Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Wounded Idealist

A wise person once defined a cynic as a “wounded idealist.” 

I spoke with a friend recently who has stopped going to church. Like most people who drop out, he didn’t leave in protest or ask that his name be removed from membership; he just stopped seeing the point in going. I wanted to encourage him to give it another try, but I often feel like giving up on organized Christianity myself. When I read the Bible and then look at most churches, what I find is very different—so different, in fact, that I wonder whether they’re even the same thing.

I’ve rarely seen anything in church that looks like the kind of “fellowship” (Gk., koinonia) you find in the New Testament. In our popular ecclesiastical vocabulary, fellowship means something like what teenagers mean when they say they’re “hanging out” with their friends: getting together, shooting the breeze. But the biblical meaning of koinonia is closer to “living in community” than “socializing.”

The first occurrence of the word in the New Testament is in Acts 2:42 where the disciples in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” In addition to sharing corporate worship, they also shared their possessions, practicing a form of voluntary communism: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was his own but, they shared everything they had in common” (Acts 4:32). In this way, the early church was more like a monastery or commune than what we’re used to. Our churches are more akin to social clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary. Not that there’s anything wrong with such voluntary organizations; they’re just not the church.

We see other evidence of what the original meaning of koinonia in the “one another” sayings of the New Testament: love one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, confess your faults one to another. You’re more likely to find that kind of interaction at an AA meeting than in church.

Churches are a lot like families. They’re messy. They cause both joy and pain. Rarely do they measure up to the ideal, and sometimes people have to stay away just to keep from getting hurt.

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Less Says More

We live in a sound-bite world of tweets and text messages. Even fiction writers are learning literary economy. Inspired by a six-word story attributed to Ernest Hemingway (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), the genre is called flash fiction, microfiction, short short, or postcard fiction. Maybe it should be called iPhone fiction. I listened to a story on NPR Weekend Edition about editor Robert Swartwood’s new collection of these tiny tales. The book is Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer.

This creative brevity reminds me of a passage in one of my favorite autobiographies, Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell. A friend challenged the author to summarize the Christian message in ten words or fewer. Campbell replied with eight: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” (I’d change “bastards” to “sinners” though the churchy language of sin is more confusing and less arresting to the uninitiated.)

Slightly more verbose than Campbell, St. Paul gave the Good News in fourteen words to an anxious jailor in Philippi: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).

When it comes to the Gospel, sometimes less says more.

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Not Forgotten

Then President-Elect Obama embraces wounded Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth on Veterans Day 2008

What is the most patriotic thing you’ve ever done? March in a parade? Fly the flag? Vote? Twenty-five million American veterans can say they proudly served in the U.S. Armed Forces, defending our freedoms and serving our nation.

Stephen Decatur, a hero of the Barbary Wars once toasted the nation, saying, “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Although I cannot fully reconcile the slogan “our country, right or wrong” with my ethical and isolationist sensibilities, the fact is that members of the armed forces don’t get to pick and choose their battles. They stand ready to go anywhere, fight anywhere, and, if necessary, die anywhere in the service of freedom and for the United States of America.

When they entered the service they came from all walks of life: school teachers and bus drivers, store clerks and farmers, full-time students and stay-at-home moms. And they performed a variety of functions in the military: SEALs and supply clerks, medics and mechanics, pilots and personnel specialists. They are our grandfathers and grandmothers, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, and our heroes.

Some bear the scars of combat quite literally; others suffer from emotional trauma. Too many are poor and homeless. Whatever their circumstances, they are not forgotten.

On this day, November 11, a grateful nation salutes all those who have worn the uniform of our great country. God bless all of our veterans, and God bless America. 


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Casualties of War

Let’s be honest, words can hurt. In 2006, members of tiny, independent Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who died in Iraq. Believing the war to be immoral and God’s judgment on America for the sins of abortion and homosexuality, the protesters held up signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” (even though Snyder was not gay). The family felt emotionally traumatized by the hate speech. Snyder’s father sued and won a judgment of $11 million, which another court reduced to $5 million before a federal appeals court overturned the verdict on the basis of the First Amendment. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court and it’s anyone’s guess which way the court will rule. (You can read another post I wrote about Westboro Baptist Church and their protest activities here.)

The case represents a classic dilemma, What’s more important liberty or peace? Freedom of speech or freedom from fear? There’s an old saying that goes, “You’re freedom ends where my nose begins.” This idea has been used to outlaw everything from physical assault to smoking (because of the dangers of second-hand smoke). Granted the picketers in the story above used words, not fists or drugs, to harm their victims, but they did cause harm in the form of emotional pain and suffering.

Freedom of speech is not absolute. You can’t slander someone. You can’t threaten. You can’t make false claims about goods or services. You can’t endanger the public by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. So why not outlaw hate speech when it’s so offensive that it causes emotional harm?

Why not? Because restricting speech, even hate speech, does more harm than good. In his classic treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote, “In general, government should avoid interfering with the private lives of citizens, since they invariably do a poor job of regulation, and cause more harm than good, even when well intentioned.” The coercive power of government is a greater threat than the hate speech of all the racists, homophobes, Neo-Nazis, and Islamic Jihadists combined. Any club we give the state to beat the Fred Phelpses of the world with, can also be used against the rest of us. Since 9/11 we have seen the intrusiveness of the federal government increase dramatically. In the name of fighting terrorism, we now have warrantless wiretapping and GPS tracking. Big Brother is watching. He’s watching Arab-Americans today. Yesterday it was Japanese-Americans. Tomorrow it may be Christians.

I have no idea how the Supreme Court is going to rule in Snyder v. Phelps. Part of me, the emotional part, wants to see Phelps and his church pay for the psychological pain they have inflicted on others, especially the grieving family of a fallen Marine. But the rational part of me knows that if that happens, our civil liberties will become the greatest casualty of war.

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