Tag Archives: Christianity

Are all sins equal? The dangers of leveling all sins


There but for the grace of God go I.

Humility requires that we do not think too highly of ourselves; that we do not think ourselves better than anyone else. We all struggle with the same weakness–the desire to love self more than neighbor and to be our own god. We are all easily deceived, born into sin.

And yet, the evidence of humility is not equalizing all sins. Sadly, treating all as human has led some Christians to believe that it is wrong to point out the sins of others, to seek justice after wrongdoing. The error in thinking goes something like this:

  1. We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all deserve judgment. No one can earn God’s love.
  2. God’s love is a free gift for all, not based on merit.
  3. Therefore, we must treat all sinners the same; that grace means the same treatment for all.

But ask victims who have heard this stated something like this and they hear, “since we’re all sinners then the way you were sinned against is no different than the way you sinned against God.” So, if there are no differences, then what happened to you (victimization) is no different than what happens to anyone.

Get over it. That is the message we send to victims when we level all sins.

So, consider this question: Does Jesus differentiate between sins? Do some sins result in more judgment and consequence? What about how he speaks of those who hinder the little children from coming to him? How does he speak to those who understand the depth of their sin vs. those who deflect or deny their sin?

Some years ago I was speaking to a large gathering of church leaders about the care for victims and sex offenders. I suggested that sex offenders did not have an automatic right to attend worship but that we could find meaningful ways to bring worship to sex offenders. One leader stood up and accused me of making multiple classes of sinners and ignoring the sin of victims (in his mind they would forever control the lives of the offenders thereby becoming abusive to the offenders). He claimed that I did not believe that God can restore and redeem the worst of sinners. This leader believed that all sin is forgiven (as do I) and thus all consequences should also be erased.

Leveling sins actually harms both victims and offenders. If consequences are erased, then offenders risk remaining unaware of unique temptations, unaware of how they may follow Zaccheus and pay back above and beyond what the Law requires. Victims continue to have little to no voice because what happened (and continues to happen) to them is just commonplace.

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Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling

On having substantive conversations about race relations


Maybe it has always been this way, but it seems harder these days to have substantive conversations about race relations. I think the same struggle exists when you try to talk about sexual identity, gay marriage and anything else that is a hot button issue today. Does it seem that way to you?

In the realm of race relations, we have dueling images (Baltimore burning v. images of a black man being beaten by police), dueling sound bytes (Baltimore mayor portrayed as giving permission to rioters “space to destroy” property v. Franklin Graham’s “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else, Listen up” comment) and dueling diagnoses (racist cops v. thug culture). These seem to generate much emotion and quick reaction but little in the way of deep conversation and understanding.

Who should we blame?

It is easy to lay blame at the feet of ideologically-focused cable “news” programs. Their incessant demand for sound bytes and finding “breaking” news requires that they pump up anything that might be controversial to keep the viewer on the channel. But the only reason these stations need to do this is because of the proliferation of choices from where we get our news. If the show doesn’t deliver, we’ll find our news elsewhere on the television or, more likely, online.

We could also blame twitter and other micro-blogs that allow us to make a point in less than 140 characters. These formats provide “data” but without context enable us to believe we have facts when we only have a single data point.

But in truth, we need to lay most of the blame at our American culture’s feet. We want sound bytes. Like fast food, we want ready-to-consume information pre-packaged and simple. And we are an increasingly angry culture, angry and feeling lost in a sea of divergent opinions. Maybe this is because the comfort we once had living in a homogenous society where everyone appeared to think and believe like us is no longer present.

What can we do?

First, let’s be honest, in some settings and with some people, we may not be able to have substantive conversations about race. The environment may not be right, the other person(s) may not be interested or able due to their pain. In these cases, let us follow the advice of Solomon and remember there is a time to keep silent (Eccl 3:7a). Of course, if  you do remain silent, remember not to gossip about it later.

