Skin

When I sat down to write this post, it was with a heavy heart and a weary soul. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not a violent man. I recognize its occasional necessity, yes, but I still deplore violence, regardless. The last week has seen me an earthly citizen of a violent land. Two men were killed by police, and five officers were killed in a retaliation which ultimately left the shooter dead as well. An additional three people are dead in a courthouse shooting unconnected to the other three. Eleven citizens and police officers dead in a week — and that doesn’t count those who didn’t make the news, the hometown heroes and the innocent victims of racially-motivated violence. Much like the martyrs of Revelation 6, my heart cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true? How long?” The violence brings to the forefront of the American consciousness a variety of things: gun control, police brutality, media bias, racism, race relations. Normally I would be hesitant to discuss any of these topics, but these are not normal times. Today, then, I want to run the risk of exposing my own ignorance to talk about race.

Our society seems given to two extremes, both of which are in error (as extremes so frequently are). On the one side, we make too much of race. It becomes our primary identity, the main way we see ourselves and the main way we want other people to see us. Organizations are created to preserve our differences, but they permit only those of the designated race to participate. Skin color becomes the deciding factor in everything from hiring policies to the church one attends. On this side of the spectrum, then, lie the errors of exclusivity and partiality. To make race a “greater than” in any fashion is to ignore the equality of creation as well as the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The error inevitably devolves into racism in its more violent incarnations (physical, social, and otherwise).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is, well, the opposite error. Instead of making too much of race, we become “colorblind.” Proponents of this philosophy “don’t see color anymore.” Colorblindness takes Gal. 3:28 and similar texts to the illogical conclusion that race doesn’t matter at all just because Christ makes all races equal. Race itself and all its implications are ignored: its contributions to how one experiences life, cultural distinctives, benefits, detriments, all of it. This can lead to racism as well, but in a different way. If an over-emphasis of race can lead to violent racism, then a de-emphasis of race can lead to apathetic racism. Problems are ignored, stories marginalized, beauty and pain both unacknowledged just because they’re connected to race — and, after all, we’re equal, and “I don’t see race anymore.”

I may not be an Anglican, but I still believe we need a via media here. So what would a middle way, a healthy view of race, look like?

For starters, it requires us to admit that race exists, as do racial differences. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, yes, but our fallen world may never see us as truly one. We must work to end racism in any form. Racist institutions must be brought to account. People should recognize the diversity of ethnicities and celebrate it — and them. The media and the justice system must be taught to treat all races with equality and justice. Churches should integrate; truly, we are among the last bastions of accepted segregation. Whites should worship with Blacks, Blacks with Asians, Asians with Latinos, Latinos with Whites . . . you get the picture. This is what eschatological worship will be (Revelation 7:9-11). Shouldn’t we try to bring a bit of heaven to earth?

We should go a step further, too. Whether in church or elsewhere, persons of all races should be free to celebrate who they are, to say, “I am _____, and I ______.” Freedom of expression is beautiful. It can even be godly. So let’s celebrate the wonders of the human race together, taking the gifts offered to each of us by our races and using them in the service of each other and enriching each other’s lives.

To do these things, however, we must back up a step and reclaim a biblical concept so basic it appears in the very first chapter of the Book. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in the image of God. Each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, bears the image of the divine. We cannot believe others to be less-than or more-than because they don’t look like us — because we all look like God. (The image isn’t physical, but you know what I mean.) All races are comprised of persons who are relational, rational, moral, and commissioned to have dominion over the earth. And if that’s true, then perhaps race is another gift from God, a blessing to be celebrated and enjoyed.

We must learn to love each other. If we don’t, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). We must end the hatred, the evils of racism. We must work for a world wherein race is seen as a gift, not a curse, a world which sees, yet looks beyond, skin tone and recognizes the image of God in the Other. We can stop racially-motivated violence, regardless of its origin. We can open our hearts to listen and love those who are different than us. Then we can begin healing the broken heart of a broken land.

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Made for Others

The American Dream: the life independent, a world in which a strong individual needs no one, always pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. It’s a dream wherein we are all masters of our fates, dependent on no external entity to get things done — indeed, often doing things despite (and in spite of) others. The Man got you down? Don’t need the government. Marriage fall apart? Don’t need committed relationships.

