Thoughts About Original Sin

Detail from Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden (1615)

According to some Western Christians, sometime between 7 and 10 thousand years ago, God created the Universe. This event is recorded, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” As the story unfolds, we read that every plant and animal came into being ex nihilo,(out of nothing), through Divine fiat. God spoke it; it came into being. At the end of this first part of the story, God created humans. And, it must be noted, God created the original humans in God’s own image.  For millions of people this is historical fact.

In the next part of this story, we learn a little bit more. The actual physical location where God created these humans isn’t known. The story only tells us that after forming the first Human, God put this person in a garden in order to serve and protect it. It was there, in that garden, that God formed the first Woman from a rib taken from the Man. These first Humans lived in that God-made paradise until they were duped by a talking reptile. This talking reptile,(from here known as, the serpent), talked the Woman into eating the fruit from a tree that God had expressly forbidden the humans to eat from. She ate and gave some to the Man, and he ate. This meal even has a name, “Original Sin.”

The whole concept of Original Sin has been discussed among Christians since very early in the Church’s history. However, it really took off in the late 4th century C.E. when a guy named Augustine of Hippo included it in his autobiography, “Confessions.” Taking the Biblical story as his starting point he was able to trace his own personal proclivity toward sin back to the Original couple. Now, we need to understand that there was a belief in the ancient world that character traits could be passed from one generation to the next through semen. Therefore, Augustine understood that the guilt of Adam was passed to every subsequent person ever born. And, this also allowed Jesus to be born without that taint. (Virgin birth and all.)

Later, John Calvin doubled down on this idea. He concluded that not only death and guilt were part and parcel of Original Sin. But, shame and total depravity came along for the ride. And this, my friends, is the heart of reformation theology. There is absolutely nothing good about humanity. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to think or do anything good. God’s wrath and hatred are hanging over us. Only by looking at Jesus can God’s Holy anger be placated. But, heaven help us if God should happen to get a glimpse of our worthless and hated selves.

But, what if that’s not how things happened? What if 7,000 years have not passed since the Earth was formed, but rather, over 4 billion years? What if all the stuff that science has discovered is the truth and there was no first couple? And, therefore, no Original Sin?

This can, (and should),  turn the Reformed way of thinking on its head. If there was no Original Sin, then why did Jesus come, live and die? I mean, many of us who were involved with the Fundagelical world of religion preach that Jesus HAD to die in order to break the bonds of Original Sin. He cleansed us from that and enabled us to start over with a clean slate. For lack of a better term, to be “born again”! If Original Sin is out of the mix that whole house of cards crashes.

What’s interesting is that sin isn’t even mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis. God never pointed a Divine finger and said, “Oh, you guys! You really sinned now.” No. God said that death would now become a part of their lives. In fact, sin doesn’t enter into the equation officially until Gen. 4 when God spoke to Adam’s son Cain. God said that sin was crouching at Cain’s door. Cain was encouraged to ‘master’ sin. If there was an Original Sin that was so dire that nothing could ease its effects, how was Cain supposed to be able to master it? No, I don’t think that Original Sin as the Western Church has understood it is a reality. I don’t believe that humans are born depraved as Calvin and Co. would have us believe. But, I do believe that there is an enemy to be overcome. A reason that God chose to come and “pitch a tent,” (John 1:14), among us. And, that enemy is death.

Let this thought percolate for a bit. What does it mean if there was no Original Sin? How does that affect the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension? Use the comments to express your own thoughts.

Admittedly, this asks more questions that it provides answers. But, it may also open locks on chains that bind many people…too many people.

Human Trafficking/Human Tragedy…Our Tragedy

As I was going through some old material I happened upon this piece that I had submitted to the NY Times in January 2013. During the current election cycle Ohio Senator Rob Portman is using his work on Human Trafficking for his campaign. So, I thought that I would publish this now. I can’t express how important this issue is now…today…in 2016. Follow the links and do some digging to see if there’s a way for us all to help free the oppressed. As Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

endhumantrafficking January 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade. Few topics engaged human emotions like this one. Battle lines were drawn and the battles fought. The benefactors of the decision found that their rights as human beings in the U.S. were vindicated. Women across the country were released from the shackles of a male dominated culture. And, they are adamant that those rights will not be taken away.

