For Christians, the Trump Presidency Must Be a Call to Arms

trump

In the beginning of the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken several noble Jewish children as hostages. Those children were given new names, often ones that implied loyalty to pagan gods – for instance, Daniel (Hebrew for “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar, which means “May Our Goddess Protect the King.” If you can imagine having a new name forced upon you, and having that name be an insult to your religious heritage, you now have a glimpse of how that might have felt. Likewise, they were forced to embrace a new language and a new culture, and there is even some evidence to suggest that these Jews were castrated. These boys were taken from their families, made to live in a new city, had every aspect of their lives transformed, and may even have had their gender erased.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have to imagine that many Americans can strongly relate to Daniel and his cohort.

I have to imagine that many minorities racial, ethnic, religious and sexual must feel as though they are on the precipice of seeing their value evaporate and their identities snuffed out.

Donald Trump rode a wave of hateful rhetoric to the most powerful office on the planet, allying himself with white supremacists and neo-Nazis along the way. And while it’s certainly true that not all or even most of Trump’s supporters fit that description, the many that do will now feel emboldened to spread their anti-gospel of wickedness and hate as far as they can.

Ultimately, the book of Daniel has a single underlying theme: that despite present appearances, God is in control. If we believe that God was in control when He put Jerusalem in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, how much more must He be in control over so much less a man?

In Romans five, Paul reminds us that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly; that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Too much can be made of terms like “sinners” and “ungodly.” Paul’s point was not so much to point out the moral shortcomings of His audience, but rather to help us feel the overwhelming torrent of the love of God. Instead of thinking of those words with their moral meaning, replace them with their relational significance: when we were still strangers to Him, Christ died for us. When God owed us nothing, He gave us everything.

It goes without saying that with a majority in the House, the Senate, and a “Republican” as President, Republicans and conservatives may feel emboldened to impose a legislative and judicial will on America that will turn American citizens into refugees at home, “an America for me but not for thee.” I hope they resist that urge. I hope the principled members of Congress, regardless of party, resist that urge at every turn. I am optimistic, but not naïve.

Christians need to remember what happened to the heroes of our faith when they fell into the hands of a tyrant. Christians need to remember the astounding grace we received when we were still strangers to God.  Will we extend our love to those who now feel powerless? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who find themselves pushed to the fringes? Will we affirm and reaffirm the infinite value of every person created in the image of God, which is just a redundant way to say “all of humanity”?

Or will we make those who seem somewhat unlike us feel even less like us, to pursue power as though we think this is “a Gospel for me, but not for thee”?

The Righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you?”

If Abraham Lincoln was correct, if the real test of a person’s character is how they handle power, these next four years will shine a spotlight on the character of Christians in America. I hope we rise to the challenge. I hope our affiliation with Christ dominates our affiliation with politics. In 2011, Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield around Coptic Christians who wanted to celebrate Christmas, producing one of the most touching photographs I can remember – and the clearest example of Christ-likeness I can think of. I hope American Christians follow their example, and – hand-in-hand – stand between our brothers and sisters and those who mean to hurt them.

coptic

A Short PSA on Setting Up Your Friends

Recently, a number of my friends have expressed an interest in setting me up with (presumably) one of their other friends. And although I am somewhat hesitant about the prospect in general, the biggest obstacle for me is the fact that most people seem to draw a blank as to why they think their mystery candidate would make a good match. “You guys have a lot in common!” seems to me to be just a different way of saying, “She’s single and you’re single.” (One friend pitched a date by saying we have similar personalities, which is better. Though it leaves unaddressed the objection that I’m about as much of me as most people can handle, so having a second version of me might not be a recipe for success.) It’s difficult to summarize someone you know well off the cuff.