In fact, it rather sounds like the ideal individual under this schema is one who needs no relationships whatsoever. I’m not limiting “relationship” to the romantic domain; we all have other relationships of different natures, after all (or at least we should). But this archetypical “do it on my own” person feels no need for them; they would only be burdensome.

I confess I once fell for that particular lie. I felt I needed nothing and no one outside of myself. It took a significant amount of crashing-and-burning — or, if you prefer, humbling — to make me see the error of my ways. Even now, however, that misguided principle tries to rear its ugly head on occasion. My inner misanthrope rouses from his slumber, declares people are, on the whole, horrible, and attempts to coerce me into abandoning this whole social-relational enterprise. That voice never wins, though. I am a person who needs people, who isn’t a fan of going home each day to an empty apartment or being alone at the church office for hours on end. I have a social/emotional/spiritual/mental need for the company of other human beings, no matter what Teenage Chris thought.

And so do you. Why?

Let me tell you about a garden.

When God created the first humans, He made them in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27). These humans were settled in a garden and told to tend the earth, having authority over all other living creatures (v. 26). Of course, our first parents fell, and Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve would never regain the perfection of Eden. (But that’s a different story.)

There’s a plethora of ways to interpret what exactly it is to be made in the image of God. And no, one of them is not our own form of upright, fairly-hairless mammal-ness. Our intelligence and ability to reason, however, are called the “rational image” of God. Our position of authority above the rest of the created order and our task as stewards of same reflect God’s sovereignty and care for His creation; this is the political image of the imago Dei. We, like God, exercise free will and thus bear the volitional image. Our sense of right and wrong derives from God as well, so we talk about the moral image. Others speak of other images: the creative, the spiritual, the communicative, etc. But the facet of the imago Dei I want to focus on is the relational image.

Like the others, the relational image is rooted in the nature of God. As Christian (at least orthodox Christians), we believe God exists as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity isn’t the most understandable thing in the world, I admit, and I don’t have space in this post to give it a proper treatment, but suffice it to say (for the moment) God exists as three Persons yet one God; to expand my earlier statement, God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. How can this be without saying we believe in three separate gods? Because the Trinitarian God exists as a relationship between the three Persons. Each is in a direct relationship with the other two, making a single entity we call God.

Now that we’re all confused, let me say this: because God is a relationship, we are created for relationships. Gregariousness and community are coded into our DNA. We’re designed to relate both to God and to other people; it’s just who we are. That’s why being alone is a punishment for our worst criminals; that’s why we get lonely; that’s why we seek friendships, have families, join community organizations and clubs. All so we can cease being solitary and unite with other human beings. It’s how God made us to be. Yes, this causes us to seek a relationship with God (and it most definitely should), but it also keeps us functioning as a society — and as individual human beings. To deny ourselves relationships is to deny part of what makes us human — part of what it means to bear the image of God.

That’s one beef I have with our current (and emerging) society: we don’t pursue real relationships. We believe social media friends are as good as the real thing. When we do have real friendships, they tend to be shallow and self-serving. “I’ll hang out with you,” we say, “when it’s convenient for me and only if I’ll get something out of it.” We don’t know how to be selfless, present, or selflessly present in our relationships. Then there’s the problem of society’s warped views of men and women which cause some to be suspicious of any close relationships between members of the same sex as well as between members of the opposite sex. Intimacy in relationships somehow became equated with sex and sexuality, and we are the poorer for it.

And don’t get me started on what passes for dating these days.

In exchanging real relationships for pseudo-relationality, we widen an Other-shaped hole into a yawning chasm which will admit any one of a number of substitutes. Technology seems to be the substitute of choice at the moment, followed closely by “no strings attached” sex. But others of us compensate (or self-medicate) in different ways: Netflix binges, alcohol, anything involves an adrenaline rush, travel, books, cars, food, etc. We throw ourselves into these because no one else is around and we’re not putting forth the effort to find someone. Don’t mishear me, though: hobbies are critical, and so is time by ourselves (doubly so for my fellow introverts). But we can’t fully replace our relationships with other people with relationships to stuff. Stuff will never feel anything towards us.