On the other side, people decried the violence that was allowed to be perpetrated on the “unborn innocents.” Their right-to-life beliefs empowered a backlash against the Supreme Court and the government. To this day they maintain that an unborn human must have the same rights and protections as any other person.

The position of those who proclaim Right-to-Life has grown to include topics beyond abortion. They are against any kind of euthanasia or medical procedures that may bring about death. Removal of life support apparatus can be anathema for these folks. But, there is another area that has as much to do with a person’s right to live as any of these. It is something that very few, if any sermons will be preached about on Sunday. It is the problem of slavery and human trafficking. Women, children and men whose lives are owned by someone else; people who have no rights to live, only to obey their “master.”

I first learned of this problem through a fellow student in graduate school. She was from Argentina and became a staunch advocate of human rights for those caught in the web of human trafficking. I began to learn about the problem and realized that it is part and parcel about a person’s right to life. A good definition of human trafficking can be found in documents from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Quoting from their website, at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html, it reads, “Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” This definition is comprehensive in its scope. It reveals the lengths that some people will go to in order to profit from the lives of others.

In the U.S., trafficking shows up in exploitation of some migrant workers and their families. But, perhaps the most heinous result is the sexual abuse of girls and women. One article reported in 2011, “Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12 years old, are exploited in the sex trade.”[1] This particular article revealed that major cultural events are used by human traffickers to sell their victims.

To me, this underscores the culture of power and dominance that is so prevalent in the U.S. People’s rights, that are supposed to be guaranteed and protected under the Constitution, are trampled upon in the name of cultural acceptance. Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton wrote, “But we also must go deeper to honestly examine our accepted social structures and our systemic commodification of the bodies of women and girls in our arts and entertainment, our media, our sports, and our general corporate and consumer marketing.”[2] Yet, we do not “go deeper.” We prefer to avert our gaze from the reality that in 2013 America, people are commodified and enslaved for personal gain. We choose not to get involved while the “Right-to-Life” of thousands of our fellow human beings is taken away from them.

There are many resources available that people can utilize that can help to educate and bring to light this horrible blight on our society. One is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Their website offers information that can educate as well as provide resources for involvement. (http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html?ref=menuside)

The Salvation Army offers support at their PROMISE website for people who are caught in human trafficking, as well as for those who want to help. (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf/vw-dynamic-index/F71E07755654D27A85257440006860F9?Opendocument)

A quick search on the internet for the various state’s Attorney’s General will provide a wealth of information that can enable people to learn what their own state government is doing in the fight against human trafficking.

It’s not enough to sit and point fingers at Pro Choice or Pro Life adherents. It’s also not enough to define Right-to-Life by one issue. Hundreds of thousands of living, breathing people do not have a Right-to-Life. We must stand up for them.

 

[1] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-01-31-child-prostitution-super-bowl_N.htm?sms_ss=email&at_xt=4d4d83322a2ff345%2C0, accessed January 10, 2013.

[2] http://www.newevangelicalpartnership.org/?q=node/109, accessed January 9, 2013.

 

Happy Imbolc!

ImbolcHappy Imbolc! This is the day that our Gaelic forebears celebrated as the turn from deepest winter to the beginning of spring. In the U.S. we celebrate this as Groundhog day. It is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. New birth is coming!

Imbolc is considered a pagan holiday. So, those of us who have been a part of the Christian community either don’t know about it, or dismiss it as pagan. (It’s not worth our consideration.)

However, I think that we do creation a disservice by dismissing this. The pagan and indigenous communities seem to be more in tune with the true workings of the cosmos than those of us who claim to know better. They understand the cycles of life. And, they respect them. They celebrate them. For crying out loud! Here in the Northern Hemisphere it’s cold and bleak and gray and too freakin’ cold! What’s not to celebrate about the turning point toward warmth and new growth?

But, many of us. Especially, those of us in the Protestant persuasion consider this beneath us. It’s not in the Bible, so it can’t be good.

Protestant can look back to our birth…the reformation for much of this thinking. At that time we became “people of the book.” We tossed out the title “people of tradition” and leapt headlong into a different way of thinking.

