Monday, 18 January 2016

With All Due Respect: How (Not) to Speak of Love

One of the central tenants of Christianity is love.

‘Love one another’, Christ told his disciples. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13-34-35).

Every Christian knows that faith, hope, and love abide, but ‘the greatest of these is love’ (I Cor. 13:13).

We know we’re supposed to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31);

We even know that we’re supposed to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44);

We know we’re supposed to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15).

Every Christian knows about love, and every Christian, in their dealings with those with whom they disagree or oppose, insists they are speaking and acting with love.

Unfortunately, for many Christians, ‘love’ is such an abstract, spiritual concept that it becomes undefinable, a vague, existential form of amorphous good will that they extend without spelling out in concrete terms what it is they’re extending.

Many Christians seem to have no problem saying the most rude, offensive, ignorant, or untrue things about others- others that it’s quite obvious they patently dislike- all the while insisting that they ‘love’ these individuals or groups.

They exclude, slander, hinder, make unwelcome, campaign against, speak out against, preach against, and write against…

All ‘in love’, of course…

‘We love gay people. Why else would we tell them that their relationships are disgusting, destructive, and a danger to the common good?’

‘We love Muslims, but it’s important that we make clear that their religion is cruel and backward and we don’t want a mosque in our town.’

We love Catholics… It’s a shame, though, that they don’t know their Bible, they’re idolatrous, and God doesn’t hear their prayers.’

‘We love Protestants, of course, even though their services are so empty and they know so little of God or his Church.’

It becomes obvious very quickly that these people have never truly interacted in any committed or meaningful way with the people they’re talking about.

But if you don’t know someone, how can you say you love them?

‘Love’ at that point becomes essentially meaningless. 

I worked for almost two decades with an evangelical missions organization, hearing endlessly about the oppression and darkness of other religious traditions- how lost they were, how poor they were, how unhappy they were, how their traditions were empty and their beliefs were absurd.

Most of this we learned from other Christians. Sometimes, they were missionaries, who were held up as authorities. Some were converts, who were held up as experts.

There was one group we never heard from: the people themselves.

We never heard from any Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or humanist about what they believed, why they believed it, what their faith meant to them, or what they found beautiful or life-giving in it.

In fact, listening to them was risky, dangerous- partly because they might confuse us or lead us astray, or they might confuse our engagement with acceptance and not understand their need for conversion.

We talked so much about these people, but we never talked to them.

The fact is that, if I get the impression you’re patronizing me;

If I get the feeling that you don’t care to hear my thoughts or opinions;

If you assume the worst about me is true;

I don’t feel loved.

I’m not loved.

All this brings me to my point: Christians might love- by whatever definition and logic they choose to define it- but they very often don’t respect.

Respect reflects esteem for a person or group.

Respect recognizes the value and abilities that a person of group has to offer.

Respect recognizes the pride and dignity that an individual or group have for who or what they are.

Most importantly, respect recognizes the qualities in a person or group and seeks to emulate them.

That’s the most important aspect of respect: recognizing and acknowledging quality, with an eye to applying those qualities to your own life.

If you were asked to say what you most admired or respected in those you see as ‘others’, would you have an answer to give?

Would you feel comfortable giving your explanation of Muslim or Hindu faith and practice with a Muslim or Hindu in the room?

No one is fooled by this kind of ‘love’- love devoid of respect. Those who give it might be deluded, but the recipients rarely are.

The photo above is of the Imam of the city of Akka in the West Bank celebrating St. George’s Day with the Orthodox Christians of the city by lighting a candle during the service.

He is not a Christian, and very likely not planning on becoming one. 

He’s taking part in a Christian ceremony, and by doing so, he is communicating to his Christian neighbors that he values them and what they bring to the whole community.

He is showing that, despite their differences, he understands and values their traditions, their culture, their piety.

He is giving respect.

I respect this Muslim man; I want to emulate him.

By giving respect, he is giving love. 

And God is love…

Friday, 8 January 2016

‘A Swift Spiritual Kick to the Head’: Epiphany for the Rest Of Us…

One of my absolute favourite films is the 1997 black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. In it, Martin, a thoughtful and conflicted professional hitman travels back to his home town for his high school reunion. His former girlfriend Debbie, seeing his obvious anxiety and inner tensions, tells him what he really needs is ‘shakabuku’. When he asks what that is, she replies, ‘it’s a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality, forever.’

The film doesn’t go to any lengths to explain ‘shakabuku’, certainly not far enough to explain its significance within Nichiren Buddhism, where it refers to the rebuttal of teachings regarded as heretical or overly simplistic.

For the film, ‘shakabuku’ was a clever, throwaway line. 

The interesting thing for me, though, is Debbie’s definition, which doesn’t seem particularly connected with the actual meaning of the term.

Her definition doesn’t remind me of Buddhism much at all, but it does remind me of Epiphany.

‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek term Ἐπιφάνεια (‘sudden manifestation’, ‘striking appearance’). The Feast of Epiphany, and the season of Epiphany that follows it, celebrates within Christianity the revelation of Jesus, the human baby born of Mary, as the Son of God.

It is tied to the biblical texts that speak of the Persian magi, who divine from their astrological observations the wondrous news that a divine king is to be born. Armed with this mystical belief, they set out from Persia to Palestine to find this infant king and pay homage to him.

Traditionally, the significance of Epiphany in Christian theology involves realization, revelation, coming to know, making an awesome discovery- the person of Christ.

If I were to take it in a slightly edgier theological direction, it’s interesting to reflect not so much on the revelation, but to whom it was revealed- not righteous children of Israel with their law and the prophets, but foreigners, gentiles with their esoteric occultism.

God’s revelation of salvation, it would seem, was open to everyone, using a ridiculously wide variety of means…

That fact in and of itself is a pretty swift spiritual kick to the head… and it opens up one more interesting reflective path:

Epiphany reminds Christians that the God they worship is actually forever in the business of swiftly kicking heads.

God shocks;

God confounds;

God amazes;

God confuses.

Epiphany is yet another reminder that everything we think we know- everything on which we have been comfortably relying- might be wrong, misunderstood, or might come to an abrupt and totally unexpected end.

The heavens declare, ‘expect the unexpected’…

This isn’t necessarily fun or exciting; it can be a disorienting, not particularly pleasant process, as anyone who has gone through a life-altering trauma with tell you…

An epiphany might come as a result of losing a loved one;

It might come as a result of separating from the love of your life;

It might come as a result of a devastating diagnosis;

It might come as a result of the collapse of a church community;

It might come as a result of new knowledge that throws a lifetime of assumptions out the window;

all of these and more can lead to an epiphany- a divinely-instigated moment of clarity that nothing will be the same, that transience and uncertainty are key components of human existence, and that in the centre of that transience and uncertainty must necessarily be our understanding of God.

God, ineffable and unknowable, and yet now a human baby, first recognized by gnostic occultists…

God, forever and unchanging, and yet seemingly ever-changing…

God, seemingly solid, but apparently fluid…

God, always thought of as an ever-present hope in time of trouble, and yet apparently silent, distant…

The mystery of Epiphany is this: Does faith endure the swift spiritual kick to the head?

It is foolish to brashly declare beforehand that it will.

It might not.

It might, but in a very different form, changed, transformed, chastened, refined…

But Epiphany assures us that, regardless of the outcome, the swift spiritual kick is coming.

Be ready.