At the end of the day, the way we’re wired relationally underscores a very important truth grounded in creation itself: “it is not good for man [sic] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Adam’s solitude was, in fact, the first thing in the Bible God declares “not good” after the goodness of the rest of creation. So we must love other people, pursue them, be in genuine, authentic relationships with them. Anything less is not good.

Identity Crisis

I love books; this is no secret. And I especially love books with immersive worlds, wonderful places where I can drop in, lose myself, and become part of characters’ lives. A lot of teen and young adult books are great at this, as many of them establish classification systems for their characters. One of my favorite things to do is to take some quiz or test to find out “my” group. For example, my Divergent faction is Abnegation (although Erudite was a contender). In the Harry Potter world, well, I’m a “hat stall.” I’ve been Sorted into all four Hogwarts Houses at various points in life. My first was Gryffindor, much to the protestation of my friends (who said Ravenclaw) and the surprise of my family (who said Slytherin). I’ve never felt particularly brave enough or cool enough for Gryffindor, though, which may be why I keep retaking the test. Today I thought I would take it one final time, one last tie-breaker between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, my two most common results. So, where did it put me?

Hufflepuff. Not a bad place for a pastor.

The ubiquitous nature of this theme of (group) identity in literature geared toward young people makes me think, though. And when you add that to an astonishing number of personality tests currently available (ranging from the scientific to the Facebook app), it begins to look like our culture has developed an obsession with identity. Our own identities, to be exact. We can’t follow the mantra of “To thine own self be true” if we don’t know who our selves really are — and if our society places a value on anything, it’s individualism. And so we subject ourselves willingly to batteries of aptitude tests, personality quizzes, and a host of other assessments. We create new “identity labels” for things like sexuality and gender and then place most of our self-perception/-conception in those categories. It’s not enough, for example, for me to just call myself Chris; no, I am Chris of the Abnegation and House . . . Hufflepuff? Gryffindor?, a biological male with a corresponding gender identity, heterosexual, Caucasian (or, if you prefer, European American), political moderate conservative who is registered as a Republican.

We also place a great deal of our identities in other, external labels. We define ourselves by our jobs, so much so that the unemployed and the retired can often lose a sense of who they really are. Think, too, of those whose primary identity comes from being a mom, a dad, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a wife, a husband. If the other part of that relationship disappears, how will they then define themselves? Who will they become? Who are they at their core? Do they still know? Can they set aside those past roles, both vocational and relational, and recover the fundamentals of who they are?

The one place every Christian should find his or her identity is, of course, in God. Before we can relate to anyone else, we must remember we are human beings made in the image of God, the imago Dei. This means, in part, we are rational beings crafted for relationship. The primary relationship we have is with God, so our first identity is simply “one made in the image of God to have a relationship with God.” And out of that relationship comes our next level of identity (for the Christian): a born-again, forgiven child of the Living God. No other aspect of our identity should clash with that or call it into question. When “Who are you?” is answered with “I’m a Christian,” the asker should never have a follow-up of “Yeah, but this part of who you are isn’t.” Every facet of our lives is wholly given to God. Nothing is withheld.

From those twin cores of identity comes the foundation upon which we may build all other dimensions of who we are. I can be in a relationship of any sort with a fellow human being because of my identity as one in a relationship with God and created to do so. I don’t lose who I am when those human relationships fail because I still have that primary relationship with God. A loss of job doesn’t destroy my identity because I can work for the kingdom of God no matter what my career is. My sexuality and other desires are rightly ordered by God; my political affiliation should reflect how I believe God wants me to view that aspect of culture. This is the identity, the true self discovered when I abide in Him and He in me (John 15:5).

Can it go awry? Of course. Sin can impact every way I have of thinking about myself. My sexuality can be distorted, perverted, broken. I can become very passionate about things which are absolutely evil, and I can truly believe those evils are who I am deep inside myself. But I can always take a step back, remember I was born into a fallen world and sin affects even what I want most in life, even how I label myself. If I can take it back to God, surrender that to Him, He can overcome my sinful predispositions and restore me to my true self, remind me of my real identity.

So whether we’re Dauntless or Ravenclaw, remember who you are by remembering whose you are.