We looked at the Biblical text and ‘voila’! We read that God had created all things and had made humans the masters! How cool! We’re the boss! We can control and exploit all of the resources that the Earth can provide FOR OUR BENEFIT!! Yea, God!

But, there is another way to look at things. Genesis 2:15 states, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” In the Hebrew the language is a little clearer. I mean, what does it mean to “cultivate” and “keep” it?

First, the word to cultivate can also mean ‘to serve.’ Surely, ‘till’ and ‘cultivate’ are part of the meaning. But, by far, the references are to service.

Second, the expression ‘to keep’ has as it’s primary meaning to watch and guard. Other meanings are to stand guard and protect.

For so much of our history since the reformation we have viewed the Scripture to say ‘subdue’ the world. But, is that what God has really desired?

Paul, in Romans 8, wrote that the whole of creation is groaning…waiting for the daughters and sons of God to stand up and be recognized. Even Jesus taught about an unfaithful servant who abused his fellows. In Matt. 24:42 and Luke 12:37, Jesus taught about a certain servant who, realizing that his Master was gone for a prolonged period of time, began to abuse his fellow servants. The Master of will return at a time that this wayward servant doesn’t expect and will punish him for his waywardness.

How much more will we, who have the Scripture to enlighten us, be punished for the way we have abuse the Good Creation of God?

Imbolc and the other so-called ‘pagan’ celebrations can teach us all a lot about how our world actually works. We can find life and purpose in them. That doesn’t mean that we embrace the deities and practices of pagans. But, it does mean that we listen to and respect the natural cycles of the world in which we live. The world that God loves and has redeemed.

Reflection on the Incarnation

Hand of GodThe past month and a half has been a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. The Ignatian exercises have taken me on a journey in which I’ve been compelled to visit my humanness in the light of God’s grace and mercy. Some of what I’ve experienced has been in the realm of Darth Vader…the Dark Side. As I’ve sat with Jesus and allowed his gaze to penetrate into the depths of my heart, I have realized my complete identification with the whole of humanity and the world. I am no different than anyone else. I am not exceptional in relationship to any other member of God’s good creation. We are all part of the whole that God called ‘tov me’od’…very good.

As I began to live with my own humanness, which includes all the crap that I’ve done to myself and others, I had a palpable awareness that God was smiling. Far from what I have been taught by people, that God is angered by our shortcomings and failings, I felt complete acceptance. I began to realize that through God’s pitching God’s tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God learned first-hand how frail we are. Compassion and empathy grew within God’s heart and God really and truly has become our advocate through Christ. How this all works I haven’t a clue. What I do know is that God is glad to be with us…no matter what.

This morning as I was contemplating the Incarnation, I was directed to consider the world and all of its inhabitants. I thought about the nearly 7.2 billion people who inhabit this planet. We all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other perceived differences are part of God’s shalom community. We are, in some way, related one to another. So, my thoughts wandered to those who are lonely. (In a world with more than 7 billion people the idea of loneliness boggles my mind.) In that context, we have failed the lonely. I think of the young man whose struggles with his sexuality ultimately cause him to give up and take his own life. We have failed him. The young woman who experiences separation from all, including herself, so that she turns to cutting in order to feel anything. We have failed her. To the other young woman who is afraid of the New Year holiday because she may be alone. We have failed you. I see the bodies of young children being buried because they did not have the necessary food and water to survive. We have failed them. I feel the pain of the homeless people freezing on our city streets. We have failed them. I view the sectarian violence that destroys lives and mars the image of God in each person. We have failed them.

Then, I wonder…does God feel failure, also? Has the reality of the Incarnation allowed God to feel and experience the depths of human depravity and inhumanity? I begin to glimpse a sliver of God’s compassion. I see that God…Emmanuel…feels empathy for/with us. Is there hope, then, that the failure can be turned to triumph? As I reflected on this, I heard that inner voice that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Christ say, “I am forever human. I know the way that we should go. Compassion, love, justice. Always seeking the good and illuminating the bad.” (NOTE: NOT condemning!) “Embracing each person, community and culture as expressions of God’s own image.”

