When Fear Fuels Religion

lightstock_87161_xsmall_user_3911910As I’ve written before, I’m no stranger to fear. I live in one of the safest time-periods of history, in one of the safest places on earth, and yet I have a hard time remembering the last time I wasn’t worried about something. Even if I’m doing something I enjoy, sometimes I’ll catch myself having too much fun, and remind myself that there is always something to dread on the horizon.

In college, I was involved in a Christian group on campus, and one of our favorite sins to confess was fear of man. What we meant by fear of man was that people were more important to us than God, so we worried about the opinions of others and wanted them to like us. Being concerned about what other people think may seem like a natural inclination, and it might not appear on a top-ten list of ‘worst vices to struggle with,’ but it was a big deal to us. I remember sitting at a light on my way home from school one weekend, begging God to help me fear him and not people. But even as I prayed, it hit me: I still didn’t really care about God. I just hate the feeling of my stomach being twisted in knots, and I want God to make it better. I was using God as a tool to take away my fear. Fear was fueling my religion, and it wasn’t pretty.

That’s not the only way fear can fuel religion

I was talking with a group of people this weekend about the recent under-cover videos taken of Planned Parenthood staff and facilities. One of the women was very out-spoken against abortion, saying that abortion is murder. This isn’t unusual – many Christians believe that the life of an individual starts at conception. But then she said something striking: she said that if she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and un-married, that she might choose to end the pregnancy, even though she believes it would be wrong – and the church would be one of the factors influencing her to have an abortion. Her fear of losing her reputation, of being scorned or judged by others in the church, would drive her to do something she feels strongly opposed to. I have a lot of respect for this woman – her assessment of her own heart and motives is honest and refreshing. She said what others probably think, and what some may have experienced first-hand: the church’s strong stand for ‘what is right’ actually pushes people toward making decisions that are wrong.

In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising. In Romans 7, Paul says the darkness in me seizes on the law as an opportunity to produce more sin. But, he says, the problem is with me and not the law; and so the remedy is not to create a better law, a stronger set of rules. When the church makes a strong stance for what is right in the area of sexuality and reproduction, it is right to do so. But where we trip ourselves up is when we think that taking a strong stand for truth has the power to make people live better lives. Because when we do that, we end up providing more opportunity for fear to seize on our failures and turn what should be something good into something that actually drives us into more failure.

Grace trumps fear

Paul says the remedy is not more law, but grace. Grace to own my failures AND the forgiveness that comes in Jesus. Grace to let the Spirit of God connect me to Jesus for life. Grace to hear the Father’s voice without a drop of condemnation saying “You are my beloved one, I am pleased with you.” Grace has the power to break the cycle of fear fueling our religion.

What about you – how have you seen fear fueling your religion? Have you seen grace break the power of fear?

Baltimore Police – Community Partners Interview

Credit: flickr/bionicteaching
Credit: flickr/bionicteaching

On June 14, 2013 Baltimore City Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell appeared on an episode of WYPR’s Between the Lines to discuss the relationship between police and the community. The original episode can be heard here. I was in the car last week and heard a portion being rebroadcast, obviously in response to the current situation in Baltimore. I don’t want to say too much, because I really just want to offer this as an opportunity to hear from someone who is closely involved with efforts to bring the police and the community together – efforts that were going on long before Freddie Gray and the recent unrest in Baltimore.

I do want to give just a little context: I have met Lt. Col. Russell on a number of occasions and worked with him and other community leaders on several initiatives in the city. I have a great respect for him, and I’m proud to count him as a brother in Christ. In addition to his role as head of the city police’s Community Partners Division, Melvin Russell is also an assistant pastor at his church. He brings an important perspective to the current discussion of race, policing, and life in Baltimore. You may not agree with everything he says, and I don’t think any one person has all the answers, but I do think he offers helpful insight and a measure of hope to the current situation.

So enjoy the interview (it starts with a short conversation with a Baltimore hip-hop artist, which is also worth hearing).  If it sparks anything for you, please feel free to share it here.

Reflections from Baltimore

shutterstock_273288269This time last week I was writing at my dining room table in north Baltimore, oblivious to the violence that was unfolding a few miles away in the area around Mondawmin Mall. It wasn’t until a friend texted and asked if we wanted to come stay with them that I knew something was up. We turned on the TV, and, like many in our region, watched as the ugly scenes unfolded under the watchful eye of the news helicopters. Family started calling to make sure we were safe. My kids wanted to know how long it would take the police to arrest the looters. My wife wondered how she would get to work the next day. I had more questions than answers myself: Why is this happening? What do they hope to accomplish? When will order be restored? Will anything change? Why the CVS?

That last question may seem a bit small given the scope of all that was happening, but I just couldn’t understand why CVS stores seemed to be a prime target for looters. I’ve had a week to reflect on all this, and I don’t have answers for all the questions. But I offer the following to possibly spur further discussion:

TV Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

Not all of Baltimore is violent, and not all hope is lost. This may seem obvious, but watching the news coverage on the night of April 27 it was hard to tell. The morning after the violence, another pastor and I went to Sandtown to help a sister church with cleanup. We arrived about 10am, but by that time most of the neighborhood was already done. The residents had come out early in the morning to clear their streets, pick up trash, and restore a bit of beauty. They expressed a love for their neighbors and a care for each other. In the face of the despair and frustration that was being expressed the night before, the community came out and showed that all is not lost – there is still hope, there are resources available and people who care enough to use them, and their neighborhoods and streets are worth cleaning.