When we do decide to try dialogue, let us endeavor with God’s help to do the following:

  1. Be quick (first) to listen. Our temptation is often the opposite. We have much to say and we want a hearing. Follow the admonition of James to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19-20).
  2. Listen to the story behind the opinion. Sometimes we jump to debating facts, especially when those facts are part of the other’s experience. We may be quick to dismiss experience as anecdotal. Yet, the story of pain, confusion, and racializations are worthy of our attention because we are listening to the life and challenge of an image bearer.
  3. Give the best interpretation of what was said. When emotions run high, it is easy to react to things we hear that sound wrong to us. When trust is low, it is likely that we will provide the worst possible interpretation rather than the best. 1 Cor 13:7 reminds us that love “believes all things.” So, give the best possible interpretation of what was heard. If you aren’t sure what the person meant, ask, but do so without thinking you already know the answer. Assume your partner has truth to tell you.
  4. Avoid equalizing pain. Sometimes we fear giving credence to another’s opinions for fear of negating our own opinions. It is quite fine to acknowledge systemic abuse against one people group in one sentence without needing to equalize pain by pointing out an opposing fact (even if it is true). When we try to equalize, our dialogue partner will likely believe we have just negated their point.
  5. Avoid using some impersonal extreme case you heard to make your point. While extreme personal stories need to be listened to and cared for, we can be tempted to tell of an extreme case or fact to make our point. Remember, there are fringe stories but these fringe stories rarely tell the main problem. However, if you believe the other side is using an extreme case, don’t jump on your dialogue partner but listen for substance that you can agree with.
  6. Be willing to confess corporate sin. Both Nehemiah and Ezra confess sin that is not really their own but owned by all of Israel together. Be willing to own and confess the sins of your “people” even if they are not your own sins.
  7. Underline shared truth and shared goals. While you may disagree on most things, be on the lookout for where you can agree and highlight shared truth or goals.
  8. Finally, determine one way to move the conversation to action. Dialogue and understanding are good. Action is better when we work together. Find one thing you can do with your dialogue partner.

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Filed under Christianity, Civil Rights, Race, Racial Reconciliation

Turn the other cheek? Does this apply to abuse victims?


The Christian Scriptures teach followers of Jesus to forgive as we are forgiven, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge when mistreated. Does this mean that victims of domestic violence and abuse need to, sometimes quite literally, take it on the chin without seeking protection or justice?

There are a good many resources out there right now that help teach Christians how we should respond to domestic violence and abuse. If you want some in depth argumentation why victims do NOT need to just take it, you can consider my top 3

  • Leslie Vernick (website and books)
  • No Place for Abuse (Book, and when you follow the link, notice the many suggested books on the same topic; books by Brancroft, Roberts, Crippen, and more!)
  • G.R.A.C.E (website with information about the moral requirement to report child abuse)

Rather than repeat the good advice in these resources–biblical foundations for protecting victims and calling out offenders–I want to point you to an older resource given to me in the past week. Older resource as in from 1840! Henry Burton, in chapter 22 (“The Ethics of the Gospel”) of his Expositor’s Bible: The Gospel of St. Luke discusses the application of Luke 6:27f to those inside the community of Christ as well as to “enemies.”

First he reminds readers to love enemies,

We must bear them neither hatred nor resentment; we must guard our hearts sacredly from all malevolent, vindictive feelings. We must not be our own avenger, taking vengeance upon our adversaries, as we let loose the barking Cerberus to track and run them down. All such feelings are contrary to the Law of Love, and so are contraband, entirely foreign to the heart that calls itself Christian. (p. 344-5)

I suppose his words capture most Christian teaching on what it means to love our enemies and to use the Golden Rule as our measure for how we respond. And yet, listen to his very next sentence:

But with all this we are not to meet all sorts of injuries and wrongs without protest or resistance. (p. 345)

Did you catch his point between the double negatives? We MAY and OUGHT to meet all injuries with resistance and protest. Burton goes on to answer why we should resist wrongs done to ourselves and to those around us,

We cannot condone a wrong without being accomplices in the wrong. (ibid)

There you have it. Complicity with evil, especially evil within the community of Jesus, is tantamount to approval and support of that evil act. Thus, telling a victim of abuse to “turn the other cheek” is essentially the same as abusing the victim yourself.

Burton extends his argument in the following way,

To defend our property and life is just as much our duty as it was the wisdom and the duty of those to whom Jesus spoke to offer an uncomplaining cheek to the Gentile [outsider] smiter. Not to do this is to encourage crime, and to put a premium upon evil. Nor is it inconsistent with a true love to seek to punish, by lawful means, the wrong-doer. Justice here is the highest type of mercy, and pains and penalties have a remedial virtue, taming the passions which had grown too wild, or straightening the conscience that had become warped. (ibid)

He completes his thoughts on this by reminding the reader that none of this justice seeking activity (to the point of excommunication if necessary) negates forgiving when the offender repents. We still love, we still forgive, we still treat others by the Golden Rule. But we do not avoid justice and protection seeking behavior, both for the sake of the one being harmed and for the one doing the harm. Both need rescue. The means of rescue differ for sure and may not be viewed as rescue when it comes in the form of sanctions and restrictions. But to look away from abuse and cover it up with “turn the other cheek” does not do right by the true meaning of love.