Here’s my suggestion: if you want to set someone up with someone else, be prepared to sell both of them to each other. Obviously, there are many different ways one could do this, so I’ve devised a simple format. Share two positive personality traits, one charming idiosyncrasy, and two examples of hobbies or interests. For example, if I were trying to set up my friend Katie, I might say, “Let me tell you about my dear friend Katie. She is insightful and caring, has a heretofore unidentified type of narcolepsy, and she enjoys baking and introvert adventures.” Or, likewise, I might say of my friend Dan, “You’d like my friend Dan. He is generous and artistic, he’s never heard a pun he didn’t like, and he enjoys thrifting and woodworking.”

It seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles in a setup is transforming the feeling of hesitant skepticism into curiosity. Perhaps you can think of a better way of accomplishing that task than this recipe. If not, at least it’s a place to start – and it’s better than, “You’re both single.”

(This was the first image to come up when I googled "Blind date." The image, like the blindfolds, is a little on the nose.)

(This was the first image to come up when I googled “Blind date.” The image, like the blindfolds, is a little on the nose.)

On Renaming Lake Calhoun

In the aftermath of the rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, there have been calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and all state grounds. While for some the Confederate flag might be a banner of state’s rights, to many others it symbolizes a culture of slavery and oppression. Online retailers like eBay and Amazon have responded by banning the sale of those flags and related memorabilia from their websites. Similarly – since it is named after a man who argued vociferously that slavery was a social good – there has been a movement in Minneapolis to rename Lake Calhoun. Although it started in 2011, this movement has picked up considerable steam in the last week. But just because something is opportunistic does not make it wrong: if it plausible that the Confederate flag can carry uncomfortable racial connotations, so can a name. I know I would be uncomfortable suntanning on the beaches of Lake Hitler.

That being said, I don’t think this is so cut and dry. If we start prosecuting our ancestors for modern crimes, where do we stop? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the head of a campaign to persecute gay sailors when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Hell, pick a celebrity at random and we can probably find some reprehensible act in their past. Are we morally obligated to hate the music of Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page kidnapped a teenage girl? How much good does it take to offset the evil in a person’s legacy? For now, we might overlook Washington’s slave-owning sins because he was a leader of the American Revolution and our first president. Likewise, for some people, the fact that John C. Calhoun sent the expedition to find a site for Fort Snelling – and, as a result, Minnesota became the state that it is today – will be enough of an offset. That won’t be true for everybody.

I think I prefer a third option. Rather than renaming Lake Calhoun – and dealing with the logistical fallout of renaming Calhoun Square, normalizing a new name for the area, and every other headache that comes with it – I think we should use the name to transform Calhoun’s legacy. I think we should find a way to acknowledge the insidious nature of Calhoun’s views on race and slavery with the caveat that those repugnant views don’t snuff out the rest of his contributions. Rather than sweeping our state’s ties to the man under the rug, I would prefer to see Lake Calhoun become a beacon of diversity and inclusivity – moreso than it is already. There’s a certain poetry to the concept, too. It’s as though we are collectively saying, “You helped get us here, but you will not find us how you left us.”

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world

Let’s End the NFL Blackout Rule

Football season hasn’t even begun yet, and already the anticipation – and outrage – is in full swing. With the troubling length of player misconduct suspensions (far too short in the case of Ray Rice, far too long in the case of Josh Gordon), and the fate of beleaguered general manager Jim Irsay still hanging in the balance, there is plenty of controversy holding our attention as we await the games to begin. Under the cover of these spectacles, the NFL and the NFLPA – the union representing the players – and even the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, each quietly sent letters to the FCC asking them to table the elimination of NFL blackout policies.

In case you didn’t know, the NFL has had a policy since 1973 that games cannot be televised locally if the home stadium is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. (The radius for such blackouts is typically 75 miles from the site of the stadium.) For example, if the Vikings haven’t sold out their home stadium by noon on the Thursday before the game, local broadcasts cannot air the game within a 75-mile radius of TCF Bank Stadium, a geographical area that covers the entirety of the Twin Cities metro.

