrown human categories. In Christ there is no male and female. This challenges us! Men, according to our accepted archetypes, want to “manly men doing manly things.” We want our women to be feminine, however we might define that. (As a man, I dare not speak to what women want.) To consider that gender is a category that has been overthrown challenges our social order. Jesus wouldn’t do that, would he? Yes, he did exactly that. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” (Mt 20:16). This was not just spiritual, and not even just economic.
This has far reaching ramifications. The most obvious have to do with gender equity and gender identity, but it doesn’t stop there. If God represents male and female, what does that say for leadership styles? For a system of incarceration based on punishment? For our foreign and domestic policies? For judging a presidential candidate (male or female) on their fitness to lead the nation through troubled times?
Society, of course, has a hard time with this. Category remains an important tool for preserving order, and we are acutely aware of who is “in” and who isn’t. But as Christians who follow the Gospel, we are called to challenge societal norms. God is both male and female. So is the Body of Christ. How can we transform our own vision to that of the Bible?
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him (Mt 26:3-4)
It seems like a simple question, right? The Bible tells us that the chief priests and the elders did. And it was the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. Who else could we blame?
Enter the theory of substitutionary atonement. Postulated by Anselm in the 11th century, this theory became widely influential, and remains the foundation for many Christians’ understanding of redemption. In brief, it suggests that humanity, through its disobedience, owed God a debt it could not pay. In order to satisfy this debt, Jesus assumed human form and was sacrificed to God as satisfaction for our debt. (Anslem suggests this was a debt of honor; John Calvin later contributed the idea that the debt was penalty for our sin.)
What’s the problem with this? Any way you look at it, this makes God responsible for Jesus’ death. God killed his own son to atone for our sins.
There’s not a lot of biblical support for this theory. Hebrews suggests this mechanism, and there is some sacrificial language in Matthew. But Matthew also makes clear that it was the religious leaders who caused Jesus’ death. Luke and John also take very different views. For Luke, Satan is defeated when Jesus’ followers begin doing the work Jesus did (Lk 10:17-18, cf John 14:12); Pentecost is the moment in which this salvation is revealed. John (like Mark before him, see Mk 15:39) sees Jesus’ death as an act of love; salvation comes through the Incarnation (Jesus’ birth) and, by extension, the Resurrection. Paul often argues similarly.
We might wonder why there are multiple views of salvation in the New Testament. One answer is that these authors were writing for different audiences. Jews understood sin and atonement to be inseparable– Hebrew uses the same word for both. Gentiles would have had trouble with this view. Perhaps more importantly, though, to expound on the mechanism of salvation requires knowledge of the Mind of God– knowledge that I, for one, do not have.
In the early Church, the most common view of salvation was called Christus Victor. It suggested that salvation came not through Christ’s death, but through his resurrection– his victory over sin and death. Yes, the religious leaders (and the Romans) killed Jesus. That was human sin. But Jesus was victorious over that sin by rising from the dead. That is the victory Jesus brings to us (see for example 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
Can we believe that God killed Jesus? If not, then substitutionary atonement doesn’t work. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. In fact he died as a direct result of our sins. But it was not his death that brought salvation. It was his victory over death. In Christ, death and sin are conquered. And, as Luke adds to this discussion, through Christ, when we follow and imitate Christ, we too conquer sin and death. Not by works, but by the grace of inclusion and the transformation of our hearts to obedience to undertake Christ’s call to new ways of living.
You might wonder why this matters. But our view of salvation affects our whole social order. If Christ died for our sins, nothing more is required of us. Convenient, isn’t it? All we have to do is say we believe, and we don’t have to change much. Sure, we should refrain from legalistic sins like drunkenness and adultery. But love of our neighbor can be a noun rather than a verb. We get to ignore passages like Matthew 25:31-46. Injustice? That’s for God to worry about. We’re headed for the hereafter. (For more on this misconception, check out this sermon.)
That’s called “cheap grace.”
We are called to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12). And Satan is defeated when we do (Lk 10:18). If we are saved, our lives will be changed. Our behavior will be changed. We will become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and act accordingly.
Christ conquered death. This was no legalistic sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. The Resurrection conquered sin– our sin. So let us do as he did, in the faith of his salvation.
It’s no secret that addiction is a problem in our society. It’s also no secret that, despite some advances in science, it’s not easy to treat. This is because the nature of addiction remains elusive. We can see this in the argument between those who insist it’s a disease, and those who insist it’s a choice. Some psychologists now argue that it’s both.
I don’t disagree. There are biological factors. And addicts make bad choices. I contend that, while addiction displays characteristics of both disease and choice, neither category is sufficient to explain the phenomenon.
Let me be clear that I’m referring here not to the occasional, risky user, nor to the person who becomes physically dependent on a substance but is able to abstain once separated from it. Addiction refers to those seemingly bizarre cases, now numbering in the millions, in which people return to the substance over and over, even after physical dependence has ceased.
Here’s the issue: if a person is miserable enough to want to quit, and if they have been separated from the biological need to use the substance, it makes absolutely no sense for them to return to the drug that made them miserable– unless there’s something else going on.
Enter Kent Dunnington. In his book, Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, he argues that addiction is a habit in the classic sense expressed by Aristotle and Augustine. The behaviors of an addict are preconscious decisions habituated (programmed) by past reward/punishment experiences. I find flaws in Dunnington’s case for addiction as only a habit. But this introduces a third category to consider, and offers another dimension of options for understanding and treatment of addiction. The Twelve Steps, for example, can be described as a method of rehabituation.
Yet Dunnington goes further. We are habituated to our behaviors based on our view of the purpose of life. If, for example, we believe that the goal is to be wealthy, we’ll work hard and accumulate money. If it’s to seek thrills, all our efforts will point toward that goal. If it’s to follow Jesus, we’ll put our efforts into the behaviors that the Gospel describes (none of which include accumulating wealth). Indeed, James K. A. Smith argues that we can tell what we love much more reliably by what we do than by what we say we love.
Dunnington describes how addiction fills a need for transcendental experience, moral certainty, and purpose for life that are lacking in our secular society. In other words, it plays the role of a religion. Dunnington, a Christian, describes addiction as false worship. Yet he recognizes the diligence with which addicts undertake this worship, arguing that the Church could learn something about commitment from the “prophetic challenge” addicts present. Anyone who knows an addicted person can attest that we will sacrifice anything for our god, even our lives. The god may be false, but it’s the one to which we have willingly or unwillingly devoted ourselves.
If addiction is a religion adopted in response to the unsatisfying “spirituality” of secular materialism, this has implications for addiction treatment. To put it simply, the goal of treatment is not to get people off drugs– it is to replace one religion and way of life with another. This is where the disease model fails: medicine is not equipped to address the spiritual and moral nature of addiction.
Obviously, if addiction can play the role of a religion, a replacement is not limited to the Big Five: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. For example, in the same ways that addiction serves as a religion, the Twelve Step programs do also. But, with thousands of years of practice and tradition, the established religions do have much to recommend them. I’ve found the healing power of Christ to be unique among them, but I do recognize that adherence is a choice.
From an objective perspective, my point is that it’s not enough to get a person off drugs and tell him or her to go get a job. The question that has to be answered in order for an addict to stay clean is this: “What’s the point?” Only when we can provide an answer for that question do we begin to offer hope to those mired in substance addiction.
At Eastern Mennonite Seminary, the Capstone is the equivalent of a Masters Thesis, but publicly presented. Mine describes a framework for discipleship for people recovering from addiction, alcoholism, trauma, depression, etc. The presentation is 20 minutes long, followed by Q&A.
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.
When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:
Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”
Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.
I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)
Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.
The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)
In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)
In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).
In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.
We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.
Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)
As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.
What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.
Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?
My favorite Christmas tradition is T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” This poem shook me the first time I heard it, and I continue to be moved by it. Here is a recording of my reading of it last year at Immanuel Mennonite Church. (Sorry, it’s audio only.)
It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.
Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” 
I remember the first publicized
school shooting, back in 1979.  Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire
on the Cleveland Elementary
School in San Diego,
CA. She came from a broken home,
lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had
experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child.  When
asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”  That
response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown
Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.
My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.
Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.
My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.
To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.
By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?
Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?
Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?
Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population.  We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country.  We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco). Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.
Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.
Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.
Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom.  What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. 
Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?
In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.
On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?
 John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or:
the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our
Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/,
accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this
statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African
society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon
Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North
America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,”
in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance,
Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN:
Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus,
Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.
 Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American
Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives
that do not conform to its professed worldview.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.
In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.
Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.
What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:
Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)
If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?
Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.
Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.
Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)
Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.
Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.
When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)
So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.
It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.
Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.