With that, I wish for all of us to experience and celebrate the Incarnation of God at this time of year. I think that the folks who think that there is some sort of war on Christmas need to walk away from that. Rather than shouting, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas,’ I would encourage us all to BE the Christ in Christmas.

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 2

orkut_friends_for_ever_scraps3This is the second part of a series about the possibility of women and men building ‘best friend’ relationships. As I reflect and write about this topic I find that it continues to morph and grow into something more than a simple yes or no can address. Yes, there will be a part three. And, at this point probably a part four. We’ll see where God takes us.

Last week I began writing about relationships between women and men here. Particularly, on the possibility of them being ‘best’ friends. I stated some of the common objections to these relationships. And, I began to deconstruct some of those objections as having their origins in a particular, privileged male view of sexuality. I pointed out how this view demeans and silences women, as well as reinforces the image of how poor, weak men are bound to be ensnared by the sexual wiles of women. I feel that view of sexuality is pretty much crap talk. I’m not about to go along with any position that unfairly labels women as sluts or gives men a pass on their own, personal faults. What I am going to do today is try to unpack some of the issues regarding cross-sex relationships.

When I was a young boy most of my best friends were other boys. We played in the woods and climbed trees. We raced bicycles and played baseball. We prided ourselves as being true ‘He Man Woman Haters.’ However, I knew who the fastest kid in our class was. And, she could beat any one of us boys in a foot race. When teams for kickball were chosen, I tried to make sure she was on my team. In the classroom I spent more time with the girls because they were smarter than most of my guy friends. It always helped to be on their team during spelling and math contests. Many times outside of class boys and girls played together. (That is, as long as the girls didn’t want to play house. Yuk!) The point is kids know how to be friends with anyone, regardless of gender. But, something happened as we got older. Our bodies began to change. Hormones started messing with us. Parents and other adults started telling us that boys and girls needed to start preparing for marriage. Physical pressure, peer pressure and social pressure built to the point of bursting. I’m surprised anyone survives this! All of the sudden…the innocence is gone. Now, we have to learn a whole new way of relating to one another. The girl who once was one of my best friends has become a sexual object. Not because we chose that path. But, because others defined it for us.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. In this series I’m not addressing casual or professional acquaintances. These relationships are viewed as completely necessary and acceptable by most people. I am writing about the possibility for women and men to have relationships in which their hearts are knit together. In which they become kindred spirits who support and encourage one another. In essence, they are best friends in every sense that implies. However, they remain just friends.

Impossible? I don’t think so. Let’s take time to look at some of the issues.Please note that these are serious issues. Many good people and relationships have been shipwrecked because of them. So, I do not take them lightly. I do, however, want to place them within a context that may, perhaps, shed some light on them and offer hope to people who may feel lost and hopeless.

In my last post I shared a video clip from the movie, “When Harry met Sally.” Billy Crystal’s character said that it was impossible for women and men to be friends because ‘the sex part’ always gets in the way. I think there’s some truth in that statement. Whether it’s always an issue, I’m not sure. I do know that in many cases physical attraction and desire are potential deal breakers. I don’t want to belittle this issue, but I think that we need to understand that ‘the sex part’ is totally natural. As I wrote before, we are sexual beings. However, we tend to obsess over this. Especially, in the purity culture, sexuality is whispered about or it is ignored. This sentiment seems to have its roots in how the early church incorporated the Christian scriptures and Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. That view divides the unseen ultimate concept of things from their physical representation on earth. The physical is always something ‘less than’ the ultimate, non-physical reality. The church began to understand that the spiritual reality, therefore, is something to be sought after. The physical, or the ‘flesh,’ was something to be despised. Spirit=Good; Flesh=Bad. However, the folks who wrote the First Covenant did not seem to view humanity like this. Theirs was a wholistic view of people. It looked more like this: Flesh+Spirit=Soul. This view honors the whole person. We can accept and embrace ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s Good Creation. I truly believe that grasping this is the first step in freeing ourselves from the prison of shame and false modesty. That freedom is necessary for openness and friendship to be established between women and men. Freedom can be won when a person admits and owns their sexuality. When I confess that, yes, I am attracted to this person, I don’t have to hide it or deny it. I can embrace it. After all, this ‘sexual’ me is part of who I am…who God has formed me to be. By not giving into shame and obsessing over my human nature I don’t empower it. I can simply admit that it’s there and move on. I do not have to gratify it. It took me a long time and some monumental failures to learn this. And, it wasn’t until I realized that one of my best friends is a woman that I began to understand that embracing who I am is one of the greatest safeguards against pursuing ‘the sex part.’