Relationships Are Key

It’s a confusing, complicated situation, with many factors that no one person fully understands. This means that relationships are key – we have to be in relationship with people and listen to them and their story if we want to respond well. This is where my question about CVS becomes relevant. I had a guess about why those stores were targeted, but when I asked 3 people from Sandtown why their CVS was attacked, I got three different answers. None of them were the reason I had thought of. I still don’t know the real reason – maybe there are many different reasons that motivated the various looters. But the whole quest for an answer reminded me that it’s more important to know people, to hear their stories, and to listen to them, than it is to get ‘The Answer’.

It also reminded me that the confusion is fueled by the lines that separate us: lines of race, lines of economics, of where we grew up, of our experience of the police (the people you call when you need help vs. people you avoid for your own safety). We have to be willing to cross those lines and engage with each other and listen. It’s not helpful to say “I’m glad I don’t live in the city.” or “You wouldn’t understand, you’ve never lived in this neighborhood and experienced what I’ve experienced.” We may in fact be glad we don’t live in the affected neighborhoods, but we can’t simply leave it at that, because that creates lines of separation. And it may be true that you can’t fully understand the situation if you’ve never lived in a rough neighborhood, but dismissing those who have only experienced privilege also draws a line and doesn’t help them understand.

Jesus didn’t look at earth and say “You guys have really messed that place up, I’m glad I don’t live there.” He crossed the line, lived with us, ate with us, shared stories with us. He shared our pain and sorrow in order to redeem it. We need to follow Him in crossing the lines that separate us.

Everyone Involved Is Made in God’s Image:

That’s true for the police who patrol the streets, the boys doing the looting, the store owner who was attacked, and the grandmother worrying at home about her grandchildren. It’s also true for Freddie Gray, the young man who’s death is at the center of all this. Freddie was a man in the image of God – and so his life had infinite value. Whatever he had done or not done, whatever or whoever it was that caused his death, his life mattered and to die at 25 is a tragedy. People are carrying signs in the streets that say ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘All lives matter’ – and this is true, because all lives are made in God’s image. Jesus died and rose to restore us into God’s image and bring us together, so that one day before God’s throne there will be police and rioters and gang members and politicians and pastors all standing to worship God.  This is the ultimate hope for our city. In the meantime, sharing a meal together, or picking up some broken glass – these are small steps that point to the reality that will one day be.

Seeing Ourselves in the Foreigner

lightstock_117171_xsmall_user_3911910‘I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.’ – Moses

It seems to me that the recent discussion on immigration in the USA has been long on policy suggestions and heated debate, and short on understanding and identification. It’s a debate where issues of family, jobs, security, and legal status feel paramount. And because for many those things really are up for grabs, I think this is an issue where understanding and identification are crucial.

This came home to me as I was listening to Exodus a couple nights ago. One of my favorite ways to enter into the story of the Bible is listening to The Bible Experience. And on this particular night I was in Exodus 2, and Moses’s words rang in my ears: “I am a foreigner in a foreign land.”

The foreigner speaks

Moses was 40 years old when he spoke these words. I assume he spoke a lot during his first forty years, but when it comes to the Bible recording Moses’s words, this is only second thing he says. Later in Exodus, he ends up speaking the words of the law from God on Mt. Sinai to the people – the Ten Commandments. That’s what we remember Moses for, right?  Those ten words would define the life of God’s people for centuries. But these nine words from Exodus 2:22 (really four words in the Hebrew) – these words are almost as powerful.  And in their own way, they also set the tone for the life of God’s people.

Moses, their leader, lived for forty years as a foreigner in Midian. But to be honest, he had already been living as a foreigner, almost from birth. Born a Hebrew, he was raised in an Egyptian family because his parents gave him up for his own safety. The first forty years of his life he lived in a culture that was not his own. After committing manslaughter, he fled the authorities in his adopted home and lived the next forty years as a stranger in the country of Midian. A foreigner in a foreign land.

At the age of 80, Moses returned to his own country, and to his own people.  He returned ‘home’ – only to flee Egypt again as the leader of a huge band of refugees. It was in this context that Moses became the mouthpiece for the Law of God. God’s Law did not come to a people settled in their own land, with stability and safety. It came to foreigners, travelling in a land that wasn’t their own. It came to people who were migrants, hoping for a better life in a land of opportunity. Sometimes the natural-born citizens of the land in which they were foreigners didn’t want them there and refused to help them. Sometimes they openly fought against them.

All of this had an impact on the laws God gave to Israel. There are many provisions given to ensure that foreigners had a place in God’s people. Exodus 23:9 says “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”

Moses knew the hardship of being a foreigner. The people of Israel knew it. And this profoundly impacted the way they treated foreigners themselves.

How would our response to the immigration debate change if we kept in mind how it feels to be a foreigner in a strange land?

As followers of Jesus, we are told that this world as we know it is not our permanent home. That Jesus will return one day to remake everything. We live as foreigners here too. I think that’s really easy to forget. And when we forget it, we’re liable to forget what it’s like for those who come to live as foreigners in our country.   I’m not saying we should change our country’s immigration policy – though maybe we should. What I am saying is that it falls on those of us who follow Jesus to remember that we come from a long line of foreigners that stretches all the way back to Moses; to remember that we ourselves belong to King Jesus first, and we live in whatever country we are in as foreigners who love the place. And as we remember those things, maybe we’ll be inspired to identify with those who are coming here out of desperate situations. To see ourselves as foreigners too. To ask the question ‘What’s it like to be a foreigner?’ instead of ‘What’s your legal status?’

What do you think? Can you identify with being a foreigner? How does that shape how you view the debate on immigration?