Monday, May 25, 2009


I know a woman who had an abortion when she was young. The infant wasn’t the product of rape, it just wasn’t the right time for the couple to have the baby. Abortion, in this case, was being used for birth control. Since it had just been legalized, why shouldn’t she take advantage of it? Years later, however, that decision haunted her and she considered that she had killed her only daughter.

A number of years ago I met a professional drunk who was homeless. He was interested in whatever help we would be willing to offer. However, he had clearly already lied to my wife and I and he, frankly, had an obnoxious personality and smelled of wine processed through his pores.

A woman who had stayed in our house for years has been struggling with drug addiction for years, but she is losing the fight. She won’t work in the house or pay rent and gets angry when I approach her about it.

This is the kind of stuff that ethics are made of. Difficult situations. Some small and some large. Libraries have been created on the ethics of abortion, homeless, drug addiction, homosexuality, war, adultery, marriage and much more. When we think about these issues philosophically, we make one ethical choice, but when we face them in real life, we might very well make another.

In philosophy, there are two names that come to the forefront of ethical thought: Mills and Kant. John Stuart Mills taught that the basis of correct moral decision is happiness. Decide what makes the most people happy over the longest period of time, and that is the correct decision. Kant thought that the basis of ethics is duty. If we know what we should do, the right thing, then to do anything else is unethical. However, neither can be completely true. If a friend of mine experienced a death in the family, my empathy doesn’t make either of us happier, but isn’t it more right to feel for him than to not? If my duty is to not lie and obey government, does that make it right for me to tell the Nazis at my door that the Jews are hidden under the panel in the dining room floor?

The heart of right action is in the heart of human existence and experience. And human experience is found in the midst of others. Most of these others are human—we come out of our mother’s womb, live in a community, learn with children, connect with neighbors, buy from retailers, read the words of authors, work with co-workers, care for pets, have sex with lovers and hopefully, die with family. Since our whole life is spent with others, then the heart of the most basic decisions—that of right and wrong—also has to do with others.

But what is the nature of our relation with others, of life in general? The basic experience of all life is need. We are all a gaping hole needing to be filled. Three meals a day. Six cups of water. Sleep. Health when we are sick. A kind word. A good talk. Support when depressed. A good story. The needs perpetuate without end—the basic truth of life. And we spend our time filling these needs. We get a job so we can get money to meet our needs. We remain in long term relationships to meet our needs. We purchase things—a comfortable bed, a good book—to meet the needs of rest and pleasure.

To see ourselves as full of need, constantly being fulfilled, is to see us as life. And if this is what life is, this is what every living being is on the planet. Around every single one of us is another gaping hole, another sponge in constant need of filling. Yea, not just one, but many, perhaps hundreds, perhaps millions, even billions. Some of us pretty much meet our own needs. But for every one that is self-sufficient, there are a thousand or a million that are not. Every child is in need of raising until they are grown. Every spouse is in need of the love of their partner. Every ill person is in need of the care of another. Every destitute person is in need of assistance. And every person is in need of another to talk to, to obtain respect from, to love and to be loved.

This is the true foundation of ethics. Not the partnership of command and submit. Not the limits of pleasure. Rather the recognition that everyone’s need is the equivalent of our own. And that even as we are in need of others to meet our need, we must live our lives to meet other’s needs. Not as a duty, although it can be considered a responsibility. Not as a part of our own pleasure, although we can find joy in it. Rather, we meet needs because it is a part of life, part of the community we live in.

To see the other’s need and to recognize it as a part of one’s own; to not only observe the need, but to feel it; to meet the need of the other and so be completed oneself—this is love. It may sound like co-dependency. But codependency is acting toward the other’s hurt, and so establishing one’s own hurt as well. Love recognizes true need, not just felt need, and fills the gaping hole. Love never turns away. Love does something.

And this is the good life. The life of love.

The woman on drugs on our house? We confronted her, but didn’t force her to leave until she had another place to be. On her own, she still struggles with addiction, but is on the road to recovery. Without basic structure, she would never succeed.