Last month, the FCC Commissioner, Ajit Pai, said the “time has come” to repeal the blackout rule. Pai continued, “After carefully reviewing all of the arguments, I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies. Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners.”

The law involved here is very complicated, but the motivations are not. Blackouts allow teams to artificially increase demand for the NFL tickets. These tickets are prohibitively expensive for most people already: a family of four would have to pay between $140 and $600 for a single game, and that doesn’t include the cost of parking or concessions. There is no direct charge for a fan to watch the game on their television at home.

In the general case, this should be enough to make you angry. In the case of the Vikings, though, that feeling should be amplified by the fact that local taxpayers are providing $498 million dollars to finance the new stadium. Oddly enough, we don’t have a profit-sharing deal on ticket sales. If ticket sales flounder, local fans – who had little choice in the decision to subsidize the new downtown stadium – might be barred from watching games played at a stadium they are paying for.

The FCC is right to oppose the blackout rule. No team that is receiving public subsidies to build a new stadium should be allowed to impose blackouts against the home audience. If you feel strongly about this issue, like I do, take the time to send our senators an e-mail to let them know how you feel about this issue. You could also ask them to show support for Tom Coburn’s attempt to remove the NFL’s tax-exempt status. The NFL should have to play by the same rules as any other business: if you provide a quality product at a reasonable price, people will purchase it. Game tickets are no exception.

 

http://www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/contact-amy

https://www.franken.senate.gov/?p=email_al

 

Stadium

Aesop and Street Harassment

In September 2011, while sitting at the bus stop on the corner of Aurora and University in Midway, a middle-aged woman walked up to where I was sitting and propositioned me for sex. I was dressed well that day: I was wearing a pink checked shirt, a royal-blue polka dot tie – half-Windsor knot, of course – and a dark-gray cardigan with black toggles. I liked dressing up before work those days, when I worked as a cook. One thing a lot of people don’t consider about cooks is that it’s a physically-demanding job, one that requires working around and above hot surfaces and lifting heavy loads, all at a brisk pace and for hours at a time. Cooks are always sweaty and gross at the end of their shift. If they want to feel comfortable and confident in their appearance it has to come at the start of the day.

To be clear, she didn’t seem out of the ordinary as she approached. She was about 5’4, I’d say, wore gaudy turquoise sunglasses and carried herself in a distinctly hen-like fashion, but none of that struck me as peculiar. (When I’ve told this story in the past, people often ask me if she was a drug addict. I have no way of knowing, but she didn’t conform to my stereotype of such a person.) She gazed down from my face to my feet and back up and said, “Mmm!” in a nasally alto. “I could use you.”
“Uhm… for what?”

“Sex. Do you live around here?”

I’m not used to dealing with people who are being so direct. Even the Mormons that I meet ask for my name before they wax on about Joseph Smith. “And to think I just got dressed.”

She chuckled and changed the subject to the weather.

This who exchange has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about the ongoing discussion of catcalling, street harassment, and how men and women think about these issues. I have plenty of thoughts about those things, and about how threatened and uncomfortable some women are made to feel by complete strangers. It just occurs to me that it’s almost impossible for me to relate, despite having multiple experiences that could be defined as street harassment. And that’s because I don’t feel threatened. When it happens to me, I think it’s funny.

I’m not saying it’s funny in general. I worry sometimes for certain friends when they have to walk alone in downtown Minneapolis. And I certainly don’t laugh when the women in my life share their experiences with me. It’s not funny that it happens to other people. It’s funny when it happens to me.

Every time I think I’ve come to an informed opinion on these things, I have to stop and remember that I can’t really empathize. I’ve never felt afraid or vulnerable out in public, and I’ve never thought that I could be in danger (even though there have been times that I really, really should have felt like I was in danger). I’m a tall, stocky, physically-imposing dude. I have the luxury of being snarky when someone walks up to me and asks for sex. And I never have to fear physical reprisal for doing so. Even men tend to give me a wide berth when they see my lumberjack beard.

That’s not to say I feel my opinion has no merit. I may even end up sharing it soon. It’s necessary, though, to contextualize my experience and acknowledge how it differs from what women experience. Having an opinion is all well and good. But any opinion that feels alien to what people actually experience on a day-to-day level is worthless at best.

The Language of Rape Culture

In “The Evolution of God,” author Robert Wright notes that ancient, primitive peoples had no word for religion or the religious experience. “If you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.” That is, it’s not as though “religious” thought and action were not part of their day-to-day existence; rather, their religious practices were inseparable from that existence. Wright goes on to note that Ancient Hebrew, the language of the vast majority of the Old Testament, likewise had no word for religion. Asking a pre-exile Semite if he was religious would be something like asking a 19th Century farmer if his produce was organic.

It’s easy to take a glance at history and snicker at their simplemindedness. But the fact is, we have similar forms of blindness all around us. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt spent a considerable amount of time studying the question, “What makes people vote Republican?” Haidt rejected Freudian-era thinking about conservatism stemming from strict parenting and personal insecurities. “Now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives,” Haidt said, “we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.”

Michael Shermer, the famous skeptic, cries foul. Behind Haidt’s question, Shermer notes, is the assumption that “because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease.” This kind of an assumption is a poor place to begin a scientific inquiry. Shermer continues, “The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim – they don’t even notice it.” (It should be noted that Shermer is a self-described libertarian who voted third-party in the 2000 election and for John Kerry in 2004.) When a certain point of view is so “tightly interwoven” into your “everyday thought and action,” it’s not surprising that the assumptions of that point of view go completely unchallenged.

Shermer points to a study done by NYU psychologist John Jost that alleged that conservatives suffer from “uncertainty avoidance,” “need for order, structure, closure,” and “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity,” all of which leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Says Shermer, “It is not the data of these scientists I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states…. Once you set up the adjectives …it’s easy to collect the data that support them.” For example, although the psychologist Drew Westen claims in “The Political Brain” that liberals are “generous to a fault” while conservatives are stingy or “heartless,” though in reality (at least, according to Shermer), conservatives are “much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours.”

Even the neuroscientist (and, again, noted skeptic) Sam Harris couldn’t resist calling out some of the biased assumptions behind these forms of questions. “In a recent study of moral reasoning,” Harris writes, “subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed.” According to the study, liberals would sacrifice one white person in order to save 100 non-whites but not, as Harris notes, the other way around. Conservatives tended to respond the same way for both scenarios: they would sacrifice one life for 100, irrespective of race. “Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.”

All of that is a tedious and self-indulgent preamble to a greater and unrelated point.

One afternoon a little more than a year ago, I was walking east on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. A pedal pub was approaching, filled entirely with women (it appeared to be a bachelorette party). One of them took note of me and catcalled. Amused and ego-inflated, I posted the story to Facebook, noting, “I don’t know what you ladies are complaining about. That was awesome!” I got a lot of feedback from that comment, and that feedback and the subsequent conversations on the topics of unwanted attention and rape culture slowly opened my eyes to the fact that there are real and prevalent elements of sexism and subjugation in our culture.

Creating a word for practices and rituals – religion – allowed people to separate it from the mundane elements of existence. Likewise, acknowledging bias in academia allows us to apprehend a better understanding of our world and, more specifically, our motivations to act in certain ways. Amelia Shroyer, when writing about rape and rape culture, entreats us to similarly think of word choices and vocabulary as a way to revolutionize our understanding of this topic. “Language is a small step, but a profound one,” she writes. “Be an ally to rape survivors. Expand your vocabulary.” Shroyer had rape jokes and flippant exaggeration in mind when she was writing, but my point stands: when we can meaningfully describe our unconscious behaviors – and the effects those actions have on society at large – we enable ourselves to become more conscientious about them.

I found myself reading through Straight White Boys Texting yesterday and patting myself on the back for never being so egregious or overt. “I will never again be embarrassed by a text I’ve sent,” I thought to myself …and repeated aloud to the people around me. But in my self-congratulation, I overlooked that fact that subtle forms of sexism are often more insidious than the obvious ones. There is, after all, a small grain of merit in the fact that the men behind those text messages are treating women the way they wished women would treat them (albeit in one of the more twisted, terrible ways one could embrace that ethic).

I don’t make unwanted sexual advances towards women – either in person or on through any form of electronic communication. But that is only praiseworthy if my attitude towards women is elevated above my actions. If I avoid that behavior out of fear of reprisal, all along nursing a sense of sexual entitlement, then I am not only a creep but a coward on top of it. That is nothing to take pride in.

The burden of becoming aware of rape culture is to be as honest with myself as I can muster. What attitudes and biases can I purge from my life? How am I being an active burden to the women in my life? It’s lucky for fish that they aren’t aware of the water through which they swim. Humans have the wonderful privilege to influence our environment and the terrifying burden to make that environment better for the people around us. Fortunately, as Shroyer reminded us, we can begin with language. I hope we find the right words to help us on our way.

Rape Culture

Honest Discussions and Debating Politics

I like discussion. It’s been with me my whole life: the unrelenting political arguments at every family holiday were as much a family staple as rice pudding or Cool Whip. I found it also in high school, in Mr. Reynolds’ chess club, where we would dissect arguments about creation and evolution and the existence of God. And I don’t think it’s sheer happenstance that my favorite Bible professor at Northwestern was Ronn Johnson, the guy my classmates called a heretic in hushed voices. It was rare that I would agree with him, but I always had to know my stuff or he would tear through my arguments as though they were wrapping paper.

It’s not just the competitive element of debate I find stimulating. Of course, it’s a wonderful, euphoric sensation to feel the duet of argument and articulation harmonize with each other and sway your opponent. That experience is so rare, however, I’m wondering if I’ve had it more than three or four times, or if I’ve ever experienced it at all. At the same time, the anticipation of the rebuttal, awaiting my turn to speak with swelling impatience, words thick and heavy on my waiting tongue, is an uncommon joy of excitement and suspense. But the thought, “My mind could change…” might be what I enjoy most of all. There is apprehension in acknowledging that I could go from believing one thing to its opposite in a matter of moments.

But discussion is rare. Hobby Lobby served as a fine reminder of that. For every twenty people I talked to about the Hobby Lobby decision, I had maybe one honest discussion.

“It’s the worst SCOTUS decision ever!” I heard multiple people say.

Really? Worse than Dred Scott, the case that ruled that no person of African ancestry could be considered a citizen of the United States? Worse than Plessy v. Ferguson, which established “separate but equal” as acceptable legal precedent? Worse than Korematsu v. United States, which ruled that it was legal for our government to intern Japanese-American citizens during World War II?

David Hume famously said that “Reason is slave to the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” The psychologist Jonathan Haidt was referring to Hume when he defined “the first rule of moral psychology”: “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” It  is our nature to make snap judgments and then construct post hoc arguments that support them.

Think of it this way. Say a family owns a dog as a pet. One day, the dog wanders into the street, gets hit by a car, and dies. The family then butchers the dog and eats it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why? Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? Why? That’s what Haidt asked hundreds of people as he was scanning their brains. He found that his subjects had a simple emotional reaction – disgust – and then constructed moral reasoning around that emotion. That is, we don’t have impeccable, rigorous logical support to think we shouldn’t eat our family pet or copulate with a dead chicken. We have an instantaneous gut reaction that we try to justify with paltry arguments.