There is another potential hazard that I think is vital to understand. It is, perhaps, even more important than this one. But, you’ll have to wait for part three for that.

How do you feel about your identity as a sexual being? Is it possible to accept and embrace ourselves as whole persons and share that with others?

To Suffer…and To Suffer With

In a recent post I mused about God’s relationship with the entirety of the Good Creation. That, perhaps, at the moment that the universe began to grow and form God had shared a part of God’s own essence. We are all interconnected, related, because of the Breath of God that has given to us. In another post I wrote a little about my own journey through depression and self-loathing. The story is painful for me to recount. But, I must share just a tad more.

This week I messaged a young person who is battling her own inner demons of depression. I don’t know why, but something about this person has caused my heart to be open…vulnerable. I have tried to encourage her to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ In a reply she wrote something that really caught me off guard. I quickly responded with an apology. But, I felt horrible inside. Now, for most people the exchange would have been nothing to be concerned about. The words shared were neither abusive nor inappropriate. However, what I had thought would be helpful was rejected. By extension, I felt rejected. When a person lives with depression, any rejection, real or perceived, can throw that person into a downward spiral into interior depths where all sorts of beasties live. Throughout the remainder of that day I was pretty much lost. It got to the point where I asked a friend of mine why I was such an ‘asswipe.’ Sleep was lost to me that night as I considered and reconsidered what had happened. I beat myself up for feeling bad. I cursed myself for the words, as innocuous as they were. Other unrelated issues began to pop up and cause more anxiety. You see, with me that’s how depression works. It causes all of my strength to focus inwardly. I can see nothing but my own faults and inadequacies.

The next morning as I was trying to meditate and pray, I picked up a book by Brian McClaren compassionentitled Naked Spirituality. I had been reading it recently for, I don’t know, the umpteenth time. I opened it to the place I had marked the last time I had read from it. The words jumped off of the page! He was writing about compassion. Particularly, how we respond to the suffering of others. The word does not, as some have said, have anything to do with having passion, as in “she is passionate about someone or something.” The passion part of the word carries the same meaning as when people speak of the Passion of Christ. It is derived from Latin and can be translated “to suffer with.” McClaren wrote that when we are presented with the suffering of others we can respond in one of several ways. We may become “calloused, uncaring, embittered, or overwhelmed.” I had become clearly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by this young person’s suffering and by my own inability to deal with rejection. Compassion was what  I needed. And, I needed it now! Compassion forces folks to look outside of themselves. Our gaze looks upward and outward for relief for the object of our compassion. It breaks forth in pleas for mercy. And, as McClaren wrote, it enables us to “choose connection over disconnection, compassion over apathy, commitment and expansion over constriction and contraction.” I began to pray. Prayer for this young person and her life. Prayer for the enlargement of my heart. Prayer that took my eyes off of me and fixed them on the loving Creator who imbued me and this other person with God’s own breath. Have I found a cure for depression? No, it’s something that I will continue to live with. However, I have found another weapon to use against it. Compassion.

Relationships…What if?

CreationI started to write this post a few days after we buried Dad. It’s taken a little longer to write than I had originally thought.

I’ve just gone back to work after Dad’s passing. I have mixed feelings about going back. Part of me really would like to take a few more days to recover from the emotional stress of watching Dad during his final hours. Lack of sleep and good nutrition has left me physically drained. Another part of me feels the need to get back in the saddle. Work can be a good diversion, focusing the mind on tasks other than funerals and mourning.
The outpouring of support from extended family and friends has been amazing. I’m not sure that I would be of much use to anyone if not for their encouragement and presence. Yeah, I still like books, but all of these people made the last week not only bearable, but in many ways, pleasant. What can I say? We’re all connected in some way. There is something more than just our common humanity at play here. We all share in the brevity and frailty of life. Love given and received binds us with others as we form communities.
But, there is something more. The connection between us as humans is vast and wide. Why would a person in one part of the world care about the needs of someone 14,000 miles away on the other side of the world? Especially, when that one person has more than enough cares and troubles of her or his own? How can I travel to another culture, not knowing the language, and actually communicate with someone? Perhaps, there is an affinity between us because we are the same species. You know, ‘birds of a feather.’ That could be part of it, I suppose. However, those birds simply flock together. They don’t go out of their way to care for the needs of others. Some birds don’t even care for their own young! No, I don’t see that being the common thread that binds us. I think that there is something other than our physical reality at play here.
What that something is has been speculated about ever since humans began to think. (Although, there are some folks today that I wonder about.) I’m not going to join in that philosophical discussion. I’m woefully under qualified for that.
However, I might speculate on something else… relationship. What if that common characteristic is buried deep within humanity? And, what if it is empowered by an outside source? (I’m just musing.) Could it be that what we call God, or Creator, or any number of names is responsible for touching each of us? Perhaps there is a relationship between this God and the Good Creation that acts as a catalyst causing humans to care. Not only caring for other humans, but for the Good Creation as well. That would explain why there are organizations such as Green Peace and Doctors Without Borders. There are thousands of shelters for battered and beaten people. Environmental and human rights organizations flourish. All of this in a world that seems bent on self destruction. Why? I have no pat answer. Nor, does anyone else.
Maybe, the relationship between the Creator and the Good Creation has been damaged. This has been the position of the Christian Church. They accept that sometime in the distant past, between 6 & 10 thousand years ago, God created all things and declared them ‘good.’ The entire created universe was pristine, if not ‘perfect.’ Humankind was innocent and enjoyed relationships with God and the creation. However, these humans were somehow enticed to disobey God and suffered a ‘fall’ of some sort that affected all of creation. The good relationships with God and the cosmos were damaged. Yet, there was still something within them, a broken shard of God’s image that continued to allow some people to do good things. This idea was first articulated by Augustine of Hippo in the late 4th to early 5th centuries. Personally, I don’t agree with him about the ‘fall.’ But, more on that at another time.
What if, about 14 billion years ago, the known universe erupted and began to form into the wondrous environment that we now live in? Then, somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago this system of planets and asteroids and other matter began to form around a larger mass that became our Sun. Over time changes occurred due to any number of causes and effects. On the third rock from this sun these changes caused organisms to develop that contained within them the potential for what we call ‘life.’ Eventually, millions more years passed until a certain small segment of these organisms developed and matured until humanity emerged…upright and aware of itself within this Great and Good Creation. Now, I hear the voices saying, “Whoa! Where is God in this? Isn’t this just a rehash of some Darwinian theory?” Well, yeah it is…kind of. But, what if God has been a part of this entire process? Perhaps not in an entirely active way. Nor, as the deists would say, as a passive observer. Maybe, God breathed God’s life into that original bit of matter and imbued it with God’s own presence. I’m not going to go into panentheism. I don’t think that the universe is part of God nor that the universe is synonymous with God. I’m saying that, perhaps, God is the One who animated and gave ‘life’ to the process. That God has carefully watched over the cosmos, not as an ‘intelligent designer,’ but as a caring and loving parent who knew and trusted that things would develop a certain way.
In the beginning, the breath of God…Ruach Elohim, who hovered over the formless void…was God the Spirit. The Word of God, spoken, brought order out of chaos. God, present from the beginning, shared part of God’s self with what became the Cosmos. Humans, aware of time, space and self also had the capacity to ‘know’ God. Far from being a separate entity at the top of some cosmic hierarchy, humans have derived their essence from that which erupted all those billions of years earlier. We are ‘part and parcel’ with all of the Good Creation. Relationships…they are built into us…from the beginning.

People…Commodities to be Sold? Or, God’s Image Bearers.

Slavery. What images are evoked by this word? In the U.S., I’m sure that most people think of the Antebellum South in the late 18th century through 1860. Although African people had been stolen from their homeland and shipped to this country from the early 17th century, this later period saw the greatest increase in slave trafficking. Advances in technology, most notably the cotton gin, produced a huge demand for labor in the fields. Those in the dominant culture sought whatever means that were available to produce more in order to make more profit. This included buying more slaves.