The homeless drunk? He stayed in our house one night and we found that his screaming in the middle of the night was not good for the rest of us to be able to sleep. But we had him come to dinner. And the next night he came again. The night after, he brought another homeless friend. And now we feed a hundred and fifty people a week, friends with them all, bringing love and hope to street folks and the mentally ill, meeting all the needs we can.

And, finally, the woman struggling with her decision to have an abortion? That was my mother. It was my potential sister she decided to not have. It was certainly not my place to forgive her. She needed the forgiveness of God and of the baby. But in receiving welcome, support and hope from those around her, she experienced the forgiveness of God and her fourth child.

Love truly does conquers all evil, which makes it the most powerful substance in the universe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Everyone wants to battle prejudice. To label people by their group, to stereotype an individual by who they look like or false ideas about their group is a horrendous crime. However, sociology teaches us that this is not a crime that we can just point at and jeer, but rather it is a sin within our own hearts. There is not a single person who has ever lived who has not made a determination of another’s personality, goals or vices based solely on one’s looks, one’s accent, one’s clothes or the people one is friendly with. Labeling on insufficient evidence is hardwired within us, and we will all stumble because we assume that our current experience with a person is based on a previous experience or story of an experience with someone we put in their same category. To confront a bigot, all we have to do is talk to the mirror.

It is for this reason that many Western societies have targeted certain areas of prejudice. We have laws against some forms of racism and sexism. We decry homophobia and religious bigotry. And so we should. Because to limit one’s rights or ability to survive due to one’s beliefs, one’s sex, one’s race or one’s sexual orientation is wrong. Every adult, without exception, should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to meet their needs, as long as it does not harm another. If one person has the money for an apartment, then all who can afford it and not harm others should get the same apartment. If one person can sit in a bar to drink, then all should be allowed. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. died for.

There is far to go in these focuses. Yes, an African American has been elected president, but fifty percent of all abortions in the United States are on African American fetuses. Yes, women are now able to succeed in almost any occupation men used to hold a monopoly on, but the second most popular entertainment application on an iPhone is iGirl—where an endowed cyber-woman can be manipulated by her male “master”. Most people have the freedom to worship as they please, but any Muslim appointed to a high government position will soon have to resign because of false allegations that they have associated with terrorist groups. With prejudice, the work is never done.

With as much work as must be done on the bigotry that has been targeted, there is a problem with speaking of racism, or sexism or whatever other focus one has. For every prejudice our society focuses on and tries to wipe out, a hundred are ignored and five more are created. Yes, our society has made great strides in sexism, but assumptions are publicly made daily about the poor who receive welfare—that they are lazy, are cheating the system, are taking advantage of the government. Racism has changed and in some ways gone underground, but social workers can manipulate and control the lives of the mentally ill because the mentally ill have been deemed unable to care for themselves, even when they are not under a court-ordered commitment. People are allowed to worship as they please, but people who have pot for their own use are thrown into prison, although they have harmed no one—not even themselves.

The list of prejudices go on and on—the homeless are treated like criminals for not having a place to sleep, an immigrant is treated like an idiot for having an accent, someone who criticizes democracy or capitalism is held at arm’s length, distrusted, a person over 80 is treated as unable to make their own life decisions. Why is this? Not because we haven’t been taught about tolerance. Simply because our teaching of tolerance has been limited to only a few categories. Thus, we who are white males feel guilty at just glancing at a young black man, but we can openly speak hatred against the same man if we find out he is homeless and speaks with an African accent.

The issue is not racism, or sexism or any other ism of limited scope. Our prejudice is against those who are unlike ourselves—of any other culture that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. When one person or a group of people make a values decision that is different than one we would make—whether or not it would hurt another—that person is wrong and potentially dangerous. The different are not allowed to rule the society, because they will not uphold the cultural standards, whatever they may be. No matter how we try to attack bigotry, as long as we limit it to just a few issues, we will always fall behind our own unknown prejudices. I believe that our problem is not racism or homophobia—rather it is monoculturalism. The limitation of the “acceptable life” to only a few choices.