 

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Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Uncategorized

Overspiritualizing invisible wounds?


When someone suffers an obvious injury to a leg it is clear to us that this injury limits prior capacities for walking, running, standing, and other things we do with our legs. If the injury is slow to heal, would we be likely to tell them to act as if the injury never happened? No. We can see the injury, its effects, and we recognize that recovery may be limited. We would be unlikely to judge the person for failing to run like they had prior to the accident. Of course, physical wounds will prompt spiritual concerns, from “where was God…?” to trusting God for the future even while continuing to experience pain symptoms and the inability to complete tasks that used to be easy.

But what about the wounds we can’t so easily see?

Sadly, I think we spiritualize them and do judge others for having them. Take for example a victim of abuse or trauma that results in a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. We see no obvious wound. The body looks sound and fit. So, the anxiety we see, the hesitancy to trust others, the mental confusion, the inability to sleep well…these symptoms must be primarily evidence of a spiritual problem, right?

Wrong, at least in part. While we rarely see the damage done to victims of trauma, changes to the brain are nonetheless present. Here’s a couple of things we think we know about trauma and the brain:

  • The brain is an adaptable organ and use-dependent. Activity along neural pathways can become more efficient with practice (i.e., the more something happens, the easier it is for the brain to respond). So, certain pathways and structures in the brain become more easily activated
  • Observing activity brain scans in those who suffered severe traumas such as child abuse, we see evidence that the part of the brain that processes emotion seems to be routinely overactive. Likewise, the part of the brain that provides conscious analysis of where we are in time and space, seems underactive when emotional processing increases. This activity problem (too much in some areas, too little in others) appears to cause individuals to relive/re-experience trauma and have less capacity (in the moment of reliving) to talk back to their feelings (analyze what is happening) or explain it to others
  • Along with these structures, hormone feedback systems appear to produce fight/flight hormones in the presence of triggers

Simplistic as my points above are, I hope you can see that a person has little conscious control over these reactions in any given moment. Now, there are things that can be done to help the brain adapt and respond better, but the fact of being triggered is not the result of not trusting God.

So, consider the multiply-traumatized man in your church who reacts negatively to well-intentioned requests to join a small group or to be prayed over with the laying on of hands. Is this because they do not trust God, are sinfully fearful, or evidence of invisible wounds of PTSD? I suspect some would be inclined to assume this man had a spiritual problem. In fact he may, but the reaction he is having is most likely not that problem.

A Better Question

Recently I asked my students to consider this question: What does faithfulness look like for the Christian who is suffering pervasive panic? Does it mean an absence of fear? Forcing themselves into situations that will flood them with panic? How would you answer this question? Are the evidences of fear in your life a sign you do not trust God? Can you acknowledge fear and still trust God? What does that look like for you?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Why are we surprised when we hear of systemic abuses?


Today on my ride home I heard a sports commentator discussing a recent abuse scandal on a high school football team. While the commentator did not dispute the evidence of abuse, he asked another whether he had ever heard of such behavior before by a football team. It seemed he was a bit surprised a team or a coach would tolerate systemic abuses of other teammates.

Why are we surprised when an organization tolerates harm done by one set of members to another set of members?

Whenever an organization (football, school, fraternity, or religious community) seeks to best the competition, limits membership, rejects all who would support other groups, maintains secrecy a strong hierarchy, you have a recipe for systemic abuse. Look closer at this recipe:

  • A population of individuals who deeply desire inclusion, who want to be in the inner circle
  • A population of individuals already in the inner circle and feeling mighty proud of it
  • Everyone feeling the need to protect the organization over individual needs/concerns
  • Secrecy about decision-making processes
  • Leadership who will maintain the hierarchy and encourage fears over what might happen if the system breaks down.

We know hazing and abuse happens on sports teams, fraternities, military units, and any other organization with these above-named features. It is more natural than we would like to admit.

This does not mean that all popular organizations, all private clubs are abusive. Rather, only without significant effort, individual abusive acts will morph into systemic abuse through complicity.