Let’s Hug Dating Hello

I come from the generation that kissed dating goodbye, as one rather popular book chose to phrase it. Christian teens and young adults everywhere opted to forgo traditional dating and just wait for “The One.” This meant dating would only be permissible among those who had intent to marry, as it were. As some still say, dating without the intention of getting married simply robs someone of their spouse for an indeterminate amount of time. And so casual dating was out; “I’m having my first date tonight with my future husband” was in.

Few relationships could withstand that sort of initial pressure. To place that kind of expectation in a relationship at the outset before you even truly know if you’d enjoy marriage to the other person . . . well, it has caused many a relationship to fail. I mean, dating is a way to get to know someone for who they are, not a way to immediately size up one’s marriage potential. I should be married to you to know you as my spouse; dating is the pathway, the vehicle to get that far. It’s the time for getting to know you, getting to know all about you — not a time for naming the kids or picking the color of the kitchen curtains.

All of that — the waiting, the learning — was deliberately kicked to the curb by my generation — by the Christians of my generation, specifically. The others aided the rise of our contemporary hookup culture, thereby also abandoning dating qua dating. If the only options were “God told me to marry you” and “Wanna come back to my place?” it’s little wonder things evolved into our current mess.

And a fine mess it is, too. Real dates, real romance seem to be non-existent. You’re on a date? Because it looks surprisingly like “let’s stare at our phones while in close proximity to each other.” No interaction with each other, no learning about the other and falling in love with the cute freckles on her nose (because you’re not even looking at each other). Just a passive co-existence near one another facilitated by technology. Of course, I have to be fair: there’s the opposite extreme of one’s level of interaction, the notorious (and infamous) “Netflix and chill.” Which, oddly enough, seems to involve a minimum of Netflix and practically zero “chill.”

What more can we expect of a culture where people meet by swiping right (left? up?) on a smartphone app or after a cursory glance at an online profile? We’ve lost our intentionality in even looking for someone to date; why should we expect any higher degree of purpose or deliberate action during the pursuit itself? It’s a bit sickening to watch the average guy treat the average girl (and vice versa) like a product in a shop window, someone who is so much more than a thumbnail image on the Internet. And there’s no desire to date an online construct, especially when so many of them are available.

You may think I’m just jaded since the traditional dating methods have failed me. I am, after all, a single male without a girlfriend who is weeks away from turning thirty. You can point to my failed relationships, including a failed engagement, and say, “This guy is just bitter. He’s stuck in the past because that’s the only game he knows how to play.”

Well, no. I just believe that to see another human is to look upon someone bearing the image of God. I think it means to see Christ in them. It’s not some sort of utilitarian pleasure calculus. It’s about recognizing the other for who they are, caring enough about them to want to get to know them sans agenda, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

So maybe we should hug dating hello again.

On Humanity

Whenever we engage culture, we interact with systems and artifacts which are inherently human. The trappings of culture are human constructs, and they reflect the humanity of their creators. We often think of this as true especially in regards to art. “Art imitates life,” we say, and it’s largely true. Music, visual art in all media, literature, and dance all serve as external projections of our internalized human-ness. We wouldn’t write horror stories or watch people of dubious intelligence make really questionable decisions in horror films (does anyone really make sound choices when being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac?) if some part of our human nature didn’t possess a penchant for the macabre — and violence, blood, gore, and the rest of it. The inverse is also true: the good guys (almost) always win in all of our stories because we value goodness, courage, and self-sacrifice. Artists create surreal images and breathtakingly graceful sculptures because of the human desires for both the grotesque and the beautiful. Culture is both the result of human nature and a lens through which we view it.

Scripture has much to say about humanity, about who we really are. (We’ll tackle art in later posts.) Beginning in Genesis 1, we find we are beings created in the image of God (the imago Dei). This is restated in Genesis 2, most poignantly in vv. 7ff. To be human, then, is to bear the imago Dei. In some fashion, we all share in the divine. To be fair, the exact nature of the imago Dei we bear can depend on how one views the creation narratives. Proponents of evolution (theistic or otherwise) may see things differently than a kind of creationist, young earth or otherwise. Regardless, theologians can readily point to several key aspects.