Our problem is not simply a lack of education. Certainly Americans would be more tolerant if they learned more about cultures, religions, and a variety of cultural mores and habits. But knowledge is not the answer to a monocultural outlook. The prejudice against women persisted because there was a mutual agreement between the sexes to not interfere with each other’s way of life, mores and areas of influence. Only when they began to live as equals, interfering with each other’s lives was there the beginning of understanding and a breaking down of the wall of sexism. The prejudice against African Americans persisted (and will continue to persist) as long as there is separation in neighborhoods, schools and cultural blocks. Only when there is a free and equal mixing between races will understanding and true hope come about.

I believe that the answer to monoculturalism is living in other cultures, being humble in a situation apart from that which we grew up. When I visited India, after living my whole life in Southern California, I was confronted and ashamed by some of the things I did which was acceptable in my own society. I learned that not only were different races, religions and languages acceptable, but so were different ways of thought. When I began to live among the poor, I learned that there was much that I had an instant revulsion to—dumpster diving, for one—that was not only acceptable, but actually a moral benefit to society.

Only if we live humbly among different cultures will we learn to accept other cultures. Only if we are forced to confront our prejudices face to face with those who we appreciate but run in the face of our prejudices will we change.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Varieties of Reform

This is in response to a discussion on “A Platform for MCUSA”.
I got to thinking about something there and it got so long, I decided to post it seperately.

I suppose pretty much everyone on this forum is interested in reforming the church. Perhaps we don’t all agree at exactly what this reform looks like, but we agree that it must be done. There is a lot of talk here, but little action. It is time to make some changes.

But what is the most effective agent for change? What is the catalyst that will bring about the necessary reform? Let’s look at some of the reforms of the past and see how it happens:

-We could begin with one small group of reformers and live radical lifestyles. Of course, by the next generation (or possibly even before that) the radical lifestyle will be compromised to such a degree as to be un-radical. And besides, people will just exalt us as “special” or “a saint” and so separate themselves from the change they need to have. (Francis of Assisi)

-We could train the poor the truth of living radically for Jesus and let them preach openly. We just need to hope that they don’t start a war. (John Wycliffe- Lombards; Peter Waldo- Waldensians)

-We could begin a really successful writing campaign that stirs the hearts of angry young men and women until they cause an upheaval in churches around the world. Of course, we had better not get politically involved or else we might find ourselves on one side of a battle. (Martin Luther)

-We could go from congregation to congregation, teaching a single, unified message that becomes an underground movement (John Wesley; missionary movement)

-We could have a top-down decision to make some radical Jesus changes. (Vatican II, Desmond Tutu in South Africa)

-We could take to the streets, to show mass support of our important cause (MLK Jr.)

-We could teach a message that is threatening to the powers that be and have them kill us, which will plant the seed for a future generation to make the changes necessary. (Jesus, Anabaptist reformers)

There are so many ways for it to be done successfully. We don’t want to hang our hopes on just one. Reform is multifaceted and powerful and it can be done in many ways.

However, there is one component that is necessary for reform to happen. We need to have a mass of people—not a majority, mind you, but a good amount—knowing that change is necessary and is ready to make sacrifices for the change. Every reform happens in seasons of discontent and usually oppression.

How can we have reform amidst complacency? How can we have reform amidst people who feel that writing on a blog is their contribution to real change? How can we have reform when cable, DVDs, and preachers keep us entertained and satisfied with our lives? Yes, oppression happens, and our answer to it is to “click here”, and so we feel that we’ve done our part.