What significant efforts reduce the possibility of systemic abuse? Here are a few for starters:

  • Transparency of leadership and decision-making processes
  • A culture of protecting the weak over the strong
  • A culture of inclusion and collaboration with outsiders
  • A culture of servant-leadership and true mutual submission
  • A willingness to listen to inside and outside critique

He who wants to be first, must be the least of all.

Do we believe this? Or do we believe that associating with bigger, more prestigious groups will bring us value?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture

GTRI 2014: Day 9 Muhanga


July 9, 2014

Wednesday morning. We had our last lovely breakfast at Solace guest house, packed our things and left to travel a little over an hour south to Centre Saint Andre, a retreat and conference facility. We arrived in time to get our rooms to put our things away and get to the start of the conference. This Community of Practice conference, run by the Bible Society of Rwanda, is their first ever such meeting of trauma healing facilitators and is designed to raise the level of skills and knowledge of the facilitators as well as share best practices among them. Our role at the conference is threefold: lead some of the teaching sessions, listen and respond to case consultations and, best of all, get to know the facilitators and share experiences. The room was set with tables for 6 with 4 Rwandans and 2 Americans each.

The conference began with a bible study by the secretariat of the Bible Society. He spoke of the necessity of having the right names for things. He noted the significant difference in naming Rwanda a country healing from genocide instead of Rwanda a genocide country. Each table then discussed successes and challenges. At my table we heard of many good stories of healing (Success) but also that the

Credit: Heather Evans

Credit: Heather Evans

facilitators feel much guilt for not helping more (Challenge). They struggle with feeling worn out and impoverished helping others. Some noted how their own families and marriages were suffering given that they found it hard to say no to tangible needs of those they were trying to help. They noted that many of the recipients did want to have tangible gifts in order to take time to be in a healing group.

Next, Diane Langberg presented on the topic of shame. She defined guilt as a response to what we do but shame as a response to what we perceive we are or have become. She noted there are different types of shame but all result in a loss of “glory.” Some religious traditions believe that blood (honor killings) is the only way to cleanse the family of shame. She pointed out that while this is gravely distorted view of shame/honor, blood IS the only cleansing of shame–Jesus’ death and resurrection. She explored how Jesus did not run from the shame, that the image of God is one who runs after the shamed, who clothes them, who brings them his honor.

In response, the table groups considered three questions: What is considered shameful in Rwanda? What does the church say is shameful? Which of these are false sources of shame per the Scriptures? Consider some of the items mentioned,

  • To be pregnant without a husband, yet a man is proud
  • To divorce or separate
  • To be impotent or barren
  • To be a victim of rape
  • To be drunk (if woman); only shameful for a man if he does something wrong when drunk
  • To engage in open conflict; to talk openly of problems
  • To be in need/impoverished
  • For a woman to talk about domestic violence; to be a man beaten by his wife
  • to have disobedient children
  • To be albino
  • To commit adultery (church endorsed shame); to be HIV+

Interestingly, it was not always agreed upon which items should not be considered shameful.

396We ended our training day with a teaching/group interaction I did regarding addictions (the nature of addictions, what the Scriptures say, and how these facilitators can help improve commitment to sobriety in those they seek to help). I think most Americans and Rwandans felt the beginnings of connections forming as personal stories were told to us and we received them for what they were, treasures.

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Filed under christian counseling, Rwanda, trauma

Piercing Words From Cry, The Beloved Country


Just returned from 2 weeks in Uganda and Rwanda (more on that in subsequent posts). During interminable transit time to and from Kigali I read Alan Paton’s “Cry, The Beloved Country.” Missed reading that as a student and after last year’s trip to South Africa, I needed to read it. Without giving away too much of the story, one of the characters in the book is going through his son’s papers after his murder. His son had been an activist against the then mistreatment of Black Africans in South Africa. One of the papers said this:

The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brother of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to say under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because he created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement.

The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions. (p. 187-8)

This quote struck me so not because of the focus on Black/White relations but because it also fits other ways we struggle to respond to the “underdog.” We want to feel pity but rarely do we want to give up the power to enable the underdog to be one of us. For “other” to be one of us, we would have to cede power and that creates anxiety.

If you haven’t read the book for a while or never did, I commend it to you.

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July 16, 2014 · 4:26 pm

How does small-time tyranny last?


Tyrants use fear to control subjects. Thus, we understand how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is elected by 100% of his constituency. To abstain or cast any other vote would be suicide. But since most do not live under such oppression we may wonder how individuals cave to lower-level tyranny here in democracies or locations where we have choice about who we vote for and where we live and work. Why do organizations allow dictatorial leadership? Can’t we all just walk away?