So when you find yourself embroiled in conversation over a divisive issue and you ask yourself, “Why won’t they listen to reason?” you are asking the wrong question. They – and you, and I, and especially you and I – aren’t actually being rational to begin with. We are being emotional: our hearts race, our nostrils flare, our skin gets hot. Some people hide that emotion better than others, but it’s there. Remember that when you call someone a fascist or racist or an asshole when they “disagree” with your point of view. You are getting frustrated with somebody because they had a different emotional reaction than you did. Why would you have expected otherwise?

When I discuss emotion-heavy political issues, I try to reduce the logic to something emotionally neutral in order to see if I’m still convinced by it. For example, yesterday I read a piece by Jessica Valenti where she called out some of the claims of women’s rights advocates for watering down their arguments. While acknowledging that there are valid health reasons for women to use birth control, she goes on to say “It’s awfully depressing … we can’t just come out and say that most women use birth control for sex.” Fair point. She also said that “Conservatives won’t acknowledge their deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex.”

I consider myself conservative* and I don’t think I have a deep-seated fear of non-reproductive sex. I fully support people’s right to have sex. I believe that the best way to avoid an unplanned pregnancy (or contracting an STD) is to abstain. But my personal sexual choices – the behaviors I believe to constitute healthy sexuality and sexual expression – are mine, they are held for personal reasons, I don’t have much of a desire to force anyone else to submit to them. I believe I should advocate for them on an interpersonal level, not necessarily a broad social level. That being said, one essential component of the conservative point of view is that you cannot completely divorce an act from its consequences.

Compare that thought process to how we think about eating and dieting. I believe that everyone should have the right to eat whatever they want. I also firmly believe that some diets are healthier than others. For me to say that a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet is more beneficial than, say, a Cheetos-and-Mellow-Yellow diet, I don’t say that out of a deep-seated fear of carbohydrates. The solution to me isn’t to ban junk food; it’s to keep junk food legal while promoting a healthier lifestyle on the interpersonal level. I agree with Ron Swanson when he says, “The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds and die of a heart attack at 43, you can! You are free to do so.” But the fewer people that embrace that lifestyle, the better off we all are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are all hypocrites, and that none of us are the rational, justice-seeking saints we pretend to be. Like I said before, I like discussion. And I especially value the rare person who makes the effort to understand the viewpoints of the people he or she engages, not for the sake of finding a weakness in their arguments, but to understand what they believe and why they believe it. Hemingway entreated us to listen completely when people talk. I agree. Listen completely, even if you disagree – especially if you disagree. Listen completely, not with heavy tongues but with open ears.

Swanson

*I should say, I believe that conservative philosophies undergird my reasoning on political issues. I rarely find myself coming to the same conclusions as mainstream Republicans. For example, I voted to support gay marriage. I am pro-life, but I am also a realist, so I think the best way to limit abortions is to limit unwanted pregnancies. Thus, I think wide and cheap access to contraceptives is one of the best ways to prevent abortions.

Stepping Onto the Battlefield

In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about the final judgment.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

It is not an original observation to point out that Christians are known now more for what we oppose than what we promote. When I was doing my research for yesterday’s Hobby Lobby post, I came across countless opinion pieces and blog posts making the (reasonable) claim that Christians care more about the fetus than the woman carrying it, that our devotion to the life of that child ends the moment it’s born.

There are abundant errors in those claims, but what is maddening to me is that we’ve left ourselves open to that perception. We rant online about what we oppose, be it abortion, or gay marriage, or whatever hot-button political issue is in front of us. “I disagree with that because I’m a Christian.” Fine. But what do you stand for?

When we call ourselves “Pro-life,” are we so zealous in that claim that we promote life at every turn? Do we see to the needs of the people around us even to the point of being self-sacrificial? Is our love so  bright and abundant that it shines like the sun, or does it flash once like a firecracker, leaving only a noxious odor behind? Do we treat everyone we meet as though they were Jesus Himself?

If I meet a woman who chooses to abort, do I give her grace or condemnation? Do my thoughts and actions towards her combine in perfect harmony to say, “Whatever your past, Jesus Christ’s promise of salvation will never waver!” Am I being honest if I say, “Your past doesn’t matter to me, but I deeply care about your future.” Or do I smirk to myself and say, “At least I’ve never sinned as badly as this one”?

Our message needs to be as simple as it is uniform. We don’t offer condemnation, we offer life.

Face it, it’s easy to sit behind a computer monitor or a smart phone and tell someone how to live or what choices to make. It’s a lot more difficult to walk alongside someone in their heartache or terrifying desperation, when their future is collapsing in front of them and they cannot find a path through the rubble. It’s simple to moralize; actually meeting the needs of the hungry, sick, and lonely is infinitely more complex. But you can’t call yourself a soldier if you’re not willing to step foot on the battlefield.

Christian life is about meeting each other’s needs. The Apostle John asked, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

Charles Spurgeon puts that idea another way. “If Christ is not all to you He is nothing to you. He will never go into partnership as a part Saviour of men. If He be something He must be everything, and if He be not everything He is nothing to you.” Your love, and your attitude, and your service towards the people around you demonstrates your love for Christ. With everyone you see today, the best thing you can do is to treat them as though they were Jesus Christ Himself.

Suits, Leggings, and Modesty

One of my favorite metaphors is the scissors. CS Lewis used it to illuminate the relationship between faith and works. In Mere Christianity, he wrote, “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” (One could use that to rephrase James 2: “Faith without works can’t cut.”) I have used it personally to talk about balance in football, the need for both visual and emotional impact in art, and even for something as simple as talking and listening in communication. The image is as versatile as the tool itself.

Yesterday, several of my friends shared a satirical blog post about modesty called “When Suits Become a Stumbling Block.” (As of this writing, the account has been suspended.) By swapping out women in leggings for men in suits, the author highlighted the absurdity of the notion that women are categorically responsible for male lust. “I am issuing a plea to my brothers in Christ for an understanding of where I’m coming from. When you choose to exist in public looking well-groomed and sharp, you are basically extending an invitation for me to lust after you.” After all, Jesus said to tear out your eye if it causes you to lust; He didn’t say, “Go tell the women to change their outfits.”

At first, I nodded in agreement. But the more I thought about the post, the more it bothered me. I realized that both the “traditional” side of the modesty argument and its counterpoint are approaching it the wrong way. Both sides want to put the responsibility onto the other party. Both sides have reasonable arguments to make. Neither side submits to the other in humility and love.

If you look at another person in lust and say to yourself, “They are causing me to sin, they need to change,” you are wrong. The burden is on you to stop sinning. Have you resisted lust to the point of shedding blood? Are you doing everything in your power to keep lustful thoughts out of your mind and heart? Of course you aren’t. On the flip side, are you so cavalier to sin – or attached to a particular mode of dress – that you will stubbornly cling to it even after it becomes contentious? Do you prefer your leggings or low-cut blouse (or, yes, killer suit) to the chastity of your brother or sister in Christ?

The “stumbling block” from the title refers to a passage in Romans 14. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of a brother.” If you read this verse and think it applies to the other side and not to you, you are reading it wrong. Put it on yourself. This applies equally to all of us. The modesty-inclined camp needs to stop passing judgment and decide to never put the stumbling block of “responsibility” onto another. The same goes for the liberty-inclined. Stop judging someone for their weakness; determine yourself to love them if you can. In our constant push back and forth on this issue, we are letting stubbornness and pride take hold where love should reign. Shame on us.

Don’t think I am advocating any mode of dress or that I am saying any of this is easy or straightforward. Your standard shouldn’t be a length or type of fabric. What I am saying, rather, is we need to own the responsibility for both blades of these scissors. Do we ask ourselves both, What do I need to do in order to kill sin in my life? Am I making every effort I can to do that? Am I accepting responsibility for the state of my heart? and What am I doing that might be causing my brother or sister to stumble? How can I change? Am I willing to give up something I enjoy for their sake?