There is slavery in the world, the oppression of the poor, AIDS is an epidemic, the U.S. is continuing to stir up war to solve their economic woes—and the only thing we can get stirred up about is medical insurance? Just to give you a hint—the people on the street don’t care about medical insurance. They want a safe place to sleep where they won’t be bothered by the police. The people in Darfur aren’t concerned about medical insurance so much as having their family members survive. And Jesus himself is less concerned about medical insurance as he is about equity between the wealthy and the poor—which the Mennonite church seems to have forgotten about. As well as the Methodists, the Waldensians, the Unitarians and whoever else.

There’s plenty to reform. But it won’t happen until we FEEL the anger. God Himself is yelling at the world leaders, saying, “How long will you judge unjustly And show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked….You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men And fall like any one of the princes.” And the psalmists reply is:”Arise, O God, judge the earth!”

But we, the wealthy of the world are too caught up in our economic slowdown and the latest events on American Idol to feel the anger of God. We Mennonites are so fearful of experiencing that anger, of facing conflict, that we would rather take medication or slave-harvested chocolate to calm us down instead of changing the world as it should be changed.

This is why reform won’t happen. Not because of a wrong method. But because we lack empathy for the poor. And, as much work as I do for the poor, I have to admit that I am part of the problem myself. I need to be more radical. And I need to join more radical people, filled with the anger of God and ready to act, in order to make the change happen.

The Radical Anabaptist Reforming the Church

A “radical” is, by definition, someone who speaks and acts in a way that is in discord with the rest of the world. An “Anabaptist” is one who believes in accordance with the 16th century “radical reformers”, holding to a radical interpretation of the New Testament, following Jesus above all else (including the rest of the Bible), speaking out boldly their convictions and attempting to reform the church to be more Christlike. The Radical Anabaptist speaks out about subject like assisting the poor, welcoming the outcast and reconciliation. These are my definitions, perhaps yours are different, but this is the base from which I write this.

I have been asked what a “radical” looks like, and how this radical will reform the church. Below is my more complete understanding:

A. The Radical Anabaptist does not just speak or write radical ideas, but acts on them. She acts on them in her life and he acts on them in the world. In the world, it is enough (in fact preferable) for a radical to hold radical opinions, but to never succeed in doing anything. The Radical Anabaptist needs to see Jesus living and breathing in the world, especially through their own lives, and so changes themselves to be active participants of the world’s change.

B. The Radical Anabaptist sees the world’s evil and refuses to participate in it. He sees the abuse inherent in pornography and so doesn’t participate. She sees the chocolate manufacturers who support slavery and refuses to buy such things. He sees the teaching of hatred and death and refuses to support it. She sees a church rejecting the poor and outcast and doesn’t attend there. The world looks at them as separatists for this, but they do so as a matter of their own right standing before God.

C. The Radical Anabaptist lives out love. Love is using one’s resources to fill the lack in others. One way in which a Radical Anabaptist might do this is selling one’s possessions and giving to the poor. But she might also take time to listen to those who are lonely. He might also invite the outcast to a party, and make them welcome. She could help the homeless with temporary housing. But most importantly, they do not let the normal limitations of privacy and the typical anxieties limit them from love. This doesn’t mean that they are unwise—they see people for their real weaknesses, not by their stereotypes—but they work through the weaknesses, and are not put off by them.

D. The Radical Anabaptist takes seriously Jesus’ statement “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” If she is offered leadership, she might accept it, but she does not act in order to pursue leadership. He will allow himself to be humiliated, if it means that another will be benefited. She will identify with the outcast and those who are separated from the world. He will accept being rejected by communities, if it means that he can love more.

E. The Racial Anabaptist isn’t just interested in speaking negatively. Although often pessimistic about institutions and ideologies, he can be optimistic about people and their growing sense of love and humility. She invites others to participate in acts of mercy and hope, and develops opportunities for people to do so. He doesn’t only create opportunities for the mainstream to support the outcast, but also for the outcast to do acts of service. She seeks not only to be a “voice for the voiceless”, but to give opportunity for the “voiceless” to speak for themselves. The Radical Anabaptist creates communities of welcome and love and service. In this way the Radical Anabaptist is no longer an “I” but a “we”.