With the end of the Civil War in the U.S., many people thought that slavery had mercifully come to an end. After all, didn’t President Lincoln issue a proclamation that freed every slave? Apparently, slavery has survived. It seems that not even the federal government can effectively stop people from exploiting others for their own financial gain.

I’m one of those people who have been blissfully ignorant of human trafficking here and around the world. It was not until I was in seminary a few years ago that someone brought this to my attention. A student from Argentina began to talk about it in class. She had a passion to make modern slavery known and to fight to end it. I found out at that time that Ohio ranks near the top of a list of states in human trafficking activity. As I found more reports and stories, I realized that this is a huge problem today. I was outraged and overwhelmed. Yet, I did nothing. Yeah, I applauded the few victories that I heard about. But, I have not joined in the fight. Maybe I’m afraid. More likely, I’m just lazy.

In the last few years there have been more stories about modern slavery. One report from China told how many men had been freed from slave labor at a brick kiln. Another, just yesterday, reported on the sex slave industry operating at truck stops in Ohio. Jamie Wright, a person who blogs about the exploitation of people, wrote two posts this week about a recent trip she and her husband went on to Southeast Asia. They went with an organization called “The Exodus Road” that investigates the sex slave industry and partners with local governments and law enforcement to free the slaves and bring the slavers to justice. Jamie’s posts are linked here and here.

I have been reflecting on all of this. To be sure, I feel paralyzed at the magnitude of the problem. What can I do? What can any of us do?

Awareness. This is the first step. We can become aware that in this country, this state, and maybe in this community there are people who are being exploited in order to keep someone’s wallet fat. We can educate ourselves to know what to look for that would indicate that a person is a victim. We can join with others who are already fighting against this heinous crime.

There is another thing, however. In order for traffickers and those who support them to exploit their victims they necessarily must dehumanize them. They must see these poor, marginalized people as commodities to be traded and sold. The pimps and the johns who buy from them see only dollars, not real human people. The farmers, fishermen and other industrialists who use these people as human resources to gain profit see only necessary machinery that is needed to achieve their financial ends. Even in legitimate businesses employees are considered human resources. Just another piece of the business plan along with electrical and mechanical resources. Employees are not real people. They can be moved around and dismissed at the whim of the business owners in order to accommodate their economic ends. Even in the church we consider others as sinners…commodities that need to be acquired and assimilated. Ours is a mindset that looks at people as less than God’s image bearers and sees them as disgusting and dirty and ‘less than’ us. Of course, we would never word it like that. But, that is the attitude that flows from many pulpits.

In truth, I don’t see this problem ever being finally extinguished. At least not in this age. But, we can learn to see people as real human beings, not property or ‘resources.’ There is a passage from the Christian bible about a rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus proceeded to tell him what he must do to live in the realm of God. You see, I think the rich person asked the wrong question. He asked about eternal life. He should have asked, “What must I do to live in the realm of God here and now.” We, too, should ask ourselves that question. Perhaps that answer will allow us to see the goodness and worth of each and every man, woman and child. Perhaps then we can begin to live with and love one another in God’s Good Creation as God desires us to.

Atheists are People…First

A couple of days ago I read a blog post by Fred Clark. I follow his blog, Slacktivist, and find much of what he writes compelling. This particular post was a rant about how many fundamentalist Christians confuse winning an apologetic debate with knowing actual truth. For those who are interested, the post is here. (Note: there are some pretty cool card tricks in this post, too.) Fred cited two blog posts for his inspiration. Both of these were testimonies of people who had been brought up in fairly strict Christian homes. They were both taught propositional truth about what the Bible “says.” And, they both walked away from the Church and have embraced atheism. Fred challenges those who think they know what God’s will is for everyone, in all places and at all times. He shows that winning the apologetic argument does not mean the same thing as knowing the truth. People that get these things confused raise children who grow up like Libby Anne and Rachael.