Paul continues, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died…. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Have it Your Way

If you drive forty-five minutes west of London along the Thames, you’ll find yourself in the village of Bray in Berkshire. You would have to pass through Slough to get there: TV nerds like me know Slough as the setting for the original BBC Office starring Ricky Gervais. Bray seems like a quaint British village; when looking at pictures, you’re almost surprised to see cars in them. Of the four British restaurants that have earned the Michelin Guide’s highest honor – three stars – two of them are located in Bray. The first of the two is known as the Waterside Inn, and was founded by the Roux brothers. It is the only restaurant outside of France to have three Michelin stars for twenty-five consecutive years.

The other restaurant is called The Fat Duck. It is located at the center of town and is the so-called flagship of modernist cuisine in the English-speaking world. Chef Heston Blumenthal took a progressive approach to developing his cooking style and his restaurant’s reputation: he reached out to food scientists, psychologists, and even perfumers to test, retest, and challenge every facet of conventional cooking wisdom. Can we make oysters taste better if the diner hears ocean waves lapping while they eat? Is it possible to keep hot liquid and cold liquid separate in the same glass, so when a diner takes a sip half of her mouth is hot and half of her mouth is cold? Does the name of a dish have an impact on how it tastes – will someone be disgusted by crab ice cream but delighted by frozen crab bisque? Can we make an ice cream that we can light on fire but won’t melt?

These days, it’s not uncommon to see bacon in a dessert. Even Burger King had an ice cream parfait sprinkled with crispy bacon bits. Bacon-spiked desserts, though, got their start at The Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal introduced the dish “Bacon & Egg Ice Cream,” a scoop of bacon-and-egg flavored ice cream on top of a slice of caramelized French toast made with brioche. It was served with tomato and red pepper compote, a spoonful of salted caramel, sugared Morels, and a cup full of jellied Earl Grey tea. At the time, Blumenthal called it “without doubt the most controversial dish we have at the restaurant.”

One online review I read of The Fat Duck highlighted that fact. The author of that review said she didn’t like tomatoes, so she asked for the tomatoes to be withheld from the dish. She found the dish to be cloying – too sweet to finish –and marked her experience there down as a result.

Let me step back and talk about conceptualizing a dish on the professional level. The first thing a chef has to consider is that all tastes need to be in balance. As you may know, there are five generally-accepted tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (for the uninitiated, umami is “meatiness.” It is found in meats, tomatoes, and many kinds of cheeses and mushrooms). Sweet and sour, for example, do an excellent job of balancing each other out. Salty and bitter do the same thing, which is why beer snacks tend to be salty. Sour flavors don’t balance well with bitterness, however, nor do they balance well with salt. With that in mind, the second consideration comes up: everything on the plate should have a flavor-oriented purpose. The purpose of the tomato compote in the above dessert was to add sour flavors and umami: sour to tamp down the overall sweetness, umami to complement the bacon flavor, which in turn would make the meatiness more prominent and tamp down the sweetness.

Ultimately, when this reviewer asked to have the tomatoes left off her plate, she threw off the balance of the dish and didn’t like the result. Whether or not she realized that it was her fault, I don’t know. I hope she did. And I hope that if any of you are willing to pay $200 or more for a meal at a top restaurant you will eat the dish as it is intended. But more than that, it got me thinking about the myriad ways we do this same thing in day-to-day life without ever acknowledging it. It could be something simple. Maybe you didn’t enjoy a movie because you were texting and checking Twitter the whole time. Maybe you couldn’t feel comfortable in a new relationship because your heart was still holding onto a previous one. It could also be something more serious. Maybe your marriage is failing because you ignore the fundamental design and balance of marriage as a whole. I guess I can’t speak for you; but for myself, I want to start acknowledging when “having it my way” is what ruins the whole experience.

The Fat Duck