The first is a relational nature. Genesis 2, in explaining the creation of Eve and purpose of marriage, simply says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a). Humans are relational, gregarious creatures. We weren’t designed to spend our lives in isolation, never loving or caring for anyone else. Humans were created to get outside of themselves, to seek community and live lives connected one to another. In this way, we mirror the nature of God. As Christians, we believe God exists as a Trinity: three distinct Persons, coequal in power and majesty, forming one God. The word theologians use for the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead is perichoresis. If you look closely, you’ll notice the same root we use for “choreography.” The Trinity dances with Itself, eternally existing as a relationship. And because God is a relationship seeking a relationship, we are made to exist in relationships. The first relationship is that between mortal and deity, but it extends to the connections between mortal and mortal as well. Part of the image of God is relationship.

A second aspect is that of authority. After creating humans, God gives what is called the Creation Mandate or Dominion Mandate: the newly-formed humans are to exercise authority over the rest of creation, caring for it and tending to its needs as benevolent rulers. Genesis 2 expands on this after detailing the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15). Among other implications (the significance and holiness of work, the need to care for the environment, etc.), we see Adam (later joined by Eve) as being a caretaker. Humans weren’t tasked with being tyrannical despots bent on consuming everything for their own gain; we were created as gardeners, not soldiers. We exert authority in the context of relationship as stewards. And so we have the second part of the imago Dei: just as God rules us with grace, we take care of the earth in love.

Other aspects of the image of God appear as well. Rational thought and free will are perhaps the most noteworthy, and I think they stand on their own without additional explanation. All of these (and perhaps others) combine to reveal to us a species which is a partaker in the divine. We were good and holy, having no barriers between us and God.

Then someone let a snake into Paradise.

Theologians have battled for centuries (if not longer) over the exact consequences of the Fall. When our first parents sinned, they destroyed the perfect peace which had existed between a sinless God and His sinless children. But what does that look like? Most Christians agree on the doctrine of Total Depravity: we have been horrifically marred by sin in such a way we can’t know God without His direct intervention. We have no way to pull ourselves up out of sin without help. The image of God granted to us is distorted — but it can be fixed. Calvinists call it common grace, and Wesleyans dub it prevenient grace; call it what you will, it is the universal grace given to all humanity which repairs us enough to be able to know God. Some of our damage is patched up, and we can respond to God’s offers of salvation. We may still be in the gutter, but (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), we can turn over on our backs and look at the stars. The “grace that goes before” repairs the imago Dei so that the effects of original sin are mitigated to an inherent predisposition to sin and an inability to save ourselves; it doesn’t remain a total brokenness.

Knowing who we are, how should a Christian think about being human? Do we embrace a fully humanist stance which is focused on the dominance of the self to the exclusion of some less-than-desirable realities, or do we realize the value of humanity even as we acknowledge our fatal flaws? I believe Scripture points us to the latter. We can’t pretend everything we do is good and right simply because we thought of it. We remain fallen creatures who create fallen cultures (and no, not even “church culture” is perfect in any sense of the word). We can’t be afraid to label evil as evil, nor can we sit on the sidelines with an “anything goes” attitude. To do so is to gravely misunderstand the true nature of humanity and human freedom.

We must constantly evaluate who we are and what we do, letting our identity rest in Christ and not some external relationship. We are beautiful creatures who bear the image of God Almighty. Because of this, all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. No one is worth more than anyone else, and God doesn’t love anyone more than anyone else — and (let’s be clear), He hates no one at all. Christianity calls us to value the worth of our brothers and sisters, recognizing they will never be perfect — and neither will we.

Imperfections and flaws are fundamentally different from diversity, and, as Christians, we are to value, not merely tolerate, the grand diversity of the people around us. Rather than seek to eliminate cultural differences, why can’t they be celebrated as simply alternate solutions? We must prize what makes us British, American, Rwandan, Argentinian, and Korean. At no point are we called to dismiss others as irrelevant or inferior; at all points are we called to display unconditional love and tolerance. This is the sort of love which recognizes no boundaries: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all nations are comprised of people of inherent worth in the eyes of God, and each individual still bears His image.

Do we lovingly critique cultures and individuals running counter to God? Yes; true love offers corrections and seeks the eternal good of all people. But never do we make someone feel less than a beloved child of God simply for being different. We’re just as broken as they are. Respect, love, and tolerance. Respect people for who they are; love people where they are; and tolerate them for the beautiful diversity they bring to the common table of humanity.