F. The Radical Anabaptist looks at the old institutions of the church and recognizes them as part of the world, a participant in empire. Seeing that, he understands that he cannot possibly change the institution as a whole. However, she can be optimistic as to bringing change to many, many within the institution. Therefore, she must seek places and opportunities to be a catalyst for change for many. Radical Anabaptism is a movement for reform, not for separatism. And so he calls for change and will see this individual or that congregation change for the better, in many places, for many communities. The institution may change, or it may not. Probably not. But the institution can still be used as a forum for radical speech, and radical actions. The Radical Anabaptist should use that forum as often as possible.

G. Just as Jesus turned over tables in the temple, so the Radical Anabaptist must do off the wall prophetic acts to help the people of God to wake up to their participation in the world. She may protest in front of a church who has shown hatred against the outcast. He may speak to church groups about their own failures to act in accord with their own principles of love and reconciliation. She might publically decry a leader in the church who is causing others to fail to follow Jesus. Prophetic action, however, is not only separatist, but reconciliatory as well. When the church has put lines of separation down where lines of separation do not exist, then radical listening must be enacted. The red and blue must be given the opportunity to hear the other point of view and to see that the other side has a point, even if disagreed with. Trinitarians and Unitarians should not have a debate, but an opportunity to hear each other. The Radical Anabaptist leader can create not only prophetic stands, but prophetic opportunities for reconciliation.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jesus Calls His People To Suffering

We are Christians, therefore we are dedicated to Jesus—right? We look to Jesus for our salvation and trust in God that through Jesus we will be delivered from sin, Satan and death. Praise God for the deliverance we have through his death on the cross! May the cross be proclaimed from the lowest parts of the earth to the highest point in heaven!

But in our proclamation of the salvation to be found in the cross of Jesus, we have forgotten the teaching of Jesus about the cross. The cross is not just something that we look at, believe in and admire from a distance. Rather, the cross is something for us to carry. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The gospel is not a “feel good” religion. The source of the gospel is Jesus himself, and he himself determines what the gospel consists of. And Jesus himself declared the gospel to be the accepting of suffering and economic sacrifice— not only for himself, but for everyone who wishes to receive his salvation.

If we desire to partake in the salvation of Jesus, the cross is not just an option—it is a requirement. To lose our lives, to deny ourselves is not just something for the super-powerful saint, but for the everyday disciple of Jesus. If we do not follow him, we do not have salvation.

The New Testament is clear about the place of suffering in the Christian life. If one is not suffering persecutions, rejections, tribulations, testings or opposition because they are following Jesus, then that one is not truly following Jesus. The one who does not suffer does not receive the kingdom of God.

What do Jesus and the apostles say?

Those who are persecuted will gain God’s kingdom.“Blessed are you when men hate you and insult you and slander you and separate themselves from you for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for your reward will be great in heaven.” Luke 6:22-23
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10
“But woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers treat the false prophets.” Luke 6:26

If we are followers of Jesus, we will receive the sufferings he suffered“A disciple is not greater than his teacher, nor is a slave greater than his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher. If they have called the head of the household “Satan,” then how much more will they slander those who live in the house!” Matthew 10:24-25
“If you patiently endure suffering for doing what is right, you have favor with God. For the purpose of suffering like this you have been called, since Christ also suffered for you, and thus he left an example for you to follow in his steps.” I Peter 2:20-21

It was Jesus’ purpose that his followers suffer opposition
“Do not think that I came to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace to you, but a sword will be held against you. I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household.” Matthew 10:34-36

The one who hates his life and suffers for Jesus will gain eternal life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. John 12:24-25

We will not gain the benefits of the salvation of Jesus without suffering.
“We will not enter the kingdom of heaven except through many trials.” Acts 14 22
“Everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” II Timothy 3:12
“The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Romans 8:16-17

Suffering is not an option. If we do not suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, then it shows that we are not true followers of Jesus. If we do not truly follow Jesus, then we will not gain the kingdom of heaven or be called children of God.