I read both posts. (Libby Anne’s is here. Rachael’s is here.) I shared them both on Facebook because I thought they might get some interesting responses from my friends. I was right. The responses, though, troubled me. You see, unlike Fred, I did not see these two people as evidence of how the fundamentalist right misrepresents Christ in American culture. I saw them as victims. These are two very intelligent young women who were injured by those who should have protected and nurtured them. I can relate to this, because I was part of that same culture. I have seen the fruit of this kind of one sided, us-against-them mentality that both of these people experienced. I thank God that my wife and I did not embrace the “Christian” school or home school paradigms. We allowed our children to be exposed to the culture that they would ultimately need to navigate as adults. However, in our zeal to promote evangelical orthodoxy I think we missed opportunities to embrace and train our children to live openly and honestly as Christ followers in the wider culture.

The responses I received on Facebook were indicative of the mindset that I’ve seen in the conservative evangelical culture. One person responded that Rachael had simply not had a true conversion experience. She would, one day, realize the error of her ways and the Holy Spirit would fix her. Ok, to him this woman is defective and in need of ‘fixing.’ This person, who I know and love like a brother, thinks that the environment in which the woman was raised was good. It gave her a solid foundation on which God the Holy Spirit can one day build. Maybe, maybe not. From the story she told, I learned that she is a person with fairly good critical thinking skills. She took the information that she had been taught at home and considered it in the light of knowledge she gained outside of the home. She found that her parents had been mistaken on many levels. Trust was damaged. Her worldview crumbled. She rebuilt herself in, what she feels, is a better way.

Another response I received stated that since the blog was an atheist one, of course atheists are going to read and respond to it. There wouldn’t be any contrasting view. Well, Christians will go to Christian sites. Conservatives and liberals will visit their own sites. It’s what we do. People tend to hang out with others who hold similar beliefs and interests. As we do, we reinforce our own beliefs against those of others. I think we can develop a kind of intellectual in-breeding. After time, defects can enter into our thinking and morph and mutate until we actually believe that ours is the only way to know truth. That’s one of the reasons I try to branch out into uncharted areas. Yeah, I’ll find a lot of junk, but I will also mine rich nuggets that I would not have found otherwise.

All of the responses I received contained a tone of dismissal. Not of me, so much. But, certainly of these women. Their stories were simply not taken seriously. Either they were a problem to be solved, or their particular worldview was not worth the time to listen to. To these I say “Shame!” Where is our empathy? Where is our affirmation of them as human beings cast in the image of God? I commented on Rachael’s story how I felt that my respondents just did not “seem to get that people are more important than propositions. Relationships are more important than religion.” Not only had those who responded to me, but the parents of these women and other leaders missed that point. Jesus was not like this. Jesus looked at people compassionately. Jesus was empathetic. Jesus embraced others as daughters and sons of God. If we truly desire to see the reign of God break out in this world, we must begin to see others through the eyes of Jesus. We must maintain a ‘human’ perspective rather than a proposition-based perspective.

Grace…the Real Power of God

A couple of days ago during my morning time with Yahweh, I read from Acts. In chapter  4, I read the following:
            v. 33b – And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them All
            34 – that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who     
                    owned land or houses sold them brought the money from the sales
            35 – and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
I found this interesting. The writer, presumably Luke, starts by writing that God’s power was evident among the community of Christ followers. When I think of God’s power I think of healing and deliverance and other acts of power. But, he described the activities of the people as evidence of God’s powerful actions. It seems as though God’s grace and power were revealed through the love and generosity of the people. Lives were changed, i.e., transformed, in such a way that it was visible through these gestures of love a care.
As I reflected on God’s work as we read in the entire Bible, I see most of it deals with this kind of caring for one another. We spend so much time in so-called ‘deep’ theology that the simple acts of devotion go by and are missed. Our church leaders spend so much time trying to build fences to keep the sheep penned up that they give us neither time nor opportunity to simply live and love. But, these couple of verses in Acts shows that the leaders were distributors of God’s grace. Grace that enables people, all people, to detach from the cares and worries and false security offered by this world’s systems. Grace that causes people to develop empathy for others. Grace that is reflected back to the Giver through acts of service and kindness.
Nothing deep. No creeds. No doctrine. No magic beams. Just simple love. Jesus did leave that to us as a command. He never said to go and believe orthodoxy. He said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’