Thanks to one of my students, Dan McCurdy, I pass on this recording from This American Life about a “small-time” tyrant in an upstate New York school district. The story is about the dictatorial dealings of a facilities manager of the school district–not of a principal, teacher, or even a school board member.

How is it possible for one with so little power (so we would normally assume) could wield such power over employees? How could he set off bombs, fire individuals, vandalize homes, threaten others with harm, simulate sex, and more without getting fired?

How? It is simple. He was,

surrounded above and below, by people who looked the other way. (near the end of the above recording)

Why do we look the other way?

We look away for all sorts of reasons. Consider a few of them:

  • Fear that no one will come to our defense if we stand up to abuses (which of course will be true if no one else sees or responds)
  • Need to protect what we have (e.g., position, income, career, reputation, etc.)
  • Cover up own failings (e.g., if he goes down…I will go down)
  • Perceive benefits outweigh consequences (i.e., in this case, school board received lowered energy costs, fewer worker complaints)
  • The people who complain of injustice matter little to us
  • Believe psychological abuse does not really happen

In Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer, he describes the most powerful of dictators are ones who instill fear when present and yet also instill fear of what life might be when that person is gone.

What to do?

When we hear of crazy stories such as the one in the recording, we shake our head and imagine ourselves standing up to power, standing up for the little guy. Too often our imagination never see the light of day. So, how can we keep ourselves sensitized to injustice and ready to act for the good of the weakest community member?

  • Identify our current fears. Who has power over us? What does love and grace look like when responding to this power?
  • Identify places we have chosen safety over truth. Who can help us rectify this problem?
  • Identify those places where we have power over others. Who do we have power over? How do we wield it? Who has God-given us the responsibility to protect? Where do we need to give power back (when taken or used inappropriately)?
  • Fix eyes on how Jesus uses power. How does he wield it with those who have the most power? The least power?
  • Identify habits of cover-up. Where, for reasons of shame, guilt, or comfort do we cover up and present self as someone we are not?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, deception, Justice

Can you have “church PTSD”?


A friend of mine has written about her experience as a pastor’s wife and youth worker. Having gone through several painful experiences–“normal” church drama and then way beyond normal–at the hands of other church leaders, she details her current “church PTSD” that kicks in now when considering going to church

What if I WANT the community and the bumping up against different people with different opinions, but I CAN’T, I mean physically CAN’T go?  I have usually discovered in life that if I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.  So it makes me think there must be others out there like me.

What do I mean by “physically unable”?  I shake, I cry uncontrollably, my skin crawls, I am unable to speak.  It’s pretty difficult to be a part of a community, broken or not, with all of that going on.

Honestly, I have something akin to a PTSD (not to take away from anyone who actually has full-blown PTSD) when it comes to church.  When I hear people talking in Christian catch phrases I want to run away.  This is the language of the culture of people who persecuted and bullied my family and me.  If you speak their language, you must be one of them, too.  So I stay away.

Having worked with a large number of current and former pastors and families, this reaction is sadly not unique. So, it begs the question: What might be the root of this “church PTSD” (by the way, I think some of these features sound just like PTSD so we may not need the quotes)?

My friend hits the nail on the head: we accept meanness in the church because we fear disrupting our own safety and security.

there is a culture of acceptance in the church today that allows for people to be treated terribly under the umbrella of it being what is “best for the church”.  I would imagine that if a teacher was abusing children in the toddler department or if there were drunken parties going on at youth group there would be some type of outrage, as there should be.  But somehow just plain being “mean” doesn’t garner any type of outrage.  “It’s not ideal, but we are fallen people, after all, so you can’t expect anything better.”

Read her full post over at Scot McKnight’s blog here. Consider what one thing you might do to stand up to those who put down others rather than image Christ in sacrificing for the weaker party.  

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, conflicts, suffering, trauma

Of Dogs and Christianity…


I have 2 new posts at our Biblical Seminary faculty blog: one about what my dog teaches me about shame and desire and another about a rethinking of Christianity through the lens of evangelisation of the Masai–not into a Western-style church but into their own expression of church and community. You might not have any interest in a tribe from Tanzania, but I think you will find Father Donovan’s book an opportunity for you to re-think what the Gospel is all about.

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Filed under addiction, Biblical Seminary, Christianity, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology